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In Season: Why turnips are a favorite winter staple

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The owner of an organic winery in Bordeaux was proudly showing his vineyards to a group of visitors.

“In the fall and winter, I grow turnips between the rows of vines,” he said.

“Turnips have long tap roots that grow deeply into the soil and haul minerals and nutrients to the surface. In the spring when the vines begin to leaf out, I gather and chop the turnips and dress the soil under the vines with the chopped roots. That feeds the vines naturally.”

Grape growers around our region also grow winter crops in the vine rows, but these are usually vetch, clover, alfalfa, and fava beans — but seldom, if ever, turnips.

They plow down this “green manure” in the alleys between the rows in spring, and for the same reason: to feed the microorganisms in the soil. As the organic adage goes, “Feed the soil and the soil will feed the crops.”

For the same reason, turnips feed the microorganisms in our digestive tract that are so crucial to our health because they turn the nutrients in our food into their most nutritionally potent form.

It’s nice to know that we share this cycle of health with a turnip patch.

Although not the sexiest vegetable on the table, turnips are nutritionally rich root vegetables that supply us with from 10 to 20 percent of our daily need for vitamin C, are high in calcium and potassium, high in folic acid, and are an excellent source of dietary fiber and cancer-fighting glucosinolates.

Because cool weather makes them grow quickly — they’re native to northern Europe and were cultivated there as early as 4,000 years ago — turnips are at their absolute peak in November, with mild-flavored, tender, sweet flesh. The late fall crop avoids the worst of the summer insect pests, which makes them attractive to organic farmers.

These young, fresh, fall turnips should not be missed. They, along with daikon radishes and carrots, excel as crudités. The best fall turnips will most likely have their greens still attached. Turnip greens are an excellent potherb and are traditional in the Southeast. If the greens look healthy and fresh, you can make two dishes from the same vegetable. Or if the turnips are small — say two or three inches in diameter — you could steam them roots, tops, and all, and serve them that way as whole turnips with just a little butter melted over them.

The purple-top turnips you see in stores at all seasons with their greens cut off have been in cold storage, perhaps for months. Make sure the remnants of their tops look fresh, with no mold or softening. These are best used in cooked dishes, to bolster stews and to thicken soups. Young fall turnips don’t need peeling, but the older ones from storage do.

Probably the most popular way people serve turnips is as an adjunct to mashed potatoes. A good ratio is two parts potatoes to one part turnips, boiled together in lightly salted water, then mashed. Avoid using garlic in this mix. The flavors of garlic and turnips do not make a good match.

Turnips add a special delicate, earthy-sweet note to mixtures of other root crops, such as celery root, rutabagas, carrots, yellow beets, and parsnips. Dice a mixture of these roots and toss with a little olive oil and salt, then roast or sauté until fork tender and slightly browned. They make a perfect bed and delicious accompaniment for braised lamb shanks.

Throughout Asia, turnips are pickled, and colored by the insertion of a bit of red beet into the pickling solution — pickled pink, so to speak. In China, turnips are often roasted, a process that converts starch into caramelized sugars and sweetens the root. The least palatable way to serve turnips is one commonly practiced, which keeps the lovely turnip on the sidelines of culinary favorites; i.e., boiled and served plain. Simply by combining it with ingredients that give it life, turnips can come in out of the cold. Some pleasant combinations can be made with bacon, apples, cheese, mustard, onions, sherry and vinegar.

The turnip was once a winter staple of the yeoman farmer’s table because it could be stored in the root cellar throughout the cold months. The standard way to serve turnips then was to boil them until tender, then mash them up with butter and cream and salt and pepper, and that’s still a tasty and hearty way to serve them.

Keep an eye out for small all-white turnips that look like white radishes. They are icy-sweet and as crisp as radishes, but without the pungent bite. They are excellent served raw but can be used in cooking. As with all turnips, don’t overcook them if they are to be a featured vegetable. Cook until they are just soft but not mushy.

Save your best young turnips to sauté until browned and add to the roasting pan for the last 15-20 minutes of roasting a whole duck.

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Turnips are a member of the cabbage family and substitute nicely for cabbage in this visually interesting and tasty slaw. As with all the members of the cabbage family, they’re packed with nutrients and cancer-fighting compounds.

Coleslaw with Turnips

Makes 6 servings

½ cup mayonnaise

¼ cup rice vinegar

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon fennel seed

3 medium raw turnips, peeled

2 medium raw carrots, peeled

½ small onion

— Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

In a large bowl, mix the mayonnaise with the vinegar, sugar, and fennel seed.

In a food processor, or on a mandoline, or with a hand grater, finely grate the turnips, carrots, and onion.

Transfer the grated vegetables to the mayonnaise bowl and add salt and pepper to taste. Mix to coat.

Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based food and garden writer. Reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net

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