No Good Reason to Turn Away from Turnips

By Shirley Barker, Special to the Planet
Tuesday July 31, 2007

In my gilded youth I went on a skiing trip to Austria. In those carefree days one traveled by boat and train in a leisurely, comfortable, civilized way, with none of the overcrowded panic that mars voyaging today. The train had sleeping berths and we woke gasping at the proximity of massive Alps rearing skywards almost close enough to touch, or so it seemed. Our destination was a picture postcard-perfect village, Obergurgl. 

I managed to enjoy falling about on the nursery slopes. Once a whole line of us keeled over, like dominoes, destabilized by hilarity perhaps. But although the apres-ski hot chocolate mit schlagzahne was divine, dinner fare tended to be faintly, even strongly, repellent. I had never before eaten turnip fritters, and I have made a point of never doing so since. 

Still, there is no good reason to avoid turnips altogether. Delicately treated rather than manhandled, they can be toothsome. The key to their flavor and texture is how they are grown and when they are harvested. 

Turnips in my vegetable plot are part of my four-year rotation plan. After potatoes are dug, the earth is friable, just right for root vegetables: beets, carrots, onions and turnips. For the latter, the name of the game is speed, from sowing to harvest. Turnip seed germinates days sooner than that of the other roots. It’s as though like modern travelers it hits the ground running. All these vegetables need modest but regular amounts of water for their roots to become plump, every three or four days. Deep watering once a week and letting the ground dry in between will produce tough, skinny turnips. 

I try to spray the seed bed lightly, so that the seeds are not dislodged. When leaves appear, I gently trickle the hose around the roots, to avoid knocking the plants over. Although the leaves enjoy a little moisture, this is best left to dew. Wet leaves can scorch in hot sun. 

When the seedlings have their second pair of leaves, the true ones, I thin the plants to four inches apart, and put the thinnings into salads or a sandwich. At this point they don’t amount to much. The seedlings look spindly without their siblings, so I sprinkle the earth around them with potting soil, building it up to the first leaves, the cotyledons. This provides a stabilizing and nourishing matrix in which the turnips can readily form their bulbs, as well as augmenting the planting bed, which is already a raised one. 

When four true leaves have appeared, I give their roots a drink of fish emulsion, diluted to palest tea. From then on, they receive only water. I thin them once more, steaming the tiny bulbs and leaves together, leaving the remainder with plenty of room for full growth. If I have calculated correctly, even a small area, let us say 18 by 24 inches, will yield over two dozen turnips, enough to satisfy a small household if not an Obergurgl chef. 

There is a root maggot that will ruin with its tracery of brown tunnels an entire crop of turnips if a defensive strategy is not deployed. These maggots are the offspring of a winged creature, probably a moth. Sowing turnips in late summer eliminates this problem, since moths lay their eggs in spring. So does covering the bed with black plastic netting stretched over a cage of garden wire, since the moth can not get through the small net openings. I cover all seed beds with such cages, since soft earth is a magnet for cats. 

The turnip, Brassica rapa, is, confusingly enough, not the same as rape, Brassica napus, which produces the oil now politely called canola. Both are in the Cruciferae family, so named because the four flower petals of every family member are in the form of a cross. Unfortunately, clumsily, and unpoetically, taxonomists have now changed the family name to Brassicaceae. Another relative, the rutabaga or swede, a yellow-rooted hybrid crossed between B. napus and B. oleracea, is bigger and hardier than the turnip. It overwinters very well and is delicious when peeled, boiled and mashed with plenty of butter. But one large rutabaga goes a long way, whereas a young turnip takes up much less room in the garden and is more versatile in the kitchen, so I do not grow rutabagas. 

Turnips on the other hand are delicious harvested at golf ball size, steamed or boiled briefly. Like so many home-grown vegetables, they take very few minutes to cook, five at the most, and barely need to be peeled. They are delicious simmered in broths or stews, taking on some of the flavor of the stock without losing their own. They can be mashed into carrots or potatoes, but that always seems to me to be a way of disguising the taste of old, bitter ones. Better to caramelize them, adding a little sugar and butter to the cooking water. They can be eaten raw, grated into salads, too. 

Still, since turnips seem more appropriately eaten in cool weather, one wonders whether in terms of yin and yang the turnip is a “hot” vegetable, promoting the circulation of the blood. Cold weather at an altitude is all very invigorating if one is warmly clad and the sun is shining, and when it goes down early, behind the mountains, if there’s a crackling fire and gluhwein to come indoors for, and after dinner and dancing, if that is the correct term for schulplattlern, which involves much slapping of body and soles of boots, sleep that descends rapidly under a billowy down-filled duvet, while crisp snow lies inches deep on the sill outside. In spite of all this one still needs inner fuel. I suppose this is why Obergurgl is the turnip fritter’s home.