Don't turn up your nose at turnips

At my favorite market yesterday, I joined other shoppers who were eagerly choosing turnips. I sometimes forget to add turnips to my shopping list.

turnips 88  (photo credit: )
turnips 88
(photo credit: )
At my favorite market yesterday, I joined other shoppers who were eagerly choosing turnips. I sometimes forget to add turnips to my shopping list. But after I briefly simmered a few in water, one bite of this sweet tasty root reminded me of what a useful addition turnips can be to my menus. They were so fresh and tender that I didn't even have to peel them before I cooked them. This distant cousin of cabbage grows well in cold climates and thus is associated in many people's minds with the cooking styles of those regions. However, according to Clifford Wright, author of Mediterranean Vegetables, "The European forms of the plant are thought to originate in the Mediterranean." He added that turnips were known to the ancient Greeks and were common in Turkey in the 13th century, where they were served with yogurt. I learned how to cook turnips in France, where people value these purple-tinged, round white roots. Most often they braise them in broth, add them to pots of meat poached with vegetables, puree them with potatoes or glaze them with butter and sugar, like carrots, to bring out their sweetness. To turn turnips into soups, French cooks simmer them with potatoes and milk, or, for a richer version, with butter-sauteed onions and cream. In some regions of France turnips are stewed in onion sauce accented with a touch of wine vinegar. Paradoxically, the great advantage of being inexpensive also gave the turnip an image as humble food of the poor and might explain its negative connotation in French slang: Calling something a navet means it's a failure, like calling it a lemon in English. On the other hand, turnips figure in haute cuisine preparations such as lamb navarin, a stew with tomato sauce, and are a popular accompaniment for duck, a favorite bird of French gastronomes. For an elegant accompaniment, chefs stuff turnips with spinach, rice or semolina. Turnips also appear in Provencal cuisine, where they might be made into "french fries," just like potatoes, or may be baked as a gratin with sliced onions, garlic, olive oil and Parmesan. Italian cooks like turnips too. Beth Elon, who wrote A Mediterranean Farm Kitchen, makes turnips into a sformato, what she calls "Italy's down-to-earth answer to the souffle," by baking grated turnips with carrots, green onions, cream sauce, eggs and Parmesan cheese. Turnips might find themselves in the minestrone pot along with other vegetables, or might star in the soup on their own. According to Paola Scaravelli and Jon Cohen, authors of Cooking from an Italian Garden, Italians turn them into a simple, savory minestrone by sauteing turnip cubes in butter, cooking them in broth with rice and finishing the soup with parsley and Parmesan. In North Africa turnips are flavored with pungent seasonings. Algerians simmer them with peas and rice, and offset the sweetness of the dish with garlic, red pepper and cilantro. Like the French, they add turnips to mutton stews with tomatoes, but they also include chickpeas and red pepper. Cooks in Morocco stew turnips with potatoes, carrots, sauteed onions and garlic and accent the dish with cumin, paprika and parsley. For a turnip side dish that is both hot and sweet, Moroccans cook the roots with onions, hot pepper and raisins. They also pickle turnips with slices of beets, which give the turnips a reddish-purple hue; you often find these pickles at Mizrahi restaurants. Egyptians like to combine turnips with greens, as in the recipe below. At the market choose firm, smooth turnips that feel heavy for their size. Small or medium-small ones have a better taste and texture than large ones. You can keep turnips unwashed in an open plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to a week. TURNIPS WITH GARLIC AND SPINACH Serve these turnips with braised beef, or as a tasty accompaniment for white or brown rice. Peel the turnips if their skin is tough. Be sure to rinse the spinach thoroughly before chopping it. 350 to 450 gr. turnips 2 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. olive or vegetable oil 4 garlic cloves, chopped 1⁄2 cup finely chopped spinach or Swiss chard leaves 1 onion, chopped 11⁄4 cups chicken, beef or vegetable broth salt and freshly ground pepper a few drops lemon juice (optional) Cut off turnip ends and peel turnips if necessary. Cut in two-cm. dice. Heat one tablespoon oil in a deep skillet or saute pan. Add turnips and saute over medium heat for three minutes. Remove with slotted spoon. Add one teaspoon oil to pan and heat briefly. Add garlic and saute for 15 seconds. Add chard and saute until dry, about 30 seconds. Remove chard mixture. Add remaining tablespoon oil to pan. Add onion and saute over medium heat for five minutes or until beginning to brown. Add broth and bring to a boil. Add turnips, cover and return to a boil. Simmer over low heat for five minutes. Add chard mixture and cook for five to 10 minutes or until turnips are tender, adding a few tablespoons water if pan becomes dry. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and add lemon juice. Serve hot. Makes 2-3 servings. Faye Levy is the author of Faye Levy's International Vegetable Cookbook, winner of the James Beard Award.