The humble turnip is reaching new culinary heights

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Image by Achim Thiemermann from PixabayImage by Achim Thiemermann from PixabayLearn how to grow this easy cool season vegetable, discover its health benefits, and be inspired by innovative new ways of preparing it.

The humble turnip isn't a regular on most menus, and let’s face it, when was the last time you craved a turnip? In comparison to its cousins, kale, cauliflower, arugula, and cabbage, the turnip has always taken a backseat, but this root vegetable is reaching a new hip status as people discover its wonderful health benefits, and famous chefs create new and innovative ways of preparing this root vegetable.

Traditionally turnips have had a bad rap and in Roman times they were the weapon of choice to hurl at unpopular public figures. In the 15th century, “turnip eater” was the common term for a country bumpkin, and in Charles Dickens’s novels, if you called someone a “turnip,” you meant that he or she was a perfect idiot. And, in what was described as “the miserable turnip winter” of World War I, due to a failed potato harvest and bread shortages, German civilians were reduced to living almost wholly on turnips, a situation which pleased no one.

However, during the 18th century, under the auspices of Charles Viscount Townshend, an English Whig statesman, turnips had their day in the sun. He was often called “Turnip Townshend” because of his strong interest in farming turnips and his role in the British agricultural revolution.

His research promoted the turnip as a key player in a four-field system of crop rotation in which wheat, turnips, barley, and clover were each, in turn, planted annually. The result was a spectacular boom in food production because the fields no longer had to lie fallow. Clover provided a much-needed dose of nitrogen to the soil, and the resilient turnip could be stored over the cold winter months to feed the farm animals, which would normally have been slaughtered because of a lack of fodder. This rotation of crops also increased the availability of milk and meat throughout the year.

Interestingly, a little known fact regarding the turnip root was its use as lanterns. Long before the tradition of Halloween and pumpkin carving came to light, Celtic people in Ireland would hollow out turnips, lighting them with embers to ward off evil spirits.

Turnips and Swede turnips (rutabaga) are closely related root vegetables, commonly known as the mustards, the crucifers, or the cabbage family. Turnips are creamy-coloured, round in shape and occasionally feature a purple top where the root has been exposed to sunlight in its final stages of growth. The rutabaga or swedes came from Sweden, and differ from the turnip in taste and looks, being typically larger and longer, and yellow-orange in colour rather than white. Swedes are frost proof, but turnips are not – so swedes can stay in the garden all winter while turnips must be harvested before extremely cold weather sets in.

Although turnips were a well-established crop by Hellenistic and Roman times, with Pliny the Elder considering turnips to be one of the most important vegetables of his time, there are almost no archaeological records available to help determine its earlier history and domestication. Wild forms of the turnip, and its relatives the mustards and radishes, can be found in west Asia and Europe, suggesting that their domestication took place somewhere in that area.

Turnips are certainly among the oldest and hardiest of vegetables and were cultivated as food for both humans and farm animals, as well as for medicine. Today countries around the world have their own culinary takes on turnips and have made them a mainstay in their cultural meals, and so should you.

Uses:

Rural farmers still sow turnips as a quick maturing fodder crop for cattle.

 Health Benefits:

Turnips are exceptionally high in essential amino acids. They are rich in vitamins A, C, B, B6, E and K and are a powerful eliminator of uric acid. They are low in saturated fat and cholesterol and a good source of protein, riboflavin and dietary fibre. Their high calcium content along with phosphorus, potassium, folic acid, manganese and copper make turnips and their leaves a superb treatment for obesity, skin flabbiness and cellulite.

Modern medical research shows that the turnip is wonderful to help treat TB, gout, arthritis, joint aches, rheumatism, high blood pressure and bladder ailments. Because turnips have easily absorbable iron, they are also used to treat anaemia.

In the Kitchen:

The humble turnip is reaching new culinary heights, so move over potatoes - there's another starchy veggie in town. It’s heartier and more versatile than a radish, and milder tasting than a beet, mild enough to take on the starring role in just about any dish, from quick and easy dinner recipes and simple slow cooker recipes, to more complicated gratins, making turnips very versatile and suitable for all your rustic recipes.

Like many other root vegetables, the flavour of turnip’s shifts slightly when cooked. It’s mildly spicy when raw, turning sweet, nutty, and earthy when cooked. This goes for texture, too - raw turnips have a crisp, starchy flesh, and cooked turnips turn soft and velvety, like another cold-weather favourite, parsnips.

Use turnips as you would most root vegetables, like sweet potatoes or beets. Baked, boiled, mashed, steamed or roasted, turnips taste great. Roasting mellows the flavour beautifully and concentrates their texture into a tender, melting vegetable, which is great served alone or together with other roasted vegetables, alongside roasted meats, or with a simple roasted chicken.

They're delicious sautéed or steamed as a side dish with garlic, onion, olive oil and lemon, or as an addition to soups, stews and pasta. Their tasty roots are essential in traditional vegetable soups, and you can blend cooked turnips with leeks and chicken broth for a silky smooth soup. Mashed together with potatoes is another creative and satisfying way to make comfort food for the cold winter months.

Try making delicious turnip ‘fries’ by cutting the vegetable into strips and baking them until crisp. The leaves can even be eaten like spinach, or added to stir-fries. Raw, grated turnip is also wonderful added to salads, so next time you make coleslaw, be adventurous and use young, finely shredded turnips instead of cabbage. If you can find hakurei turnips, a small Japanese variety, grab them! They’re mild and sweet, and you can leave their tender skins on.

The decision to peel or not peel your turnips is totally up to you. However, it’s recommended to remove the skin of larger bulbs to avoid a sharp aftertaste when you eat them. If you decide to peel the turnips, use a vegetable peeler, just as you would with a potato.

To pick the perfect turnip from the garden, keep in mind that bigger is bitter, not better. Look for smaller bulbs that are about the size of a tennis ball and have a vibrant purple bottom. If you are purchasing them at the grocery store or market, look for turnips that are firm and unblemished, and if possible, with their leaves still attached.

Plant turnips around the base of climbing sweetpeasPlant turnips around the base of climbing sweetpeasCompanion Planting:

Turnips are great companions for many vegetables helping them grow even better. The Permaculture Research Institute describes companion planting as “A gardening method which makes use of the synergistic properties found in nature: cooperation between plants to achieve optimum health and viability.”

Not only does companion planting attract beneficial pollinators to the vegetable or fruit garden, it also stabilises the soil and enhances it with essential nutrients. Companion planting will create a diversity of growth, which in turn helps to repel crop-destroying insect pests in the homestead garden, and thereby reducing the need for chemical based herbicides and pesticides.

Turnips are terrific companions because they are natural aphid repellents, protecting a wide variety of garden crops that are vulnerable to aphid invasion. Squash, tomatoes, celery, cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, beans, onions, garlic, lettuce, Swiss chard, spinach, cauliflower, and radishes all flourish when planted interspersed with turnips.

Turnips are also ‘best buddies’ with nitrogen-fixing peas, and are perfect planted around the base of supports or trellises for sweet peas and pole beans.

To keep rabbits, deer, rodents, and insects from nibbling on tender turnip leaves, plant turnips near strongly scented herbs such as rosemary, basil, thyme, borage, hyssop, lavender, and all varieties of mint.

Please remember that companion planting does not mean that your crops will never succumb to insect attacks, rather think of it as a method that helps to prevent insect attacks, rather than one which totally eliminates them. There will be times when you will have to spray to save your crops, so ensure that you have organic sprays on hand, and remember that even organic sprays can kill beneficial garden insects, so if you do need to spray, follow the instructions carefully and spray only those areas which require spraying, not the entire vegetable patch.

Cultivation:

Turnips are best grown as a cool season crop and traditionally they are sown at a time when the main growing period will experience cool weather. The growth period from when the turnip seeds are planted to root bulb harvest is between ten and twelve weeks, so for harvesting during early spring in South Africa, sowing should be in March and early April so that the plants can strengthen before the winter cold sets in and the first frosts arrive. Turnips are hardy to moderate frost and many say that their flavour improves with colder weather, so experiment in your region to find the best sowing times. In regions which experience severe frost, straw can be used as a mulch to protect the roots from freezing. In the subtropical regions of the country turnips are grown during the winter months (February to June) and in cooler summer regions plantings can also be done in August and September, but crops should be harvested before the excessive summer heat, as this will spoil the turnips.

Seeds are easy to sow directly into garden beds, or they can be raised in seedling trays and transplanted. To prevent misshapen or stunted crops, dig the beds over thoroughly, breaking down all hard clumps of soil, and removing all stones. Dig compost into the bed and add a dressing of organic 2:3:2. Turnips are adaptable to most soils, but the ideal soil pH is 6.5.

Turnips like a firm seedbed, so firm down the soil gently before sowing. Make shallow furrows about 1cm deep and about 25 to 30cm apart. Sow the seed as thinly as possible, cover with soil and water gently. Turnips will germinate within 3 to 10 days and need to be thinned out after about 2 weeks. Thin them out so that there is about 10cm between the plants. A second thinning can be done 2 or 3 weeks later if necessary. Use the thinning’s to add to fresh salads.

Water your plants regularly as any sudden lack of water will spoil the texture of the roots. If the soil was correctly prepared turnips should not require any additional feeding, but in the initial stages of growth, a light dressing with an organic fertiliser that is high in nitrogen would be beneficial.

Weeds are detrimental to turnip crops, so weed regularly by hand.

Harvesting:

Turnip leaves can be harvested from six to eight weeks, as long as the plant is strong enough and the roots are developing well. Remove only the outer leaves so that there is enough foliage left to keep the plant growing and the roots developing.

The roots can be harvested about 10 and 12 weeks after sowing, when they are about the size of a tennis ball. And, as the roots naturally push out of the soil it is easy to see how big they are. Do not heap the soil up against the roots as they mature, and do not leave turnips in the ground for too long or they will become coarse and stringy.

For successive plantings sow every 3 to 4 weeks. Turnips are a good rotation crop to grow after heavy feeders like tomatoes.

Pests & Diseases:

Caterpillars, especially the white cabbage moth caterpillar eat holes into the leaves. Pick them off by hand or spray with an organic insecticide for chewing insects. Flea beetles feed on turnip leaves causing a loss of leaves for photosynthesis. Although turnips are known to repel aphids, they can sometimes be attacked when conditions are favourable and if turnips are grown in single, large beds. Aphids can easily be controlled with organic sprays. Poor quality roots with brown marks and cracks indicate a boron deficiency that is usually caused by extremely alkaline or newly limed soils.

Caution:

Always consult your physician before starting a home treatment programme, especially for serious ailments.