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Cooking | THE CALIFORNIA COOK

Humble roots, striking flavors

Often combined with other vegetables in soups and stews, turnips can stand alone too. Just give 'em a chance.

January 04, 2006|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

EVEN at this time of year, when the produce aisles are not exactly crammed with color and variety, the turnip is easy to overlook. At first glance, it seems so plain it's easy to hurry past without a second notice. But pause a moment and take a closer look. There's a hidden side to this root vegetable. Even turnips can be beautiful.

We usually think of them in supporting roles -- cut up with other root vegetables to give sweetness and complexity to winter broths and braises. It seems impossible to contemplate lamb stew or pot-au-feu without them.

But despite its homely appearance, the turnip can take star turns too.

Cook turnips until you can mash them with a fork, then puree them in a food processor with a little cream. (Don't worry: They don't have the starch that makes potatoes go gluey.) When they're gossamer-smooth, beat in a couple tablespoons of butter and maybe a shaving of nutmeg to highlight the combination of sweetness and minerality. How's that sound with a crusty, well-browned roast pork?

Add broth instead of (or in addition to) the cream and you get a silken vegetable soup. If you want a surprise (and you're still feeling flush after the holidays), add a grace note of white truffle oil -- just enough to reinforce that earthy perfume.

Or get small turnips, the all-white ones that you find in Japanese or farmers markets. Though they are sometimes labeled "baby" because of their golf-ball size, almost all of these are fully mature members of the Tokyo family of turnips and its offshoots.

Cut those in quarters and briefly braise them with butter and minced shallots until they are just beginning to lose their crispness. Add some nutty sherry vinegar and let that cook down to a glaze. Finish it with chopped walnuts. The vinegar gives a sharpness that balances the turnip's caramelized sweetness, and the walnuts add a crunch. This is amazing served with broiled rex sole.

Unlike the trimmed turnips you find in most groceries, these Japanese turnips (sometimes labeled kabu) are sold with their greens attached. These leaves give a good indication as to freshness (they will wilt long before the root begins to show any age), and you can chop them and add them to braised turnips.

Or you can save the tops and use them by themselves. They have a somewhat softer texture than most mustard greens and are only slightly pungent. They make a flavorful pot herb to add to soups -- or use them in pastas, sauteed with crumbled Italian sausage or slivered prosciutto.

As with other root vegetables, roasting brings out the caramelized sweetness in turnips. Slice them thickly or quarter them and coat them lightly with butter or oil. Spread them on a baking sheet and roast at 400 degrees until they're golden and tender, between 40 and 60 minutes. Turn them only a couple of times to brown them best.

You can also bake turnips in cream (if that idea doesn't make you hungry, perhaps nothing ever will). Slice them or shred them into a buttered gratin dish and bathe them with just enough whipping cream to keep them moist. Add other flavorings if you wish. Maybe some bacon and shallots? How about shredded Gruyere on top? Or simple buttered breadcrumbs?

You can do this same thing combining turnips and potatoes. The two have a natural affinity. Mash a turnip along with potatoes and see how it enlivens the puree. By the same token, you can turn turnips into neat shapes and roast them alongside new potatoes. Keep an eye on them -- turnips are so high in sugar they may scorch.

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A crisp alternative

ALL of those dishes show off turnips' soft side to one degree or another. But they are also good crisp. Grate them raw for a slaw. The texture is like jicama, and so is the flavor, a little sweet but with a mustard backbite that lets you know it is turnip.

Crisp turnip pickles are as standard in the Middle East as dill pickles are in Brooklyn. Called torshi, they are usually cut fairly thick and tinted a blushing purple by the addition of beet juice.

These are good, but you can make them more interesting by cutting them thin and flavoring them with a slightly spicy blend of mustard and coriander seed, black peppercorns, crushed red chile and bay leaf. These quick pickles only need to stand for a couple of hours to be ready to use. Serve them as a crisp, tart counterpoint to meat that is a little fatty, such as medium-rare duck breast or a nice juicy pork chop.

Because turnips are so often overlooked by shoppers, you have to use a little more care in selecting them than with most other vegetables. Turnips and other root vegetables keep for a long time -- months even -- but still they have their limits.

If you can find turnips with tops still attached, these are by all means the best choice. The leaves should be firm and slightly crisp, not at all wilted.

If all you have to choose from is topped turnips, select ones that are not wrinkled or spongy; good turnips will be rock hard.

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