There isn’t much fresh, local produce available in Nebraska the last week of December, so I shopped at my local grocery store for this week’s food adventure. I decided on turnips and rutabagas. The choice also seemed fitting as my oldest daughter’s question about turnips prompted this series of blog posts (see What Is This Vegetable and What Do I Do with It? for more details).
Turnips, Brassica rapa var. rapa L., (or neeps; the word turnip is an old compound of tur- as in turned/rounded on a lathe and neep, derived from Latin napus) are high in vitamin C. For more nutrition information check out this USDA fact sheet. Turnip greens are especially nutrient dense, with a score of 62 out of 100 to turnip’s score of 11 (Source: https://www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2014/13_0390.htm). I am looking forward to trying some turnip greens when they’re available. The turnips and rutabagas available at the market now have been trimmed of their tops and bottoms and coated with wax to prevent dehydration and extend storage life.
Brassica napus var. napobrassica (a cross between Brassica rapa rapa and cabbage) is commonly known as rutabaga or yellow turnip in the United States and as swede (“Swedish turnip”) in Southern England. Brassica rapa rapa, or turnip as it is called in the United States and Southern England, is known as swede in Ireland and Northern England (Source: http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Turnip). Are you confused yet? I tell you all this because some recipes on the internet that call for turnips are actually referring to rutabagas. If the recipe says something like “yellow turnips” they probably mean rutabagas. The two are very similar in taste and texture, but rutabagas are sweeter and less pungent.
I asked my mom why she never cooked turnips for us growing up. She responded that they’re “yucky” and that’s why she wouldn’t eat my grandma’s cooking for a long time. She “couldn’t trust that [grandma] didn’t slip them in.” Ha, ha. Grandma is devious like that.
In researching this negative attitude regarding turnips I learned that my mom is not alone. Turnips and rutabagas contain bitter cyanoglucosides. Sensitivity to the bitterness of these compounds is controlled by a paired gene. If you find these vegetables objectionably bitter, chances are that you have inherited two copies of the “sensitive” gene (Source: Sandell and Breslin. 2006. Variability in a taste-receptor gene determines whether we taste toxins in food. Current Biology. 16 (18): R792-R794. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2006.08.049).
Knowing that, I chose a recipe with salty, sweet, and sour flavors and bacon fat to balance out the bitterness. This recipe allowed me to use both turnips and rutabagas (and honestly, quite a few of their family members depending on what you have available to you). I love recipes that allow flexibility in ingredients because I am anti-food waste and often make a meal with a bit of this and a few of those to clean out the refrigerator.
So here is what I made, adapted from the original that you can find here.
Smashed Turnips and Rutabagas with Bacon Vinaigrette
- 1 ½ pounds turnips, peeled and cubed
- 2 ¾ pounds rutabaga, peeled and cubed
- 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
- 2 tablespoons yellow mustard seeds
- 6.8 ounces thick-cut bacon, diced
- 1 medium yellow onion, diced
- 1 tablespoon packed brown sugar
- Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 350°F. Spray 13 x 9 inch pan with nonstick cooking spray and set aside.
Steam cubed turnip and rutabaga until vegetables are very tender but not mushy, about 45 minutes. (Boiling also works, but as vitamin C is a water soluble vitamin it would be discarded with the water, so steaming is a better choice.) Drain water and return vegetables to the pot. Coarsely smash with a potato masher.
While the vegetables are steaming, soften mustard seeds in ¼ cup of water in an unheated small saucepan for 20 minutes. Add vinegar and simmer until seeds are soft enough to easily break with your teeth (about 10 minutes). Drain, reserving seeds and cooking liquid separately.
In a large skillet cook diced bacon over medium heat until the fat starts to render. Add diced onion, increase heat to medium-high and cook, stirring occasionally, until onion and bacon are browned and crisp.
Add reserved mustard seeds to the bacon-onion mixture and cook until seeds begin to pop (about 1 minute). Remove from heat and stir in brown sugar and reserved mustard seed cooking liquid.
Stir vinaigrette into smashed vegetables and season to taste with salt and pepper. Pour into baking pan and bake for 20 minutes until the top is lightly browned and any remaining moisture has evaporated. Serve warm.
If you like hot German potato salad, this recipe is for you. And its great reheated the next day!
History and Uses
Turnips have been a staple of the human diet since ancient times and were often considered food of “the poorer classes and country folk,” partly because they grow even in poor soil, are so easy and cheap to produce, and have great storage characteristics that they have been used for animal food (Source: The Cambridge World History of Food, 2000). They are also useful as a cover crop and as part of a crop rotation, dating back to Frederick the Great in the 18th century, if not earlier (Source: Tannahill, Food in History, 1973).
For information on using turnips for cattle grazing, check out this information from Bruce Anderson, Extension Forage Specialist with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln:
In the Garden
For tips on growing turnips and rutabagas for human consumption check out these Extension publications. For best results, go by recommendations from a state with similar soils and climate to your own. Harvest when less than five inches in diameter. Their bitterness intensifies the bigger they are and the longer they’re held in storage.
- How to grow turnips and rutabagas – Michigan State University
- Turnips and Rutabagas – NC State University
- Rutabagas and Turnips in the Garden – Utah State University
Do you have a favorite recipe for turnips and/or rutabagas? Share it in the comments.