If ever there were an unsung vegetable, the turnip would be it. Mere mention of the turnip makes most adults wrinkle their noses. Few children have even heard of it because so many parents won’t have it in the house. It has long been dismissed as a poor man’s food, fit for ploughmen and sharecroppers, suitable for their oxen and swine but not good enough for diners with a refined palate.
Plutarch tells a story, perhaps untrue, of the celebrated Roman military hero Manius Curius Dentatus, who was approached by a delegation of Samnites between one of his many battles. The Samnites arrived at his home bearing gifts of gold and silver, hoping to buy Dentatus’s loyalty against the Romans. They found him cooking turnips in the embers on his hearth, and when he refused their offers they knew it was pointless to press him. A man satisfied with a meal of turnips had no need of their riches. The Late–Baroque era Italian painter Jacopo Amigoni depicted the scene in a canvas that now hangs in the Museum Bradeus in The Hague. The story is said to illustrate the general’s frugal and incorruptible nature. What if instead it underscores the true value of the turnip? Why else would a man as great as Dentatus prize it above a chest of precious metals?
The turnip, Brassica rapa var. rapa, belongs to the Mustard family (also known as the Brassicas or Crucifers) along with other similarly-snubbed vegetables like cabbages and Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and broccoli. Although the origins of these domesticated crops have eluded scholars, most believe they are native to Asia or Europe. The whole lot has been categorically dismissed as ill-suited for those with a delicate digestion. The seventeenth-century English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper deemed them as windy a food as could be eaten, unless you ate bagpipes or bellows. (Broccoli might once have aspired to a loftier place in the vegetal hierarchy, served from copper saucepans with hollandaise sauce, but it got its comeuppance when President George H.W. Bush banned it from the White House table.) The brassicas are rich in fiber and complex carbohydrates, and some people do find them easier to digest than others, although the distinction has nothing to do with social class. Rather, it tends to be a matter of familiarity; once a body becomes accustomed to the brassicas it usually digests them readily.
Adding further insult, the turnips and other brassicas contain sulfur compounds that break down when boiled and release hydrogen sulfide into the air, the same gas that gives rotten eggs their characteristic odor. The older the turnip and the longer you cook it, the smellier it becomes. I think it is this last point that has ruined so many people’s appetite for the vegetable. During their youth they were traumatized by a surfeit of smelly old turnips, boiled mercilessly English boarding-house style, and they’ve never managed to recover.
Young turnips given a light touch are another story. My grandmother grew turnips in her garden and I ate them willingly as a child. My mother sliced them up raw and added them to crudité platters when she and my father entertained. They are stark white, crisp and mild with a pleasant peppery note, and I used to sneak them from the tray before the guests arrived. My mother also slipped turnips into her beef stew, where they soaked up the flavors of the simmering meat and added an earthy essence of their own. Or she tossed them with olive oil and rosemary and roasted them in a hot oven with potatoes, carrots, onions — any root vegetable she could find in the pantry — to make one of our family’s favorite winter side dishes. Years later I cooked in a restaurant in Vermont where we served sautéed turnips glazed with maple syrup alongside roast duck breast, giving a New England imprint to the classic French canard au navets. One night a customer ordered the dish but asked if he could please substitute potatoes or rice — anything, for that matter — for the turnips? I must have been feeling churlish that evening, because I refused and sent the plate out with its rightful turnips. The server reported back a few minutes later with compliments. I had made a convert out of that diner. To his astonishment, but not mine, he found he actually enjoyed eating his turnips.
During an autumn visit with my relatives in the Piedmont region of Italy a few years back, I discovered hidden virtues and a trove of folklore surrounding the turnip that made me appreciate it even more. My mother’s cousin, whom everyone called Zia Giuseppina whether she was their aunt or not, served them one evening as an accompaniment to her famous braised rabbit. They made a fabulous dish in their own right, succulent and sweet, their edges lightly caramelized from long, slow simmering. As Zia Giuseppina offered me a second spoonful, she gave a knowing nod and said that turnips were more than just delicious; they were nutritious and therapeutic as well. When she boiled them, she saved the water for soup — it was full of vitamins to make you strong. (She’s right. Turnips are a good source of vitamin C and trace minerals, which leach into the cooking water when boiled and create a rich, fortified broth.) To treat a cold, she continued, peel and thinly slice a raw turnip, then layer the slices in a bowl, sprinkling sugar between the layers. Leave the bowl for at least eight hours before collecting the syrup that has formed. Take two spoonsful morning, noon, and night and the cold will go away. It never fails, she assured me. I’d give it a try next time I had a sore throat or runny nose, I told her, though I knew I would rely on my usual Advil Cold and Sinus tablets instead.
Giuseppina’s husband Felice said the turnips had come from his garden. An old variety, he told me, grown throughout the Piedmont and the Po River Plain. He motioned to a wire basket full of turnips on the drainboard by the kitchen sink. They awaited cleaning, with bright green tops still attached and moist soil clinging to the taproots. They were smooth and round, but flat like river rocks, maybe three inches in diameter and an inch high. Each turnip was white as porcelain at its base with a rosy-purple veneer on top — the part that had grown above ground. Felice had a twenty-foot row of them still in the garden. Before the first frost in a few weeks he would lift them from the ground and store them for the winter in the cantina.
I told Felice I had never had much luck with turnips in my vegetable garden at home in the States. A cool weather crop, turnips need seventy days or so to mature. Most gardeners sow them in March for harvest in May. But our New Hampshire springs are just too short. We can have snow on the ground into April and I often can’t work the soil for planting until the first week in May. Summer arrives just as the seedlings are starting to flourish but before the bulbs enlarge. When the days become hot the plants turn their energy to producing seeds, and whatever spindly turnip taproot has had a chance to develop becomes pithy and bitter.
Although Piedmont winters are not nearly as harsh as those of northern New England, the region is cold by Italian standards and it gets its fair share of snow. Felice was well versed in the peculiarities of coaxing produce out of the ground under challenging conditions. He embarked on a series of questions in crop management. How was my soil? Did I enrich it well? What about water? Did the garden get at least an inch of rain a week? And did I thin the seedlings? Crowding only makes them bolt and go to seed.
Yes, yes, and yes. Every fall I shoveled in a thick layer of composted manure from the dairy farmer up the road. I depended on Mother Nature for the water, but we usually got a couple good, soaking rains a week; during dry spells I dragged out the garden hose. And I tried to space the plants about four inches apart.
His diagnostic interview complete, Felice sat quietly for a moment, pondering his prescription, then gave me a rather unconventional lesson in turnip horticulture for the cold-climate gardener. I should skip spring turnips altogether and plant an autumn crop, he advised. That way I would miss the summer heat, and the plants would thrive in the cooler fall weather. And I should sow the seed during the first week in August, but only on days with an R.
Excuse me? Days with an R?
Yes. Martedì, for example, or mercoledì, but not sabato or domenica.
This was an unexpected piece of advice. I’d heard of planting turnips and other underground crops during the waning moon. Old-time gardeners claim the dimming light makes plants draw their energy downward, encouraging the development of robust, flavorful roots. And I knew to eat oysters in months with an R. The adage dates to the days before refrigeration when you could get sick from eating a spoiled oyster during the warm stretch from May to August. During my first kitchen job, when my duties included shucking upwards of two hundred oysters a day, I learned the advice still holds, though for a different reason. Warmer ocean temperatures in late spring and summer make the hermaphroditic oyster spawn, and such fervent lovemaking renders it physically spent. Instead of plump and toothsome with a fresh, briny taste, it becomes flaccid and insipid. It cooks up okay, and a dusting of breadcrumbs and a dip in hot oil for an oyster fry will mask the loss of flavor, but it is quite lackluster when served raw on the half-shell.
But planting on days of the week with an R? It seemed to me some sort of hybrid theory or lesser known corollary. Why? What did the day of the week have to do with anything?
Felice had no idea.
And which language should I use? Back in America should I speak Italian or English to determine the day? He did not know the answer to that question either.
To be safe, we decided I should sow my seeds on a Friday, venerdì, since it was the only day in the week with an R in both languages. He went to his garden shed and came back with a handful of seeds, which he sealed in a small manila envelope and labeled rapa piemontese in his shaky italic script.
I brought his seeds home with me and the next summer I planted them in my garden with such success I’ve followed his instructions ever since. When my seed catalogs come each year I order rapa di Milano coletto or Milan Purple Top seeds. Milan isn’t part of the Piedmont, but it’s just across the Po River Plain, and the heirloom turnips have the same flat root and coloring as the ones Felice grew. I don’t know whether the Rs have anything to do with it, but the first week of August is a good window for planting in my area. And his rule is much easier to remember than the only similar one I could find in my research, from an article in the British periodical Hardwicke’s Science-Gossip of 1874: “Turnips will thrive wonderfully when sown as many days after the festival of Neptune as the moon was old when the first snow fell the previous winter.” Turns out the author cribbed from Pliny, who added the sower should preferably be stripped. This instruction doesn’t seem terribly feasible for the modern-day gardener. Pliny also suggested offering up a prayer: “I sow this for myself, and for my neighbors,” which is as nice a sentiment as any.
Most years I get a beautiful harvest of mild young turnips by early October. My memory of Felice’s crop is so intertwined with what I pull from my own garden that I can’t tell for sure where one leaves off and the other begins. Still my turnips have a sweet, pleasantly mineral flavor that strikes me as distinct. Perhaps they have lost their Piedmontese patois and gained a Yankee accent as they express themselves in a new land. When the weather doesn’t cooperate—too much rain or an early frost, as happens some seasons, I still enjoy an ample supply of lush turnip greens. Some nutritionists claim these are the best part of the plant anyway. Braised with bacon and onions, even my daughter and son will eat them. I’m teaching them early to appreciate the virtues of the turnip.
Teresa Lust is the author of the culinary memoir Pass the Polenta: And Other Writings from the Kitchen. She currently teaches Italian for the Rassias Center for World Languages at Dartmouth College and is working on a book inspired by the recipes, dishes, and people she has encountered during her travels in Italy. Find her online at teresalust.com
Photo credit: The photos of turnips in a glass baking dish are rights-free; all other photos are copyright 2018 Teresa Lust.