Pliny the Elder, who wrote about the natural world in the first century of our era, loved and respected the turnip, as much for the oil from its seeds to the flavor of the root.
Tumbled off Pliny’s Pedestal
Since Pliny, though, the western world has not kept the turnip on a pedestal. Because it grows in abundance and keeps well it has often been the stopgap food during times of crisis, eaten in all stages of disarray. Memories of one bad turnip have soured the reputation of all. It is disregarded, considered food for the poor or, in France, “de la disette,” of famine.
Turnip of Wonder
This is a shame, for a firm, fresh-from-the-soil turnip can be a thing of wonder and intense pleasure. Crackling crisp, it is delicious raw, like a radish with soul. Braised, its sugars come to the fore; gentled with cream it causes a silence to fall as the angels fly over the table, wishing they too could partake. How many times have I served the turnip and watched an expression of sheer astonishment pass over a face, as though that face wanted to say, “Where, my little lovely, have you been all my life?”
The turnip obviously has personality, because it figures in many an aphorism. A “turnip (“navet”) in French refers to a bad film; when asking something of someone who cannot give: “You cannot get blood from a turnip”; To someone out of touch one says “Did you just fall off the turnip truck?”; and a degenerate nobleman is said to be like a turnip: “The only good in him is underground”.
Now is the Moment
In France, though the turnip has some problems to overcome, spring is a moment when all its sins are forgiven. Then this member of the brassica family and cousin to broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage, sits on farmstands tied in leafy bundles, the purple tinged roots practically glowing with allure. Turnips love mild, cool temperatures with plenty of water so their roots grow sweet; lack of water and lots of heat cause them to turn bitter, as do poor storage conditions because the turnip absorbs every aroma it encounters. So now is the time to indulge, before summer’s heat arrives.
The turnip’s lush leaves offer a whole world of flavor too. Their juice is considered an elixir, said to cure just about any disease it encounters, and when sauteed with garlic, hot peppers, and bacon, they are a true delicacy. Do keep in mind that the turnip needs to be eaten the day it is cooked; it does not improve as it keeps (unless it is pickled).
So discover a whole new world of flavor and enjoy the turnip while you can – they’re never better than right now! Bon Appétit!
BRAISED TURNIPS WITH HERBS – NAVETS BRAISES AUX AROMATES
- 1 pound;500g small turnips, trimmed of leaves, peeled, cut in quarters
- ¼ cup;60ml water
- Large pinch Large pinch coarse sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 cloves garlic green germ removed, sliced into matchsticks
- 1 fresh or dried imported bay leaf (from the laurus nobilis) imported bay leaf (from the laurus nobilis)
- 10 thyme sprigs try lemon thyme!
- 1 sprig rosemary
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil or unsalted butter
- Fresh herb sprigs for garnish
- Place the turnips in a skillet. Pour over the water. Season with the salt and pepper, then strew the garlic and the herbs overall.
- Bring the water to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat so the liquid is simmering, cover, and cook until the turnips are tender through, 8 to 10 minutes. Test the turnips for doneness at least once during cooking; if additional water is needed to keep the turnips from sticking to the pan, add a tablespoon or two.
- When the turnips are cooked, remove the lid and continue cooking until all of the liquid has evaporated from the pan. Increase the heat under the pan to medium high, add the olive oil or butter and cook, stirring and shaking the pan, until the turnips begin to turn golden, which will take just a few minutes.
- Transfer the turnips to a warmed serving dish, garnish with herb sprigs, and serve.