You would think a turnip to be straightforward. After all, it's nothing more than a tuber, cream with a bright purple neck, peppery, bold, confident. Yet, we're put off. Very little in the way of turnip recipes feels inspired. We see them roasted, often with carrots or parsnips, the trio of roots tossed in oil and pushed to the side of our plate. I'm guilty of it myself.
Even one of my favorite food writers, Nigel Slater, had a slow start. "The Romans knew the turnip, though hardly worshipped it, and part of its problem may stem from the fact that it has always been used as animal fodder. It has taken me most of my life to appreciate the turnip." I knew if Slater was reluctant, there would be little hope for the rest of us.
True to form, it took me three recipes to be happy. I made a tart the first time around, but it wasn't hearty enough. The turnips were thinly sliced on a mandolin, the circles too large. I waited two or three weeks before trying again. Next, root vegetable latkes. Potato, turnip, golden beets. Not terrible, not memorable. It still didn't feel inspired. I went back to the tart, tried again, adding onions and chard, cheese and mustard—ingredients meant to enhance the peppery turnip.
What I learned was that to cook with a turnip is to forge a path in the darkness, not unlike the turnip itself as it grows underground in the cold. In the spirit of fresh starts, realizations, and fighting for the underdog, I turn to this poem that was sent to me by a reader. You'll see, the poor turnip has stiff competition.
by Polly Hatfield
i lack the pr team of organic mesclun
the allure of blanched white asparagus
upstaged by the newfangled glitz of micro greens
the lunatic verve of doughnut peaches
i am a white root vegetable
with a pungent mustardy bite
i simply cannot compete
with the hothouse fervor
of sun-ripened heirloom tomatoes
sweet, succulent, sexy orbs
i languish unharvested in the fields
where forgotten i wither and turn punky with neglect
Poem first appeared in Alltopia Antholozine, Summer 2010, Volume 2, Issue 3. Reprinted with permission from the author
In any other season I would agree with the turnip's lament. In August, it "cannot compete/ with the hothouse fervor/ of sun-ripened heirloom tomatoes." The tone is jovial, almost dramatic. But there is some truth here, because a turnip can easily be upstaged. It's such a sad scene, turnips languished "unharvested in the fields," likely to be tossed at the pigs for a meal. In this poem, the turnip knows its place, and how difficult it is to share the stage with other vegetables that are sexier and more popular.
In a way, the turnip makes his peace with neglect, but employs a passive aggressive strategy to plead with us, letting him prove that with a little attention, he can make something of himself in this world. Let's resolve not to neglect the turnip this year. You don't have to love it or praise it, or cook with it frequently, but give the turnip a chance, if only to reach out of your root vegetable comfort zone temporarily. Of all the months to embrace the turnip, January offers new beginnings for us all.
Turnip and Mustard Tart
To get ahead with dinner prep, make the crust in the morning (or better yet, the day before), so you’ll be ready to assemble.
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 large turnip (about 1 pound), diced into 1/2-inch pieces
1 brown onion, diced
1 garlic clove, minced
1 bunch chard, stems removed and thinly sliced into ribbons
1 sprig thyme, leaves removed
1 buckwheat crust (via Sprouted Kitchen)
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard (I like a combination of whole grain and smooth)
Salt and pepper
4 sprigs thyme
1 cup grated gruyere
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Saute the turnips in 1 tablespoon of oil over medium low heat for 8-10 minutes, or until just beginning to turn golden. Season with a pinch each of salt and pepper. Add the turnips to a large bowl and heat another tablespoon of oil in the same pan. Add the onion and garlic; cook for 2 to 3 minutes, then add the chard, thyme, and season with a pinch each of salt and pepper. Cook for an additional 3 to 5 minutes, or until the chard is wilted. Scrape the vegetables into the bowl with the turnips.
Roll out the crust in an 11 to 13-inch circle and gently place into a tart pan. Lop off any overhang by running your rolling pin over the top. Add a piece of foil and a cup or so of beans or pie weights on top; bake for 15 minutes.
Once the vegetables have cooled slightly, add the egg and half the gruyere; mix well to combine. Pour the filling into the crust and spread in an even layer. Top with the remaining gruyere. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until the tart is just set and the top is starting to brown.