Turnips – they’re tasty, terrific and easy to cook

Published 11:59 pm Friday, February 6, 2009

We ventured this weekend to the “Red Stick” Market in downtown Baton Rouge. We bought some local Louisiana strawberries, Creole tomatoes and sausage, and my husband bought a Satsuma orange plant (These are some of the hardiest of citrus and will tolerate lows in the teens so they can be grown outdoors in this area — I think).

I noticed some nice small turnips as I came in, and they were gone when I left with the sign “sold out.” And while the vendor was cleaning up, someone snapped them up.

With skins of purple and white, the turnip is an attractive vegetable. While there are yellow turnips, the white-purple combination is the more prevalent. Many of us never cook turnips. It is considered a lowly vegetable, and some do not like the taste. I did some research on the turnip and some of the facts are interesting.

The turnip is probably the oldest vegetable known to mankind. Near Beijing in China there are cave paintings that show prehistoric man eating raw turnips. Later cave paintings, after fire was discovered, show turnips being roasted with meat on flat stones. More recent cave paintings in France show turnips being boiled in clay pots.

As far back as the ancient Greeks and Romans the turnip has been primarily a food for the poor and for country folk. The upperclass Romans did, on occasion, serve a type of mush made of turnips. The taste was probably not recognizable since the mush was seasoned with cumin, honey or boiled grapes. The Romans also used turnips to throw at unpopular persons, indicating the low esteem they had for the vegetable and target.

The turnip grows best in cooler climates and in the Middle Ages the turnip was one of the most common vegetables in Europe. Here, too, it was eaten mainly by the poor who seldom had access to meat.

The Germans and Eastern Europeans ate turnips in considerable quantities. The French were not as enthusiastic about the turnip and preferred to mask their taste with leeks, when they were forced to eat them at all. The British acquired the taste, and learned to enjoy it baked or roasted. They used the green tops raw in salads or cooked like spinach.

By the time the first settlers landed at Jamestown in 1607, turnips had been growing in North America for more than 60 years. The French had planted them in Canada in 1540. The Virginia colonists brought turnip seeds with them and the first crop was grown in 1609; the Massachusetts colony began growing them 20 years later.

By the time of the Revolutionary War turnips were being grown in most of the 13 colonies.

The Indians took to them almost immediately because turnips were far superior to the wild roots that had been an important part of their diet. The Indian women on the Plains baked or roasted them whole in their skins, as they had done other roots.

Turnips even found their way into the famous novel, “Gone with the Wind.” When Sherman’s troops burned Tara, Scarlett O’Hara went into the vegetable garden and exclaimed, “As long as we have turnips, we will never go hungry.”

As we were leaving the Red Stick Market in Baton Rouge, a cooking demonstration was being done by the Louisiana Culinary Institute. Guess what they were cooking? You guessed it, turnips. These recipes are from the demonstration.

Bacon Turnip Mash

2 pounds turnips

2 tablespoons butter

1 pinch salt

1 pinch ground black pepper

1 dash garlic powder

½ pound bacon—cooked and crumbled

2 tablespoons rendered bacon fat

Peel and cube the turnips. Cook in a saucepan in salted water until very tender. Drain then mash with the butter, salt, pepper; and garlic powder to taste. Set aside.

In a skillet fry the bacon until nice and crispy. Remove from the skillet and crumble. Reserve 2 tablespoons of the bacon grease.

To the skillet with the 2 tablespoons of bacon-grease, add the mashed turnips and crumbled bacon. Stir and heat to the desired temperature before serving.

Crispy Turnip “Fries”

3 pounds turnips

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

½ cup grated Parmesan cheese

1 teaspoon garlic salt

1 teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon onion powder

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with a piece of aluminum foil and lightly grease.

Peel the turnips, and cut into French fry-sized sticks, about 1/3 by 4 inches. Place into a large bowl, and toss with the vegetable oil to cover. Place the Parmesan cheese, garlic salt, paprika, onion powder, in a re-sealable plastic bag, and shake to mix. Place the oiled turnips into the bag, and shake until evenly coated with the spices. Spread out onto the prepared baking sheet.

Bake in a preheated oven until the outside is crispy, and the inside in tender, about 20 minutes. Serve immediately.

Glazed Turnips

1 ½ pounds turnips, diced

2 tablespoons butter

6 tablespoons dark Karo syrup

¼ cup sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon nutmeg

1 teaspoon ground cloves

¼ cup water

1/8 cup Chablis

Drop turnips into boiling water to cover. Simmer until tender; drain. Combine remaining ingredients in saucepan. Heat to boiling. Pour over cooked turnips. Stir and serve. (We had samples of this and it was too sweet for my husband. He likes his savories.)

This is my favorite way to serve turnips. As you see it has cream and cheese!

Turnip Gratin

1 pound turnips, peeled, halved and very thinly sliced

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon crumbled, dried rosemary

1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Salt and pepper, to taste

¾ cup whipping cream

2/3 cup chicken broth

Place the turnips in a saucepan, cover with water, bring to a boil and blanch for one minute. Drain the turnip slices thoroughly, then place them on a paper towel and blot dry.

In a buttered 11-inch oven gratin dish (or a 1 and ½-quart shallow baking dish) arrange one-third of the turnip slices in an even layer and sprinkle them with 1 tablespoon of the flour, ¼ teaspoon of the rosemary, 1/3 cup of the Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper, to taste. Arrange half of the remaining turnip slices over the Parmesan, sprinkle with the remaining tablespoon of flour, ¼ teaspoon rosemary, 1/3 cup Parmesan cheese, and some salt and pepper. Then arrange the remaining turnip slices on top and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Combine the whipping cream and the broth in a small saucepan, bring it barely to a boil, and pour the mixture over the turnips. Sprinkle the top with the remaining 1/3 cup Parmesan cheese. Cover the gratin with aluminum foil and bake in a preheated oven set at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 minutes. Remove the foil and bake uncovered for another 10 minutes or until the gratin is golden brown and the turnips are tender.

Serves 4.

Last year about this time I shared a recipe for bashed Neeps (the Scottish word for Turnips – and the name of my Scottish Terrier, Neeps.) It is just like mashed potatoes and an easy way to do turnips. If you don’t like the taste or texture of turnips as well as I do, you can mix them with potatoes to mash.