A root vegetable with an undeserved reputation for being boring
In The Natural History, Roman naturalist and philosopher Pliny the Elder sang the praises of turnips, deeming no plant, save cereals and beans, to be “of more extensive use”—a quote that’d raise a few eyebrows in modern day Britain.
But, in fact, its culinary uses are varied, and its presence widespread. Turnips pop up in Turkey in şalgam, ice-cold turnip juice; in Kashmir as shab degh, a spiced vegetarian stew; in Friuli, Italy, shredded and preserved in red grape pomace and served as a side dish known as brovada. Yet here, “people tend to think of turnips as a boring, generic root vegetable,” says demo chef Emily Watkins—but, she maintains, that reputation is undeserved.
Indeed, this vagueness surrounds not just this root vegetable’s usefulness in the kitchen but its very being, so commonly confused with swede that their names are often used interchangeably. While both are technically brassicas (swede is thought to be a cross between the turnip and cabbage), “they are quite different,” Emily explains. “Swede is much denser and yellow in colour. Turnip is white”—that is, on the inside. The pretty white numbers with scarlet collars currently found in abundance at Turnips and Elsey and Bent are the most common variety, while later in the season look out for heritage golden, pure purple and white varieties, the latter known as ‘navets’ in France.
“Turnips can be a little bitter, so I would always recommend rinsing and soaking them in cold water before cooking with them,” Emily advises. “My favourite dish is clapshot: finely sliced turnips and carrots, cooked hard and fast in equal parts butter and water, then mashed and finished with lots of black pepper. It’s absolutely delicious.” Serve on the side of roast pork—“I’d recommend pork neck. It’s a wonderful cut of meat and really underused”—or try the comfortingly carb-heavy medley of turnips, swede and sweet potato, piled atop ground pork in Ed Smith’s pigsty pie.
You can salt bake them whole (“because of the water content it works really well”) or throw them into casseroles—but don’t put them in stocks and sauces: “Some people do, but I find it overpowering,” says Emily. Make the most of the turnip glut by turning them into a pickle, “cut into matchsticks and pickled in cider vinegar with some shallots” to be stir-fried with soy sauce, or simply eat them raw, “sliced finely like you would radish”. Perhaps Pliny was on to something after all.