In season year-round with peak season from October to February, wintery turnips are sensational root vegetables. Humble turnips belong to the Brassicaceae family, a fairly large clan populated by mustard greens, cabbage, kale, broccoli, Chinese cabbage, Brussels sprouts, rutabaga and radish, to mention a few. First cultivated in prehistoric times they gained popularity during the Middle Ages. Before the arrival of potatoes, turnips (both roots and greens) were a main source of sustenance for Italian peasants. While turnips have lost some of their status over the centuries, there is little doubt they are one of the healthiest vegetables out there. Simplicity of growth, good yields, nutritional properties, hardiness and long storage life make them an ideal garden crop. It’s easy to take turnips for granted, but I feel we owe their white spherical plumpness, crowning blush of purple and leafy green stems some due credit.
You can never go wrong serving turnips sliced in salad or roasted and bathed in fat, but there are many more recipes in which they can shine. Sweet and creamy, with an occasional hint of spiciness, these roots can surprise palates with versatility and character.
Here are a few tried and tested family recipes employing the under-valued turnip.
One of the easiest ways to cook turnips is au gratin. I slice them in 1/2 cm-thick rondelles and tip them in a saucepan with 1 cup of milk, 1 tbsp curry, a bay leaf and a pinch of salt, poaching for approximately 15 minutes. I then drain them saving 4 tbsp of the cooking liquid. I place the slices in a greased oven pan and pour the liquid to moisten, dot the surface with breadcrumbs (or any kind of “crumble” you like), flecks of butter and a generous hand of grated Parmigiano cheese. I bake in the hot oven for 10 minutes and allow to cool before serving.
This is a perfect way to warm up when my bones get cold. The turnips become perfectly crisp in the oven and are a great alternative to the ubiquitous roast potato. The sweetness of the honey glaze offsets some of the root’s aggressiveness. In winter I make these as a side when I roast a chicken or other meaty meals. I smother the turnip wedges in olive oil, salt and dried thyme. I roast them in the oven and in the last 5 minutes I drizzle over them a blend of honey, hot water, cinnamon, nutmeg, and kosher salt.
In Trentino “rape” (turnips) are cooked with pancetta. That alone should be an indicator of how delicious this peasant dish is. The recipe I learned during filming on the Paganella Plateau calls for poaching cubed turnips in enough water to cover them with salt, pepper, 1 tbsp of sugar and crispy panecetta on low heat for 40 minutes or until fork-soft.
To make this delicious winter risotto I wilt a finely chopped golden onion and a medium-sized minced turnip in 2 tbsp of butter. I season with salt and cracked black pepper and cook for about 10 minutes. Next, I add Arborio rice (1 fistful per person) and toast it scraping the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon. I cook the rice with approximately 2 liters of vegetable broth added one ladle at a time, as it absorbs. Before serving, I spoon in more butter and a generous dusting of grated Parmigiano, stirring vigorously to “mantecare”, a culinary term that describes the act of blending ingredients with fat to obtain a creamy texture.
Orecchiette with turnip tops
My son and I recently took a cooking class and learned how to make orecchiette pasta from scratch. We are now totally spoiled and cannot go back to eating the packaged kind. The green turnip tops are as much a protagonist of this regional Puglia recipe as the “ear-like” semolina shells. I make this beautiful vegetarian dish pretty much how Alice does in her fabulous orecchiette con cime di rapa recipe.
My third grade teacher – a fiery redhead Aries from Glasgow, Scotland called Catherine – eventually became one of my mother’s closest friends. The enduring friendhip, as it often happens, consolidated around the dinner table. Catherine learned to cook cucina romana and by the same token taught us the recipe for affordable and cheerful Scotch broth soup. It officailly became a family staple since. Made with turnips, potatoes, carrots, leek, barley and the broth obtained from fatty lamb shank, the secret of perfect Scotch broth is to cook it at a snail’s pace. I make it the day before by tipping all the ingredients in the slow cooker on high for 6-8 hours, or until the barley is soft.
How do you cook turnips?
Images © food&wine – dishingupthedirt.com – cucchiaio.it – industryeats.com – Eleonora Baldwin
Eleonora Baldwin is a TV host, journalist, and culinary connoisseur based in Rome, Italy. Her writing appears in several food and travel publications. Her show “ABCheese” is broadcast on Italian food network Gambero Rosso. She loves guiding culturally curious, food-passionate travellers seeking experiences in Italy beyond the guidebook.