Pop quiz! How many of the vegetables below can you identify?
Okay, okay, number 17 is a carrot—but even he doesn't look familiar in the Bugs Bunny sort of way.
It's the time of year when us fair-weather farmers-market-goers rake our cheeks, beat our chests, and whine, "There is nothing—nothing!—at the market." (Or, in Sam Sifton's less dramatic words, "Farmers’ markets are bare in many precincts.")
But on a recent Saturday in New York, I found the market not "bare" but, rather... otherworldly? Unfamiliar? Full of vegetables with... scraggly beards? At the Evolutionary Organics stand, I leaned over every crate of whiskery, lumpen roots and tubers and whispered, "What are you?" And then, "Can I eat you?"
"The answer is yes," the vegetables told me. "You just have to know how."
Here are the answers to the quiz above (you're dying to know, right?), followed by a few generally important principles to cook by and a list of ways to put those gnarly roots—some of the least traditionally "beautiful" at the market—to great use.
- Scarlet Turnip
- Tae Bok Radish
- Gold Ball Turnip
- Green Meat Radish
- Hakurei Turnip
- Fat Italian Turnip
- Watermelon Radish
- Gold Ball Turnip
- American Purple-Topped Turnip
- Black Spanish Radishes
- Milan Turnip
- American Purple-Topped Turnip
- Chioggia Beet
- Purple Daikon Radish
- Celery Root (a.k.a. Celeriac)
To Get Started
- The process of cooking vegetables mellows and sweetens them: Think raw radish quarters versus roasted radishes. So if you're not a fan of bitter turnips, radishes, or rutabagas, roast them or boil them. And to pacify them even more, mash or purée them with butter, cream, and/or olive oil.
- But thinly sliced (and softened with something acidic—like citrus juice or any sort of vinegar), any of these can be eaten (and enjoyed!) raw.
- While the pungency and flavor will differ among all of these vegetable types (and every individual), you can experiment interchanging them (within reason: mashed radishes will probably not work, nor will celeriac cake?)...
- ..but consider balance: If you're using an aggressive turnip, add in a mild carrot or parsnip to tip the scale back towards center.
- Choose accompanying flavors that are bright and salty (lemon, harissa, herbs, anchovies, capers) in order to raise them out of the earthy funk, or that are mild and mellow (potatoes, carrots, cooked onion, milky dairy) to tame the bitterness.
- When in doubt... 1) Slice a thin sliver, and taste it raw. 2) If that doesn't suit you, chop and roast. 3) And if you're still not satisfied, mash it or turn it into soup.
To Dive Into the Details
Poor, maligned turnip. All too often, writes Deborah Madison in Vegetable Literacy, it's "regarded as a lowly root, fit only for livestock."
But they can be crisp, milky, and mild-tasting, with a pleasant funk. Give them a chance!
The large turnips you'll find at the market this time of year—sold without their greens and banded with purple—are storage turnips, likely harvested in the late fall. They should be peeled and blanched quickly in salted water before being sliced or cut for gratins, stews, or soups. "These are not the turnips you'd proudly serve raw," says Madison bluntly, "but they're not bad to munch on in their uncooked state either." Pride, be damned!
But soon, the young, relatively sweet spring turnips will arrive, with their bright greens. Madison recommends Japanese "salad" turnips (number 5 in the image above), in particular, as "their gleaming [gleaming!] white roots needn't be peeled, and the greens, which are tender and free of prickles, cook quickly."
Golden turnips (3 and 9) are also "fine-grained and sweet," writes Madison, as are scarlet turnips (1, 10, 16). Shave them with a mandolin, then layer them, raw, into salads, or use them as mini scoopers for chicken or potato salad.
- Shave young Hakurei turnips with a mandolin, then top with sprouts, toasted nuts and seeds, olive oil, lemon juice, and salt.
- Roast them.
- Pickle them with beets, cauliflower, carrots, and garlic cloves. Add gently-crushed fennel seeds, ground turmeric, and fresh thyme.
- Incorporate them into a risotto. Dice the turnips, sauté them in butter, then add the rice and proceed with the recipe. Stir in the cleaned, finely chopped turnip greens at the end.
- Sauté chunks of peeled turnips in butter over medium heat until starting to brown. When they're nearly finished cooking, Madison adds mirin, miso, and more butter towards the end of cooking, then garnishes with scallions and toasted black sesame seeds.
- Simmer turnips in stock (vegetable, chicken, dashi, mushroom, Parmesan!), then purée into a creamy soup.
- Peel them into long strips with a vegetable peeler (or, for whimsy, use a spiralizer!), then dress with an a garlic-anchovy-parsley-lemon mash and wait for 15 minutes, or until the turnip noodles (er, toodles?) slump.
- They'll also hold their shape and firmness in long-simmered stews, thereby playing counterpart to mushier carrots or sweet potatoes.
- Tuck thin slices into a gratin with other roots and tubers.
- Or try something more adventurous from Jennifer McLagan's Bitter: Cover thin half-moons of turnip in heavy cream, wrap the bowl, and refrigerate it overnight. The next day, siphon off the cream, add salt, and whip to soft peaks. Fold in the turnips along with chopped chives and black pepper.
- Process roughly chopped turnips and their greens with breadcrumbs, herbs, and cooked rice. Then fry or bake into veggie burgers. (If you're using strongly-flavored turnips, mellow them with a grated carrot or two.)
- Don't forget about turnips when the weather turns warm and the fine young things show up at the market: McLagan advises that "gentle bitterness" of turnips makes them "a natural match for sweet spring vegetables like peas, carrots, and new potatoes."
- Save those greens, too.
Is it a rutabaga, or is it a turnip? Ah, the eternal question. Some know-how, courtesy of NC State, for distinguishing the sometimes-dopplergängers:
The roots of turnips generally have little or no neck and a distinct taproot, while rutabaga roots are often more elongated and have a thick, leafy neck and roots originating from the underside of the edible root as well as from the taproot.
Also known as "swedes," rutabagas (15 in the photograph above) are new kids in the world of vegetables, bred as a cross between a cabbage and a turnip just a few centuries ago. Most people find them sweeter and milder than turnips, though McLagan of Bitter disagrees ("In my taste universe, they are much stronger flavored") and recommends seeking out the smaller specimens—and adding lots of butter (and a bit of sweetness) to keep their bitterness at bay.
What's good for a turnip (see ideas above!) is good for a rutabaga, but rutabagas have drier flesh and need to be cooked for longer. If you're swapping in rutabagas for turnips, you'll need to allow for extra cooking time. And if both are used in the same recipe, Deborah Madison in The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone recommends giving them a head start by boiling them for 10 minutes. (And, in Vegetable Literacy, she declares: "Treated lavishly and respectfully, rutabagas are a fine winter vegetable.")
- Mash with potatoes for the traditional Scottish side dish clapshot.
- Chop them small, then roast them in a hot (425° F) with a generous amount of olive oil, salt, and pepper. Add a dash of cinnamon, too. They'll be sweet as candy (almost). Eat with your fingers, or mix into a grain salad.
- Julienne them, then cook alongside julienned broccoli, turnips, and carrots. "They retain their color and suggest sunshine and spring even in the dead of winter," writes Madison.
- Chop into 1/2-inch cubes, then par-boil until just tender. Drain, then sauté in hot oil until golden. Shower with herbs (chives, tarragon, and parsley are all good contenders), then sprinkle with salty cheese (like feta).
- Par-boil rutabaga chunks until tender, then process with warm milk and butter, sautéed shallots or red onion, and, optionally, applesauce.
- Cook slices in diluted wine and white wine vinegar with black peppercorns, herbs, bay leaves, chile flakes, or other seasonings until tender. Allow to cool in the liquid, then top with salsa verde, romesco, or herby compound butter.
- Peel, chop, and boil till tender. Mash or purée with butter, salt, and a drizzle of honey.
- Turn grated rutabaga and potato into crispy fritters.
- Cook grated or finely chopped rutabaga in butter on the stovetop, then pour beaten eggs over top and sprinkle with herbs and cheese. Cook, undisturbed, until the eggs are set. Finish with more grated cheese.
A "splendid vegetable" according to Deborah Madison, celeriac is a type of celery grown for its developed root rather than its stalks and leaves. Despite the dirty, knobby appearance, the flavor is fresh, though "softer and deeper than that of a head of celery" and less sweet than that of carrots and parsnips, says Madison.
Make it good!
- Cut into cubes, then boil alongside potato and apple chunks until tender. Use a food mill or food processor to purée it into a smooth mash, adding hot cream and butter for a silky, lush consistency.
- For an even lusher purée, cover chunks with milk, bring to a boil, then add rice (really!). Cover the pot and simmer over low heat for 20 minutes. Drain the mixture (but save the liquid), then pulverize in the food processor, thinning with the reserved liquid as necessary. This works with turnips, too.
- Make céleri rémoulade, a French salad of grated celery root dressed with mayonnaise, mustard, lemon juice, salt, and pepper.
- Sauté medium-dice apples, onions, and celery root in olive oil until golden-brown. Add water and aromatics (like tarragon sprigs, bay leaves, and thyme) and simmer until the celery root is very soft. Then transfer the soup to a blender and whir until silky-smooth.
- Swap out half the potato in rösti with grated celeriac (and then have fun seeing if anyone notices the difference).
- Add chunks to a slow-cooking braise (sear them before you add the meat and liquid to get more color and flavor on the vegetables).
- Slice into matchsticks, then add to a slaw or a salad (for a bit of trickery, matchstick some apples, too).
- Shave into thin circles on a mandolin, then layer into a gratin dish with Gruyère. Pour cream over top, then cover and bake until the celeriac is soft. Shower with Parmesan, then send under the broiler until bubbly. Top with chopped toasted walnuts, parsley, and lemon zest.
And you might already know what to do with the following vegetables, so consider these next sections refreshers.
And a fun piece of miscellany before we go...
What's the gnarliest root or tuber or other creature you've pulled up at the market or supermarket? And what did you do with it? Tell us in the comments!