Americans associate autumn with the indigenous pumpkin, whose vibrant heft fills holiday pies and glows as Halloween jack-o-lanterns.
When I requested that we privilege the turnip (and dispense with pumpkin) at the Thanksgiving table last month, I unwittingly positioned myself in an old transcontinental food conversation.
Before jag-toothed pumpkins illuminated All Hallow’s Eve, jack-o-lanterns were hollowed out of turnips. Early Irish settlers had imported a tradition centered on a ubiquitous old-world crop, but over time they opted for the more colorful local pumpkin to make their seasonal “lamps.” The turnip may have lost its visible role, but it deserves to be rediscovered as an ingredient in the holiday roasts and gratins that warm up the cold-weather months.
As early turnip connoisseurs, the Romans had multiple names to describe the flat, round, white- and yellow-fleshed turnip varieties. Thanks to their empire’s expansion, the common European variety of Brassica rapa was growing in France by the 1st century. After 4,000 years of cultivation in Europe, Virginia colonists first brought the modest mauve-tinged turnip to North America. They cultivated it as food and for livestock fodder. Turnips entered the produce exchange between colonists and Native Americans.
Perhaps turnips have their nonfinicky soil demands to thank for their longevity as a crop. Then again, they present the advantage of versatility from a cook’s perspective. Boiled or steamed, turnip greens have piquancy, like their relatives, mustard greens. The young shoots can be eaten in salad, but the plant’s bulbous root is its most popular edible feature.
With its relatively mild flavor and unassuming hue, turnip root may seem an unlikely candidate for starring culinary roles. It appears most frequently in a mash – solo or with other starchy subterranean vegetables. Like its cousin the radish, the turnip has an earthy pungency one wouldn’t expect from its translucent white flesh.
For purists who like their veggies simple, butter or cream adds depth and richness to turnips mashed alone or with potatoes. Parsnips or carrots can contribute a touch of sweetness that provides a base for bolder seasonings such as nutmeg or caraway. The daring may hazard a touch of horseradish, bringing a mustardy bite.
A cautionary note about boiling, however: Sulfurous undertones – a cabbage family trait – can give boiled turnips a bad name. Being careful not to overcook them and boiling with the lid off mitigates undesired flavors.
The French learned early that roasting turnips weakens the sulfur notes and brings out the vegetable’s flavor. For a main-dish gratin, marry turnips with other fall vegetables such as leeks, butternut squash, sweet potatoes or brussels sprouts, and top with Gruyère cheese and nutmeg, sage or rosemary. Bacon or pancetta makes common appearances in gratins or mashes.
As a devoted soup-maker, I’ve found that turnips add a wonderful depth to soup broth. And as part of an oven-roasted vegetable dish, they harmonize well with flavorful meats such as duck, rabbit and lamb for a complete holiday entrée.
Roasted duck with root vegetables
1 medium Muscovy duck, fat trimmed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper<|>
3 shallots, peeled and halved
4 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1 teaspoon butter, softened
2 large parsnips, 2 turnips, 2 carrots and 1 onion, cut into quarters or large pieces
Sage or rosemary
1/2 cup vegetable stock
Preheat oven to 400 F. Rinse duck, dry lightly, season cavity with salt and pepper, stuff with shallots and garlic, and truss with string. Rub skin with butter, season with salt and pepper, and place duck, breast side down, in medium-sized roasting pan.
Toss vegetables in olive oil and seasoning, place in pan around duck and roast, basting as desired, for 20 minutes. Turn duck breast side up and continue roasting until juices run clear, about 30 minutes more. Removing duck from oven, add vegetable broth and continue roasting vegetables 10-15 minutes, or until tender.
Carve duck, arrange on platter with roasted vegetables, moisten meat with pan juices and serve.