Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

ASPARAGUS TIPS: Tenacious Turnips a Boon in Lean Times

The current problems with the economy and the government have encouraged some of my friends to think about days gone by when foodstuffs were in short supply.

My mind goes back to descriptions of the standard fare for the wretched medieval peasants: boiled root vegetables. I also think of wholesome stews with chunks of the much-vilified turnip providing a difficult surprise for young palates. I'm sure that when Sir Winston Churchill said of Stanley Baldwin, "the candle in that great turnip has gone out," he was not using the turnip as a positive metaphor.

Now I see the humble turnip in a more kindly light. Many nations have made good use of this hardy, biennial herb, of the mustard family. The French cook them with their customary flair, pureeing them with a little mashed potato to prepare Freneuse. The Japanese pickle them and use them in soups and many other dishes. The Estonians bake them, fry them, mash them with potatoes and use them in a delicious soup with salted pork, barley groats, onions and potatoes, served with sour cream and chopped herbs.

The turnip is classified as Brassic rapa, while its cousin the swede or rutabaga is Brassica napus. In Russian, the turnip is repa, while the Scots call swedes "neeps." Bashed neeps is the classic accompaniment to the Scots' haggis, a traditional dish made with organ meats.

Turnips are most palatable when gathered young. Like many other root vegetables, turnips have high concentrations of sugar and are rich in vitamin C.

Though generally a winter vegetable, baby turnips are available at some markets at the moment. Rutabagas or swedes are not easy to find. They have yellow flesh, are firmer and less watery and grow to a much larger size than the common turnip.

Look for firm, smooth, small- to medium-sized turnips with few fibrous root ends. The tops should be fresh and green. Refrigerated turnips (without tops) keep for long periods; the tops should be used as soon as possible.

I can't help with the haggis, but here is a traditional method for preparing the Scots' bashed neeps.

Peel and cut into chunks 675 grams of swedes (or turnips) and boil in salted water until tender. Drain and mash with a potato masher. Beat in 30 grams to 55 grams of butter, and add salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste. Sugar may also be added to taste.

My favorite method of preparing baby turnips is to glaze them. I remove all but a few centimeters of the tops. The green looks good when they're presented on the plate. Then I lightly peel them, again leaving a little of the skin near the tops if it is nicely colored. I then place them in a single layer, tops up, in a small saucepan. I just cover the turnips with water, add a generous knob of butter, sprinkle the lot with sugar and a pinch of salt. Simmer over a gentle heat until tender. Remove the turnips, reduce the cooking liquid to a glaze, then return the turnips and toss through the glaze. Served with duck, chicken or steak, they're a super vegetable.

During World War II, the British Ministry of Food provided this recipe for Turnip Top Salad. Grate or shred equal weights of turnip tops and white cabbage heart and arrange on a large dish with half the weight of grated raw beetroot and grated raw carrots. Sprinkle with salad dressing made with vinegar, a little mustard pepper and salt and white sauce (flour and milk), decorate with watercress and serve.