Sunday, November 13, 2011

Turnips

Turnips are ridiculously under-appreciated.  They are the easiest vegetable to grow.  They are marvelously delicious.  They produce anti-cancer compounds and their nutritional profile is similar to broccoli even though they look more like potatoes.  Their greens are the richest-tasting greens of all cooking greens.  To top it all off, they are in my favorite vegetable genus, Brassica.

The picture below is of an enormous purple turnip at the Chicago Botanic Garden, a fabulous botanic garden with an extensive fall vegetable section.  This turnip is pure white on the inside (I assume - I didn't cut it open), and it should also be white below the soil.  Sunlight causes the root epidermal cells to become pigmented in this variety of turnip.  The pigment seen here is an anthocyanin, but some turnips have a green suntan from chlorophyll production. 
A gigantic turnip!
The turnip in the portrait above, since it's very large and pigmented, is likely to have some zip to its flavor, much like a radish.  The greens will be piquant as well, like mustard greens.  The root would be delicious cooked in a stew with other vegetables, and the greens could be tamed by throwing out the first round of steaming or boiling water if necessary. 

My favorite turnips are Hakurei turnips, which are pure white regardless of sun exposure, smaller, and not hot.  They are sweet and fruity and even the greens can be eaten raw.  You can find them at farmers' markets in the fall and spring.  Their texture is divine when cooked - smooth and silky, and I like them sauteed or cooked into soups.  It's absurd to think of eating turnips without the greens in my book, so I always get the roots cooking while I prep the greens.  Then I cook the greens with the roots for the last few minutes for a great combination of flavors and textures.  YUM.
Turnip and greens, Brassica rapa.
 To grow turnips, just sow a thick line of seeds and cover them with a little soil.  As the turnips grow, you can thin the young plants by collecting some greens before the roots start to fill out.  In just a few weeks the turnip roots will grow and you can harvest them as you need them for several weeks.
Turnips and butterhead lettuce.
Turnips are members of the genus Brassica, which is a group of unassuming weedy-looking plants with fast growth rates and fantastic variation in growth forms.  Each brassica species modifies a different plant part to store energy, usually in response to humans breeding the plants to make agricultural varieties.  Turnips store energy in their roots (as do rutabagas), and the rest of the plant looks pretty normal.  Other brassicas put lots of energy into leaves (cabbage and kale), leaf stems (bok choi, seen below), flower buds and stems (broccoli and cauliflower), leaf buds (Brussels sprouts, seen below), stems (kohlrabi), and seeds (canola, mustard).  It's fascinating to me that these plants are so closely related with such striking similarities in leaf and flower structures but with such vast differences in other plant parts.

Brussels sprouts, Brassica oleracea var. gemmifera.

Bok choi, Brassica chinensis.
Brassicas generally are quite nutritious and low in calories.  Consuming these vegetables regularly appears to have a protective effect against many cancers, though the mechanism is not well understood.  For optimal amounts of the cancer-fighting compounds, eat these vegetables raw or lightly steamed, not cooked into oblivion.  Some brassicas contain bitter compounds detectable by a subset of the human population.  These people can't enjoy the wonderful flavors of brassicas because they find them to be too bitter.  Also, children are better at tasting bitter compounds than adults, which explains why they more commonly dislike vegetables. 

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