By Kat Nelson
On the subject of turnips, Samuel Butler once remarked that “there is nothing good of [them] but that which is underground.” As a turnip-lover, I respectfully disagree. Admittedly, the turnip’s blemished reputation has an understandable source: for over 2,000 years, turnips served as subsistence, and little more, for peasants. The sturdy, dependable turnip could grow in poor soil and stored well through the winter. Once the potato arrived in the Old World from America, it was embraced by populations who had grown weary of the turnip, which then quickly fell out of favor.
We can forgive past generations for disdaining turnips; there can be too much of a good thing (okay, maybe bacon is the exception to this rule). But it is unfortunate that they continue to be an underused vegetable, for they are, under proper guidance, capable of being much more than a beige blob that gets pushed around on the dinner plate. Turnips are economical and long-lasting, yes, but also versatile. They can be cooked any way a potato can (they are good combined with potatoes, too; try them mashed together, or pureed harmoniously in a cream soup); unlike potatoes, they can also be eaten raw, much like a radish. In many parts of the world, turnips are often pickled: in Korea, as kimchi, in Japan, as tsukemono, and in the Middle East, beet juice lends turnip pickles an attractive violet hue. Their usefulness even extends beyond the culinary realm: it was turnips, not pumpkins, that were originally carved for jack-o’-lanterns.
Turnips belong to the Brassica genus, and are closely related to the greens rapini, bok choy, and mizuna. Turnip greens, too, are edible and packed with calcium and vitamins A, C, and K; they can be cooked like mustard or collard greens. If you can obtain baby turnips, about the size of a radish, do so. They have a mellow flavor and are a good choice to use in salads. Select turnips that feel heavy for their size (this means they are young; older turnips become woody). Turnips come not only in the familiar white-and-purple variety, but also in red and gold. Served in an assortment of colors, turnips can be as pretty as they are tasty, and worthy of admiration whether you are a peasant, nobility, or something in-between.