no laughing matter

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Oh dear‘ said a friend when I told her I was going to write about turnips. ‘Does anybody actually like them?’ I was about to say I do, but she was off on a beetroot and radish tangent before changing the subject entirely, so I just nodded. Afterwards it crossed my mind she was probably referring to the early winter variety, stout, purple-tinged turnips which, if left too long, can become stringy and harsh, which is where the ridicule comes in I suppose. ‘What is the difference between turnips and snot? Children will eat snot‘ was the joke David Stott told us in the playground. We rolled about laughing until our seven-year-old sides hurt. The giggles were carried into the school dining room where waterlogged turnips mashed with carrots and cheap margarine were shunted around our plates.

Catch them before they turn though, and winter turnips can be excellent, especially roasted, creamed with potatoes and butter or, as I once ate in France, glazed to serve with ham. It is not the early variety we are taking about today though, but late winter/early spring turnips, white spheres with a soft matt glow, bunched together by their bright green leaves.

Three more, bunches?’ checked my faithful fruit and veg man at my local market here in Testaccio in Rome. ‘What are you doing with all these turnips?’ Then he laughed as if there might be turnip funny business, in which moment he looked just like his heavy-browed, twinkly-eyed dad, my other fruit and veg man. ‘Don’t forget to eat the leaves‘ he said stuffing the bunches in a bag in the same way I shove laundry in the basket when I am cross, and before I could say please be careful I need to take a picture. ‘‘ ‘Ste cazzo de foto!’ he said laughing even harder.

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Turnip leaves, or turnip tops as we call them in England, are an excellent green vegetable reminiscent of mild mustard greens with their slightly peppery warmth. Romans love them, particularly cooked twice, which we will come to shortly. The turnips themselves are crisp and sweetly peppery, and – as I have discovered in this last month of turnip cooking – are surprisingly adaptable, making wonderful soup, risotto and pickles. They are also good roasted, which prompted Vincenzo to remind me – for the umpteenth time – that turnips were one of the earliest cultivated vegetables, and an important food for the Ancient Romans. There is also the story of the Roman war hero Curius Dentatus who, at the start of the third century, refused a large amount of gold to defect to the side of Hostile Samnites because he was busy roasting turnips over a fire.

When choosing turnips look for bright, lively leaves and smallish white bulbs. Like people: avoid those that are too bloated, faded or smell too strongly. Young turnips only need a very thin layer peeling away. Their greens however are as good as three-year-old boys at hiding mud and grit, so give them a damn good wash. Now get cooking, and remember, turnips are no laughing matter. Snigger.

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Pasta with turnip greens and ricotta

One of the most useful and delicious things I have learned since living in Rome is to ripassare greens. It means to cook twice, first boiling briefly and then re-cooking in a skillet with garlic scented olive oil. The greens can then be served as a side dish, or mixed with pasta for a quintessential southern Italian dish. Turnip greens, with their slight bitterness, work beautifully ripassata and mixed with pasta, especially orecchiette, or little ears. The key is a generous amount of good extra virgin olive oil, never letting the garlic burn and making sure the greens are glistening. I also like a blob of ricotta and a dusting of parmesan or pecorino on the finished dish.

serves 4

  • The greens from two bunches of turnips
  • salt
  • 5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 450 g short pasta, ideally orecchiette
  • Ricotta (optional)
  • parmesan or pecorino

Wash and dry the turnip greens. Roll them into a loose bundle and chop roughly.

Bring a large pot of water to a fast boil, salt generously (the rule of thumb is 1 litre of water/ 10 g salt for every 10o g of pasta) and stir. Add the greens, boil for a minute then use tongs or a slotted spoon to lift them from the water, drain and set aside.

Now tip the pasta to the pot, set the timer and cook until al dente.

Meanwhile, peel and gently crush the garlic cloves with the back of a knife so they are split but still intact. Warm the olive oil and garlic in a large skillet over a medium/low flame until the garlic is fragrant (be careful it doesn’t burn) add the greens and a pinch of salt and toss and turn until they are glistening with oil. Turn off the flame

Once the pasta is cooked, drain it – saving a little of the pasta cooking water – and tip onto the greens and toss. If it seems dry, add a spoonful of pasta cooking water, and toss again. Divide between warm bowls topping with a blob of ricotta if you wish and finishing with parmesan or pecorino.

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Pickled turnips

Apparently my mum craved pickles when she was pregnant with me, which might explain my extreme enthusiasm. I only wish I had known sooner that DIY pickling was so easy. Since learning this simple technique I have pickled cauliflower, beets, carrots, radishes and – best of all – turnips. It is something about the crispy, peppery sweetness sharpened by spiced vinegar that hits the pickle spot. I am not very discerning and would eat these with anything, but particularly cured and boiled meat, strong cheese, savory tarts, in sandwiches like a sharp chutney and beside rice and beany concoctions. Some people like to add a beetroot to the mix to give a pleasing pink tint. I had intended to do this, but forgot to buy one.

  • 1 cup /250 ml water
  • 4 tbsp / 40 g coarse salt
  • 3 tbsp / 30 g sugar
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 5 black peppercorns
  • 1 cup / 250 ml white wine vinegar
  • 1 llb / 500 g turnips (which is usually the bulbs of two bunches)
  • 1 small beetroot (optional)

Put the water, salt, sugar, bay leaves and peppercorns in a pan, over a medium flame and warm until the salt and sugar have completely dissolved. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.

Add the vinegar to the pan. Wash a jar with very hot water and in a warm oven so it is sterilized.

Peel the turnips and beet, then cut into 3 mm or so wedges. Put the wedges in the jar, cover with the liquid. Seal and leave for at least a day and up to a week. Once opened, store in the fridge.

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Turnip soup with garlicky turnip greens

I learned to write recipes whilst helping my friend and chef Mona Talbott with the American Academy in Rome soup book some years back. Every Sunday morning for seven months, we would meet in the Academy kitchen, drink coffee, then begin: Mona cooking, me noting quantities and details. Then we both ate soup. At the end of the day I would walk down the curving Gianicolo hill, several mason jars filled with soup clinking in time with my every step. This soup was one of my absolute favourites. It is a pure, simple and smooth soup which – to me – feels like the essence of turnip with a pleasing hint of aromatic, herbal bay. Into the pale soup, you swirl dark green turnip greens which have been wilted in olive oil and garlic, which elevates the soup to a whole new level of taste and texture. The key is patiently sweating the water out of the turnips before you add more liquid. If you like a more decisive stronger flavour use stock. Garlic rubbed/olive oil soaked toast is nice with this.

serves 4

  • 2 lb / 1 kg turnips with greens
  • a small potato
  • 2 medium onions
  • 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • a knob (2 tbsp) butter
  • 1 liter water, vegetable stock or light chicken stock
  • 2 bay leaves
  • salt and pepper
  • for sautéing the greens  – 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil and a clove of garlic

Strip the greens from the turnips and set aside. Peel the turnips, potato and onion and slice thinly.

Warm 3 tbps olive oil and the butter in a large, heavy based pot over a medium low heat. Add the onion and sweat until soft and translucent, about 5 mins. Add the turnips, potatoes and a pinch of salt to the pot, and continue cooking for 10 minutes, stirring every now and then, allowing the turnips to soften and sweat off some liquid.

Add the liquid and bay leaf to the pot, bring the soup to the boil and then reduce to a simmer for 15 mins. Remove the bay leaf, the use an immersion blender to reduce the soup to a smooth puree. Season with salt as required.

Wash the turnip greens and dry them. Roll them into a bundle and then chop roughly. Peel and gently crush the garlic with the back of a knife.

Warm 3 tbsp olive oil and the clove of garlic in a sauté pan over a medium/low flame. Once the garlic is fragrant and just starting to colour (it must not brown or will be bitter) add the greens and sauté them until they are wilted and glistening with olive oil. Remove the garlic and then tip the greens into the soup and stir. Serve with a grind of black pepper and a swirl of olive oil.

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Turnip risotto

Risotto was suggested by another stall holder at Testaccio market. I was wary. Then I tried, and was surprised and delighted by the delicate, vegetal and ever-so-slightly-peppery risotto that came together one grey Wednesday lunchtime in Rome in February. I suppose you could argue that any vegetable sautéed and oil and butter, given body by plump rice and whipped into creaminess by a mantecatura of butter and parmesan cheese is going to be good. As with the soup above, if you are worried about intensity of flavour, use stock. If you are just two, still make enough for four: the remaining risotto can be moulded into balls, rolled in breadcrumbs and fried to make arancine.

serves 4

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • a walnut sized knob of butter
  • a small onion
  • 3 turnips, ideally with greens
  • 400 g risotto rice
  • 100 ml white wine
  • 1 litre of water, veg or chicken stock
  • 50 g grated parmesan cheese
  • 30 g butter

Strip the greens fron the turnips. Scrub the turnips (only peel them if you feel it is necessary) and dice them. Wash the greens, dry them, roll them into a loose bundle, then chop the roughly and set aside.

Warm the stock in a small pan and keep warm at the back of the stove. Peel and finely chop the onion. In a large, deep frying pan, warm the olive oil over a medium flame, add the onion and cook it for 3 minutes or so. Add the diced turnip and sauté for another 2 mines. Add the rice and stir until every grain is coated with oil, add the wine, which will woosh and evaporate.

Now look at the clock – this will take about 17 minutes so pour yourself a glass of wine – start adding the stock ladleful by ladleful, stirring all the time, only adding the next when the previous one is absorbed. After 10 minutes add the turnip greens and then continue with the stock. Once all the stock is absorbed and the rice is plump and creamy, pull the pan from the heat and wait one minute. Then add the butter and parmesan and beat everything together with a wooden spoon (this beating is called the mantecatura and it is what makes a risotto so beautifully creamy).

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Roasted turnips, carrots and red onions with farro

I am not sure if I would turn down a lots of gold for them, but I do like roasted turnips very much. As is the case with so many vegetables, roasting turnips means water evaporates and the natural sugars and flavours are concentrated. The turnips, red onion and carrots should shrivel slightly, crisping and curling at the edges. Farro, another ancient and modern Roman staple, provides a tasty, nutty, no-nonsense base. I feel as if I could march a very long way after eating this. It is also delicious. I have been known to top this with a poached egg or crumble over feta cheese. Ideally you want to keep a portion for the next day, when it is even better

This post was at the suggestion of the brilliant food community food52, where I am also sharing – a slightly shorter version – of this post. This final recipe will be on Food52 site in the next couple of weeks. I will put up the link as soon as I can.  – R

44 Comments

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44 responses to “no laughing matter

  1. victoria2nyc

    I am packing, packing, packing for my forever away move on Friday morning, so was delighted to see a post from you was waiting, and I could afford myself the luxury of taking a little break.

    I am still smiling over turnip funny business, and frowning over memories of English school dinners in the 1950’s. Ugh.

    I love turnips, and all of these recipes sound delicious.

    Two questions: Do you cook your broccoli rabe twice? I don’t do that but will try it if you do. Next, do you use Italian DOP tomatoes packed with puree? If so, I will I buy twelve cans to put on the moving truck. There are some nice ones in a store down the street, but I usually use tomatoes packed only in juice.

    Wish me good food, good friends, and luck!

    • rachel

      Good point about the greens, if they are really tender I might just pan fry them. Depends. I like san marzano whole plum toms in juice, which I then mouli to a paste. And yes, yes, yes, wishing you good food, good friends, and luck! – Rx

  2. Not sure I’ve ever seen those lovely white turnips on our farmers’ market here in SE England, sadly. And as we’re at least a month behind you seasonally we’re got the last of the lumbering giant parsnips, swedes and some muddy little celeriac. All of which are nice, but not half so nice as these Italian turnips!

  3. I have been cooking my greens (from the glasshouse) twice like you taught us ages ago.. when I pan fry them I add pumpkin seeds (I am addicted) it really is a great dish. I am looking forward to trying your turnip soup. What a lot of work you have been doing.. much love.. c

  4. I don’t think I have ever seen turnips in Bologna – just the turnip tops. Or maybe I have blocked them out, traumatised by school diners of watery mashed turnips which were always served with liver. Only one girl in the entire school would eat them but they were still on the menu every fortnight!

  5. I really enjoy fresh raw turnips, sliced thinly and put into a salad. For some reason roasting them makes them a bit too bitter for me. I love the greens, too.

  6. Nasreen

    I’ve never come across a turnip in Sardinia, although I can’t say I’ve missed them terribly…I miss parsnips more! How do you even say turnip in Italian?

  7. I will look for “young” turnips at our farmer’s market. Love turnips, so I’m sure these and the greens will be a fabulous treat. Thank you for sharing!

  8. Christine

    I love turnips but have never made them myself so I can’t imagine a better post for me to come across this morning. Very exciting!

  9. Michela

    Synchronicity! I just hauled home an excessive amount of turnips w/greens from the local upick farm, and was planning a similar ‘festa di rape’ in the kitchen! In addition to doing the pickles, risotto and a roast turnip soup – I was going to mandoline a few and make turnip crisps in the oven!
    PS Can’t tell you how much I look forward to every one of your dispatches from my beloved Testaccio!
    MiChela in Malibu

  10. Wonderful post Rachel – so generous of you to provide five recipes. My grandfather used to grow turnips for his cattle, so as a kid I didn’t realise that they could be suitable food for humans. I tried them first about two years ago, small white ones added to a slow cooked stew. They were delicious. I’ll look out for them even more now!

  11. So much to know about turnips – they remind me of my childhood in the UK. In Australia where I live now they’re not so easy to come by – will be looking out for them this winter though as I too am a big fan of pickling!

  12. Reblogged this on Rome and all that… and commented:
    I’m as interested in turnips as Columella was in cabbages, which is saying something. I’d been hoarding a couple for a mid-week cooking treat when what popped up but Rachel’s excellent bouquet of turnipery.

    Swedes are another thing entirely, fit only for the trough. But as a beetroot risotto obsessive I’m now speculating that I might want to add a new entry to my turnip-roster🙂

  13. Danny and I both love turnip greens. I like adding turnips to potatoes….

  14. Reblogged this on sarahsatticoftreasures and commented:
    Yes, they can be bitter…I enjoy checking out different recipes using them. They are good with potatoes.

  15. Beautiful post! Not only are the recipes very enticing, I really loved to read the description of each different story. We love white turnips as well. My favourite one is made of julienne turnips mixed with celery leaves and a simple white vinegar and olive oil dressing. Fresh, crisp and easy. I can’t wait to try some of your recipes.

  16. “Like people: avoid those… ” Oh my dear, you’ve outdone yourself. Which, incidentally, is a terrifically difficult task.

    And look at this turnip-y line-up! The snot/turnip dichotomy is new to me, but I fall into your camp, with a satisfying thud, scooping up these white lovelies (we call them Hokkaido turnips) with a vengeance. New ways to play with them! Wheeeeee!!

    Incidentally? Also good cooked like Vichy carrots, i.e. with a splash of water, a pinch of sugar, a good knob of butter, salt, and a little time. Maybe thyme, too. Haven’t tried that. Until tender and burnished and sweet at the edges.

  17. Oh dear. My failing, of course, but I cannot love the turnip. French ones, like Italian ones, are way more appetising. But even they didn’t convince me. Must Try Harder….

  18. You make turnips sound incredibly alluring. Looking forward to picking up a bunch and trying your recipes next time I’m at the market.

  19. my favorite turnip is called a Hakurei, small and white and sweet. you could eat one raw! I’ve roasted them slicked in olive oil with pearl onions and little potatoes, a sprig of thyme. I was surprised that, of the trio, I preferred the turnip–it had the most delicate earthy taste and sweetness.

  20. All of these are excellent and interesting. I’d had turnip greens before, but never with the ripassa technique and turnip risotto and turnip pickles are both new to me. I’m embarrassed I tend to eat them with just cream and butter or tucked under a roasting duck so they cook in the fat. I await the book! Ken

  21. I have never bought turnips, or cooked them as a result… not because of a dislike (I love pretty much every vegetable out there) but just because I didn’t grow up eating them and so don’t really know how to clean, prep or make them. Thanks for the inspiration, will get to it immediately, every version looks delicious (the photos help of course, but your writing is what truly inspires me).

  22. I think you’re the turnip’s biggest fan! Lovely recipes, and a great post

  23. mmm Looks so delicious. Thanks for sharing, I definitely want to try the turnip Risotto. If you could, please take the time to check out my blog as well. I’m very young/new and would love some helpful tips.🙂

  24. what a treat to have so many turnip recipes! I do roast turnips, but mainly we eat them raw in a green salad. Just had some tonight in with watercress, purple lettuce, carrots, and sprouts – I just grate the turnip, but my kids love raw slices if they catch me at the cutting board.

  25. Brady

    Dear dear Rachel, your lovely writing is almost convincing me to give them a shot again. I gave up on turnips years ago after I spent over 45 minutes slicing them for a gratin that ended up being barely average…. and your photos help the cause too…they look almost delicate!

  26. Amy

    A perfect post if I’ve ever seen one

  27. I am very glad to know this blog

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  30. TAMARA

    I WAS THRILLED TO RUN ACROSS THIS POST. I LOVE TURNIPS AND TURNIP GREENS. I STEAM ALMOST ALL FRESH VEGGIES. I LOVE TURNIPS STEAMED AND SPLASHED WITH PEPPER SAUCE WHEN SERVED. I AM GOING TO TRY ALL OF YOUR RECIPES THE LOOK SO WONDERFUL. I ALSO ROASTED TURNIPS, BUTTERNUT SQUASH, AND YAMS TOGETHER. EVERYONE LOVED IT. I ALSO ADD TURNIPS TO STEW AND POT ROAST.

  31. this post made me laugh (snigger snigger)… and then the whole library of turnip recipes wowed me! I’ve never cooked with turnip (the ones I’ve seen in the Chinatown in Buenos Aires are longish, not small and round). Amazing to see how easy it is to pickle veggies of any kind!

    sending love

  32. So good, so good! I cannot get turnip greens here (they’re sold without and there aren’t really any farmers’ markets that I have heard about) so I’ll have to try out some of these in the summer when I’m back in California. I do really love turnips – I make a nice pureed vegetable soup with carrots and Japanese sweet potatoes and always try to stick in a few turnips too. Lovely!

  33. Pingback: White Turnip and Celery Leaves Salad | Harvesting Dinner

  34. You certainly are working hard at getting us to like turnips. I’m afraid I’ve never tried working with one before. I’ve only seen the tired, overblown stringy version. Maybe I’ll look harder and make that soup. The cold weather is setting in where I live.

  35. Pingback: One Bunch of Turnips, Five Recipes | Support Paula Deen

  36. Hi Rachel! I’ve been enjoying your blog ever since we ‘met’ on Emiko’s timeline!😉 It like turnips too, if not only for their name. Some things you just want to love because of their name, or how they look. I’ve been trying all my life to love sweet things and chocolate, but I will always be a savoury girl. But when I look at a beautiful cake, I want to feel a longing to eat it… except I feel nothing. But turnips not only sound good, they are good too🙂

    • rachel

      Hello Regula, I am so happy to have finally met via Emiko, Even though I have known you beautiful work for along time. We clearly feel the same way about turnips and I imagine lots of other things too. I am looking forward to meeting talking about turnips and other good things when we get to meet x

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  38. I love white turnips!
    I very much enjoyed your turnip story, I also learnt things I did not know (as usual foreigners see better than inhabitants!) and will take note of your tasty propositions.
    I have published many recipes with them in my website, in Italian.
    Here is a couple (my favs):
    http://www.cucinaecozoica.com/cucina-ecozoica/rape-con-la-coda.php
    http://www.cucinaecozoica.com/cucina-ecozoica/raw-pe-ghiotte-con-cimette-di-b-raw-ccoli-e-cronaca-di-un-digiuno.php

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