Unglamorous vegetables: turnips

Unglamorous vegetables: turnips

by Anna Tobias 11 February 2019

Anna Tobias turns her attention to the turnip – a versatile root vegetable that's great at soaking up other flavours whilst imparting its own pleasing bitterness to dishes. Take a look at why she loves them and her three recipes that celebrate turnips in all their glory.

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Previously guest head chef at East London favourite P. Franco, Anna Tobias has built a career on simple but effective cookery.

Previously guest head chef at East London favourite P. Franco, Anna Tobias has built a career on simple but effective cookery.

Turnips are a funny one. On the one hand, they can be very trendy and often appear on modern restaurant menus in various formats: fermented, pickled or floating delicately in a broth. On the other hand, they can be completely written off as an old-fashioned vegetable, often grey, soggy and devoid of flavour. Or worse still, a vegetable only really suitable to feed to livestock. This sketchy reputation is perhaps the reason why turnips are still very cheap – a happy bonus!

I suppose what many restaurants have cottoned onto is that turnips are delicious and versatile. I’d like to turn people’s attention to this fact. Turnips have quite a singular flavour – both bitter and sweet at the same time, having the ability to absorb other rich flavours on the plate and simultaneously cut through them. Turnip leaves are sadly not often left attached to the turnips in supermarkets but if you’re able to get hold of some, they have a deep green and bitter flavour.

Although turnips are having some success at getting onto restaurant menus, they are often still very much components of a recipe as opposed to being centre-stage. I’ve chosen three recipes that cast turnips as the lead role and also highlight how differently they can be used.

Quick-pickled turnips

This recipe is a complete doddle! The pickled turnips make for a fantastic canapé or nibble before a meal. As the turnips are left raw, their peppery character really comes to the fore. These pickles are great, as they can be left in the fridge for weeks and still taste delicious. If eaten relatively soon after they’re first made, the turnips will remain crunchy and punchy. After a while, they will take on a juicier texture and absorb more of the pickling liquor's flavour.

Turnip and anchovy gratin

This is a very decadent and unctuous recipe. The turnip acts as a sponge to the anchovy-infused cream but also keeps its character, adding its bitter edge to proceedings. This recipe would go particularly well with red meat as a side dish, or else would be a delicious meal on its own served with a peppery watercress salad.

Turnip and clam orecchiette

Clams work so well with bitter flavours so this is an excellent marriage. The combination of salty clams, bitter turnips and a little kick of chilli is very moreish. This recipe is best if you can find turnips that still have their leaves. Asian supermarkets often sell Tokyo turnips, which would work well here. This recipe requires a little bit of fiddly work but is absolutely worth the effort!