Thursday, January 5, 2012

Turnips are Underrated

Brassicaceae is a plant family of great culinary importance. It contains a lot of very nutritious vegetables, such as cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, mustard, collards, kale, radishes, turnips, and rutabagas. However, these vegetables are also the sorts of vegetables moms have to force their kids to eat if they want any dessert. This is probably because of the slightly-to-very bitter and pungent flavor compounds these plants tend to make.

Now, to be fair, the members of this family that joined forces with humans toned down these flavors quite a bit compared to their wild relatives. In the wild, bitter or pungent flavors are there to protect the plant from their herbivorous predators. Domesticated brassicas traded their self-defense capabilities in exchange for letting humans eat some of them, as long as humans grow them and plant their seeds. The problem is they still have a little bit of these defensive compounds left, which means that some humans still react to them in an instinctive way that they're not good to eat.

Humans can learn to like them, though, especially when grown and prepared the right way to tone the defensive compounds down. This is good because, like I said, they are very nutritious. It's also good for a Texas gardener like me, because brassicas are cold-weather plants that I can grow through the winter. They're plants that help Central Texas have a 12 month growing season, because they're actually better when they've been through a few freezes, and our freezes are never hard enough to kill them (and most of them aren't even damaged). They fill an important niche in the garden, growing when it's too cold to grow things like tomatoes and squash, and growing during a time of year when we usually get enough rain so they need only minimal irrigation or none at all. Without brassicas, the garden would just be going to waste during the winter.

I've discovered that turnips are one of the easiest brassicas to grow. I never ate turnips before I tried growing them, and I first grew them mainly because I heard they do well in poor soil and are easy to grow. That sure is true! As soon as the weather starts to cool down and the fall rains come, just sprinkle some turnip seeds. Come back every now and then to thin them so they're eventually about 4-6 inches apart, and in about two months they're ready to harvest.

I grow regular old Purple Top turnips, which is the variety all seed catalogs seem to have (even when they don't have any other kinds of turnips). Maybe one day I'll try some other varieties, but the purple top turnips are the ones most people think of when they think of turnips. Here they are freshly pulled at around tennis ball or baseball size. The greens are also edible. You cook turnip greens in the same way you would cook collard greens, mustard greens, or kale, so you can get two crops in one, but in this case these greens were full of cabbage worms, so they went in the compost pile. I'm more diligent about spraying Bt on brassicas I'm growing just for the greens, but the turnips never got sprayed, so the worms found safe haven there. At least they don't damage the roots.

Here my turnips are all cleaned up. Aren't they pretty? Purple on top and bright white underneath, with bright white flesh. So what do you do with turnips? Their flavor depends on growing conditions, so they're at their best when they're grown in cool weather. In cool weather they make more sweet flavor and less pungent flavor. Raw, they taste and smell like very mild radishes. They aren't nearly as hot as radishes, but there's still a little bit of radish-ness in there. You can eat little baby turnips raw like radishes, but I prefer to let mine get big and then cook them, and eat the radishes like radishes.

Cooked, I think they taste a lot like cooked cauliflower. They're often substituted for potatoes, but they're much less starchy than potatoes. I know that mashed cauliflower is a popular low-carb substitute for mashed potatoes now, so I bet mashed turnips would also fill that role. They're also much easier to grow than cauliflower.
When I have a good crop of turnips, I like to substitute half turnips in potato dishes. I made some of these into a pan of scalloped turnips and potatoes, using half turnips and half Yukon gold potatoes. The rest I used for turnips and potatoes Au gratin. They're also good mashed with potatoes. The turnips make the dish less starchy than if it was made with just potatoes, while the potatoes dilute any bitter flavor the turnips may have.

OK, now you may be asking, "Recipes please!" Keep in mind, these aren't exact recipes. I got my base recipes off and then fiddled with them. But I'll try. Scalloped potatoes are basically sliced potatoes and onions cooked in a white sauce. Au gratin potatoes are similar, but instead of onions, they have garlic, and they're in a cheddar cheese sauce. Either dish is really good for potlucks, dinner parties, or holidays.

Scalloped Turnips and Potatoes
  • About 3 lbs. of a combination of potatoes (a medium starch potato like Yukon Gold works best), turnips, or other root vegetables.
  • 2 or 3 sliced onions
  • 4-5 tablespoons butter
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 3-4 cups milk
  • salt and pepper to taste
Peel and slice the potatoes and turnips, then boil them until they're only half-done and drain them. This only takes about 5-10 minutes. They'll cook the rest of the way in the oven.

Melt the butter in a large saucepan and add the sliced onions and sweat them in the butter. Sprinkle the flour over the onions and cook until the flour starts to form a light roux. Add milk gradually, then add salt and pepper, and stir and cook until the sauce just starts to thicken (it will thicken the rest of the way in the oven).

In a greased 9x13 pan, or in a 3 quart casserole dish, layer the turnips, potatoes, and sauce so that everything is evenly distributed. Bake at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes, until it turns a little brown on top, and the veggies are completely done (poke a fork in to check). It's best to let it sit and cool a little bit and set up before serving.

Turnips and Potatoes Au Gratin
  • About 3 lbs. of potatoes, turnips, or any other vegetables that taste good with cheese sauce.
  • 4-5 tablespoons butter
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 4 cups milk
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • salt and pepper to taste (or seasoned salt or Cajun seasoning)
  • 2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
  • 1/3 cup Parmesan cheese
  • breadcrumbs (optional)
Half-cook the vegetables as in scalloped potatoes above.

Melt the butter in a saucepan and add minced garlic. Cook the garlic in the butter a while, then add flour to make a light roux. Gradually add milk while stirring, and then gradually add cheese until it melts and the sauce is smooth and uniform. Add salt and pepper or other seasonings to taste.

Put the vegetables into a greased 9x13 baking dish or casserole dish and pour cheese sauce over. Sprinkle top with Parmesan cheese and optional breadcrumbs. Bake at 350 for 45 minutes until bubbly and cheese is brown on top (I sometimes put it on broil for a little while to get a really nice browned cheesy top, but be careful to keep an eye on it and not let it burn). Let it sit and cool for a little while before serving.

The turnips Au gratin are what really reminded me of cauliflower, because when I was a kid I loved cauliflower and broccoli with cheese sauce. It makes sense because they're in the same family. I bet turnips would go well with other flavors and cooking techniques that work well with other brassicas. Bacon and vinegar, for example. I love collard greens cooked in bacon fat, with a bit of cider vinegar splashed in. Cabbage goes well with members of the Apiaceae family like caraway, dill, and fennel. I think it's because that family tends to have compounds that cancel out the effects of compounds found in brassicas that are bitter and hard to digest. Turnips are also used in Asian cuisines, along with their relatives the Asian mustards and cabbages like bok choy. I know turnip greens are good stir-fried but I haven't tried the roots yet.

Maybe turnips are considered such a low-class food (even compared to other brassicas) because they're just so easy to grow. I still haven't managed to grow cauliflower, but every winter I have plenty of turnips. Nothing wrong with that, though! They're turning out to be pretty useful.

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