5 May 2014

In praise of the turnip

For many years the turnip has been a deeply unfashionable vegetable - more likely to be found as the butt of a joke on Blackadder, or as cattle fodder, than on a restaurant menu. It is, in my view, a useful vegetable, ill-deserving of its down-at-heel reputation. I suspect that harvesting when too large and over-cooking are both, at least in part, to blame.

Unlike many root vegetables, turnips are quick growing. Because of this, they make a good catch-crop, and can be fitted in before or after crops that require a longer growing time. In southern England, they can be sown from early spring until late summer, and will continue to put on growth well into autumn. This year, I planted a row in early March, and picked the first of them over the early May Bank holiday. A row sown in late summer can provide a useful harvest during autumn (although unlike parsnips and swedes, turnips are not fully frost hardy). They are at their best when golf-ball sized, or slightly larger. Any bigger than a tennis ball and they start to get woody.

Boiling does not get the best out of turnips, although they work well in stews. When young, they are best cooked relatively hot and fast, so as to retain their pleasant earthy flavour. Cut them into 5mm slices and fry over a medium heat until golden on both sides. Add a little finely chopped garlic, a splash of red wine vinegar and some salt towards the end. They are also good pickled, if a little fiery, and served with cured meats.

One rarely sees turnips for sale with their leaves, but if you grow them yourself, the leaves are well worth eating. As baby leaves or thinnings, turnip leaves are good in salad, having a pleasant peppery flavour, milder than many other brassica leaves. Picked relatively young, the leaves can be lightly steamed, having a flavour a bit like pak choi. Leave them too long, however, and turnip leaves develop a woolly texture and should be confined to the compost heap. I like to serve the leaves and the roots together, and think they make a great accompaniment to roast spring lamb.

If left in the ground too long in the summer turnips want to produce flowers, at which point a solid stem will appear from the top of the root. If this happens, you can eat the flower buds before the flowers open. The buds look rather like a small broccoli, and have a similar if slightly more bitter taste, very much like the Italian vegetable 'cime di rapa', which is a close relative.

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