Dining with Dara: Turnips are trendy again

Turnips
Turnips being sold at a farmers market.
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The lowy turnip has turned trendy, turning up on high-end menus and embraced by celebrity chefs. The root vegtable that is a sturdy part of so many northern cultures is now in the spotlight. Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl from Minnesota Monthly talks with MPR's Tom Crann about turnips.

Tom Crann: They've been out of fashion for a generation. It's hard to believe the new hot vegetable of the season is actually turnips?

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl: Yes, turnips. The once-humble root is now on elite restaurant menus throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul. At one of the best new restaurants of the last few years, the tiny plate-focused Piccolo in south Minneapolis, chef Doug Flicker, (the darling of Anthony Bourdain and soon to be featured on an Andrew Zimmern television show about Minnesota dining,) has miso glazed them, and paired them with Spanish mackerel.

Turnips are also on the menu at La Belle Vie, in a dish of grilled lamb rib eye with blood pudding yellow turnip. And at Cosmos, they've been paired with rabbit and green garlic risotto.

Crann: Why do you think turnips are back?

Moskowitz Grumdahl: It's the locavore movement. Remember how about a decade ago beets started appearing everywhere, paired with chevre or in a citrus vinaigrette? And now everyone loves them? Well now it's turnips' turn.

"Turnips are a love-hate vegetable," said chef Doug Flicker. "For some people, they're the kiss of death for a dish -- they don't sound sexy. But I always like them, they remind me of my childhood. My mom would always make boiled ham in the fall with turnips and rutabaga. We've done sweet-and-sour refrigerator pickles with them, and played around with turnip kim-chi."

I asked Flicker how most diners react to turnips brought into the 21st century, as on his avant-garde menu.

"I'd say they're mystified," he answered. "When you get into vegetables that are unfamiliar, people are always a little wary. And then they become amazed that it can taste sweet. Ultimately you get the reaction of 'That's a turnip? Or, that's not the turnip I remember.'"

Crann: But you're not talking about the traditional turnip, the big white one with the purplish top?

Moskowitz Grumdahl: No, specialty turnips are where the big growth is -- little white Japanese turnips which look like ivory eggs; yellow turnips; and "sweet scarlet" turnips, which have a beet-red center core running through bright white flesh.

Richard de Wilde runs Harmony Valley, an organic farm near Viroqua, Wisconsin, which might have the largest acreage of specialty turnip plantings around here -- some six acres. He supplies local co-ops, restaurants, and a CSA that delivers boxes featuring specialty turnips all the way through the second week in January.

"The purple-top turnip is the skankiest of the bunch," de Wilde told me. "We only grow them because people know them."

Here's how de Wilde describes these other specialty turnips.

•The scarlet turnip is cleaner, and has a sweeter flavor.

•The gold turnip takes a week or two longer to grow. As a rule, things that are slower growing tend to be firmer, so the gold turnips hold up better in soups and stews.

•The Japanese turnip has a thinner skin. It's called a salad turnip, because they can be used raw in a salad. They're not a storage turnip. In the fall they're particularly mild and sweet, but if it gets warm they can get a radishy bitterness.

"At the farmers' markets, two kinds of customers want turnips," de Wilde said. "The younger generation, and the older generation. The younger generation is being introduced to turnips in their desire to eat local and seasonal, and they're adventuresome. The older generation just has a lifetime of experience with them. But turnips were good basic dependable foods, especially for colder climates, and they should come back in popularity."

Intrigued? Doug Flicker from Piccolo was generous enough to part with this turnip recipe.

Miso-Glazed Baby Turnips:

•Get a bunch of turnips, preferably small ones, with a green top. (If the green top is fresh you know the turnips are fresh. The turnip greens can be sauteed with garlic in olive oil, and eaten as you might eat chard or kale.)

•Trim the greens off the turnips, leaving a fraction of an inch of the green stem on top (for color, and it is edible.) Trim away any long tiny roots.

•Parboil the turnips by cooking them in boiling, salted water for approximately 4-5 minutes. Transfer the turnips immediately to ice water. •Peel the turnips; once par-boiled the skins should slide easily off in your fingers. You can also rub the skins off using a clean kitchen towel.

•The turnips you use should be small -- no larger than a 50-cent piece. If they are larger than that, cut them into quarters or eighths until they are bite sized.

•In a skillet, place about a half cup of water, 1 teaspoon of sugar, and 2 tablespoons of miso paste. Any miso paste of the paler sort will do. Warm the pan, and stir until the miso and sugar are dissolved in the water.

•Add turnips to pan and braise -- that is, let the sauce reduce. Periodically spoon the sauce over the turnips, and shift and turn them in the pan. The liquid should turn a darker color and thicken, until at the end you have shiny, lacquered-looking turnips with a sharper saltiness and sweetness on the outside, and a bit of crunch from the turnip.

•Serve with roast fish, or with a nutty grain like barley or bulgur wheat.

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