TURNIPS IN VERY EARLY SPRING: A MARKET STORY
It took me a long time to come around to the idea of turnips. Although the root vegetable has always been part of the southern culinary repertoire, I’ve often found it tough and woody, preferring instead its spicy greens, added to whatever other pot greens I had on hand. Eventually, I acquired a taste for the tender, sweet Japanese turnips that have become increasingly available during the summer. That said, I’m mortified when I think of the times I’ve bought them with the best of intentions, only to let them rot in a lonely corner of the fridge.
But it is a restless time of year and I’ve been pining for something different. Something to make me sit up and pay attention. In spite of a mild winter followed by an unseasonable stretch of warm weather, this past Saturday’s jaunt to the Union Square Greenmarket was, as my pal Susan would say, still more about foraging for overwintered produce than actual shopping. “A hard frost is coming,” was the common refrain among the upstate farmers. They gazed incredulously at passers-by in flip-flops and shorts. You should never let your guard down in March.
I drifted to a halt in front of a basket of turnips. Burly and broad-shouldered underneath their rich violet overcoats, they looked a little battle-scarred. I picked one up. Heavy for its size and surprisingly smooth-skinned, it fit my hand like a baseball. Or dinner. I toted a bagful home.
Turnips are rustic and homely, an aromatic underpinning of many a soup and stew. They can also be creamed, like onions. That technique only makes sense to me if the vegetable is grown in very hot weather; then it develops a strong mustard flavor in need of camouflage. Otherwise, cream dulls the sharpness, the bite that’s at the heart of the vegetable. Butter, however, is a different story. It both heightens and rounds out pepperiness—think of what it does to a radish.
Sick to death of roasted vegetables, I ended up with a simple, fresh-tasting turnip purée. Enriched with butter and shards of smoky bacon, the flavor still came across as edgy and very direct—a spring tonic, of sorts. Exactly what I needed.
Turnip Purée with Bacon and Shallots
I served this with deep-flavored skirt steak, but another time, it would be wonderful with duck breast or short ribs. Maybe I’ll push it in an Indian direction by setting the bacon aside for a sprinkling of ground toasted cumin and coriander seeds, peppercorns, and cardamom. Doesn’t that sound as if it would be nice with lamb? One last thing: I added some finely chopped shallots for color, but scallions or any other green onion would be good, too.
3 pounds turnips, scrubbed, trimmed, and any greens cut off and saved to cook separately
About 3 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
3 to 4 slices of bacon, cooked until crisp, then crumbled
A scattering of finely chopped shallots
1. Unless turnips are very young and thin-skinned, they should be peeled. If they’re on the large side, take off about 1/8 inch of the flesh along with the skin; it can be tough even when cooked. Cut the turnips into 1½-inch pieces. I know this sounds picky, but when the pieces are all the same size, they’ll cook uniformly.
2. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. When it’s ready, cook the turnips until they’re beyond tender (they should be soft but not falling apart), 15 to 20 minutes. Don’t rush this step; undercooked vegetables never mash or purée properly.
3. Tip the turnips into a colander to drain, then tip them back into the pot. Let them steam over moderately low heat for a few minutes, shaking the pot, to evaporate excess moisture. Purée the turnips in a food processor* until silky smooth.
4. Scrape the purée back into the pot. The other night, I let mine sit there for a bit while I tended to the rest of dinner, and there was still some excess moisture that began to separate out. If that happens, cook the purée over moderately high heat, stirring, until the watery part evaporates. Then stir in the butter, a piece at a time, and cook, stirring often, until the purée tightens up and develops a consistency rather like that of lightly whipped cream. Season with salt and pepper, scatter with bacon and shallots, and serve right away.
* Because turnips don’t have a high starch content, a food processor won’t reduce them, like it will potatoes, to library paste. You could also use a ricer or food mill. I’m not sure you’ll get the same satiny effect with a handheld masher, but the end result will still be delicious.