Cooking Chapbook

Notes from my kitchen in the D.C. area & beyond

Category: Side dishes

Discovering turnips

Oh, turnips. I’m sorry. I clumped you, a humble toot vegetable, into a throw-away category with radishes, bok choy, celery, watercress, and other forgotten produce: vegetables I do not yet understand. I realize that these real foods, born of the earth and sun, must be divine in their own way. Plucked straight from the soil raw or paired with precisely the right spice in precisely the right cooking method, each would be a revelation, I’m certain. But so far, I haven’t come across them in such a setting.

Until, for turnips, today.

Bundle of turnips

Turnips, trimmed of their spicy leaves, ready for their fate

I found these at the Charlottesville farmers market on a chilly December Saturday, hanging out with the other less glamorous winter produce. Cabbage. Carrots. Sweet potatoes. Onions. Oh, and kale, which has recently become oddly popular. The other vegetables try not to be jealous, I imagine, but it would be hard not to wonder about the sudden mania. “What did kale ever do to deserve the gushing frenzy? Why not me?” thinks the sad kohlrabi.

I had no idea what to do with these turnips, which is often as good a reason to buy something at the market as any: I’m guaranteed to embark on a kitchen adventure, like it or not. And so I bought them, a bargain $3, including the leaves, which I hacked off immediately. Think mustard greens, a jolt of spiciness.

(Side note: I think these turnips might actually be white Japanese turnips, according to a non-scientific Google search. They certainly didn’t bear the tell-tale purple marks of a typical grocery turnip, and their sweetness and lack of heat seems to be a hallmark of white turnips, too. Being a complete turnip novice, I can’t say for certain, but this is my hunch. If you know, please do confirm or refute this suspicion!)

I tried the turnips first raw, this bundle of pretty bulb-like spheres. Crisp and vaguely sweet, they reminded me of white carrots, the alien-like kohlrabi of our German days, or perhaps the mysterious salad-frequenter radish. Fine, but nothing I would seek out on a quest at the farmers market.

Then I peeled them and chopped them up, and followed a simple recipe for braising in “How to Cook Everything” by the infallible Mark Bittman.

I didn’t quite get braising until today. Why braise when you can sauté?

How naive I have been. Braising takes a bit longer, true, but it melds the flavors and melts the dish in a luscious way that the quick flash of sautéing cannot do.

How to braise? The short of it is: You let the turnips simmer in stock and fat, until softened and imbued with flavor.

turnips-pan

What surprised me – shocked me, even – was how luscious these previously crisply stalwart vegetables became. They melted into a silky, nearly buttery consistency, a magical state of matter between liquid and solid. On the plate, they masqueraded as mashed potatoes. The turnips themselves seemed to eek out sweetness, even producing a hint of cinnamon or nutmeg in the background. I so wish I had bought two bundles.

Next time. Lovely white turnips, I won’t make the mistake of underestimating you again.

Braised turnips
Adapted from “How to Cook Everything” by Mark Bittman

– 4-6 smallish white (Japanese) turnips, peeled and chopped
– 1 tablespoon olive oil
– 1/2 cup of vegetable stock
– pepper

Add the turnips, olive oil, and stock to a pan. Bring to a simmer and let simmer with a lid on for 5 minutes or until softened. This is a forgiving recipe, and one you can cook longer or shorter depending on the needs of the rest of the dinner’s dishes. Remove the lid and let the liquid boil off. Mark suggest the requisite pepper and salt to taste, which for me means a few cranks of the pepper grinder and no salt. Eat at once, and marvel at what a turnip can be.

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The temporary kitchen

Salad, steak, potatoes

A throw-together salad for moving day

We’re in the midst of moving right now, caught in “stuff” purgatory.

The movers came earlier this month, blew in with rolls of corrugated, laminated cardboard and heavy-duty packing-tape contraptions. They wrapped and boxed and piled and disassembled. They erected a lift, a sort of open-air amusement park ride, on the sidewalk in front of our apartment, and our furniture rode slowly in shifts down to the moving van.

I watched, helpless. It is nearly time to go, and our things need a two-month head-start to voyage across the ocean.

And so, there went my kitchen. My beloved pots, my Dutch oven, my good knives, my baking gear. Bye, spatulas! Tschüss, pepper grinder! See you later, pasta maker!

(The fridge, stove, and oven stayed put – thankfully. In Germany, appliances and even cabinets typically accompany a resident from apartment to apartment. The entire kitchen is considered part of your furniture. But we have an unusual American-style built-in kitchen, ready for the next expat.)

Now we’re down to loaner furniture until move-out day.

And a little loaner “kitchen kit” that’s been a god-send.

We’ve got four dinner plates, four glasses, four bowls, utensils, a cutting board, three pots with lids, a can opener, a vegetable peeler, and – my favorite; I nearly gasped when I saw it in the big black locker – a Pyrex casserole dish. A magic wand in the kitchen. You can do nearly anything with a big, rectangular glass dish. Brownies. Roasted chicken. Baked potatoes. Lasagne.

The apartment feels sparse now. Vast white walls. Blank corners that stare back at me, unblinking. Expanses of open floor dotted with loaner furniture.

We joke that we live in a dorm room. It’s college for the third time.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, but the void is oddly pleasant. The freedom of life with less things. The illusion of starting over.

It feels almost like camping. We’ve been creating make-shift, disposable substitutes to replace useful items that have left us. Glass jars salvaged from our recycling bin became toothbrush holders. A liter plastic water bottle cut in half turned into a vase. A plastic lid is now a soap dish.

It feels more like an adventure than deprivation.

Last night, we made dinner in our new minimalist apartment. I roasted potatoes in the Pyrex dish and created a hodge-podge bean salad out of our cabinet leftovers. My quest now is to get through all our pantry staples before we leave. Today’s victory was finishing a soy sauce bottle, a balsamic vinegar bottle, and a jar of cocktail onions:

The Residents 3, The Pantry 40.

The bean salad came out better than I expected, so I’ll share it here. I liked the bitter notes of the arugula against the savory beans, the acidic, sweet onions, and the creamy feta.

It’s barely a recipe, and completely subject to whatever is in your pantry.

I wanted to use diced red onions, for instance, but we had none. The jar of cocktail onions was begging to be used up, and they ended up adding a lovely sweetness to the salad. I wouldn’t buy pricey cocktail onions just for a salad, though. I’d be inclined to omit them or sub caramelized onions, diced red onion, spring onions, etc.

Do you have a throw-together salad you love?

Salad close-up

Bitter, bright, acidic, creamy – this arugula-bean-feta salad hits all the notes.

Bean, Feta, Arugula Salad

  • A 15-ounce can of pinto beans, drained and rinsed
  • 2-ounces feta, crumbled, or to taste
  • Handful of arugula
  • One yellow bell pepper, diced
  • 1/2 cup cocktail onions
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • Olive oil

In a bowl, toss the beans with crumbled feta, diced bell pepper, onions, arugula.

Drizzle with balsamic vinegar and olive oil, to taste.