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Versatile turnips don't deserve bad rap

My friend described a mysterious bulb growing in the middle of her vegetable garden.

“It’s sort of a round thing, with leaves coming out of the top. Big leaves,” she said.

I had an idea of what it might be, and showed her the beets growing in my garden, with their red stems and red-veined, dark green leaves. That wasn’t it.

So I took her to the other garden, and showed her a row of turnips. The bigger ones were just pushing their purple-topped bulbs out of the ground, and their green leaves, lighter than the beet greens, stood a foot-and-a-half high.

“Yup,” my friend said, “I think that’s it.”

She didn’t plant the one that showed up in her garden, but why not enjoy the gift of a turnip?

Poetic protest

We are growing lots of turnips, on purpose, and we’ve started harvesting the young ones. I start every turnip season worried that no one will eat a turnip, remembering the poem my father recites every time he hears the word turnip. He will not eat a turnip — “Only elephants eat turnips,” he says — but he likes to get poetic:

“If a man who turnips cries,
Cry not when his father dies,
’Tis a proof that he had rather
Have a turnip than a father.”

As kids we never had any idea what our dad was talking about, but it turns out he was quoting that poet, scholar and wit, Samuel Johnson, who wrote the first widely used English language dictionary some time in the mid-1700s. I don’t know if Johnson ate turnips himself or, like my father, thought of them as animal feed.

We do not have elephants, but our oxen do like turnips, and we feed them the ones that get too big. They also like the greens, as do the chickens and the bunny, but they have to share with us.

If you are growing turnips, or looking for them in the markets or farm stands, choose bulbs around the size of an apple. Larger ones tend to get woody.

Turnips have a bit of a bite, like radishes, but they mellow and sweeten when cooked. You’ll need to scrub them, and unless they’re really small, peel some of the harder rind off. Then there are a lot of ways to cook them, most of them just like cooking potatoes.

Natural sweetener

Turnips can be thinly sliced and baked with bread crumbs and a cheese sauce, just like potatoes au gratin. They can be grated and mixed with eggs to be made into fritters — just like potato pancakes. In fact, a potato-turnip mix makes a really nice pancake.

Last week I chopped and roasted some turnips, thinking they would get even sweeter as they caramelized, but it really wasn’t worth the trouble, all by themselves. I do like them roasted with a variety of root vegetables: potatoes, onions and carrots. Chop them all into similar sized chunks, toss them in a little oil, salt and herbs, and roast them on a baking sheet at 400 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes, or until fork-tender.

Another day last week, I added some chunked turnips to the chicken I was cooking in a Dutch oven, and they softened and sweetened and tasted really good, according to my kids.

You can boil and mash turnips, and serve them with a little milk and butter, like mashed potatoes. I think that’s my favorite way. You can slice them into thick sticks, roll them in olive oil and bake them in a hot (450) oven, and they come out sort of like oven-roasted french fried potatoes.

Turnips are lighter than potatoes, and more complex in their taste. And they have about a third of both the calories and carbohydrates of potatoes.

You can also eat the turnip greens, and if you’re growing them you should, just because they are so abundant. Turnip greens can be chopped and steamed, and are high in calcium and vitamins A, C and K. They are tangy — we often mix them with other greens, such as kale and spinach to mellow them. You can eat them hot, with oil or butter if you like, or cold with dressing.

And you can serve all the leftover leaves to your bunny or ox — or your elephant.

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