Photo by tvol/Flickr CC
I can't say I'd ever have forecasted that I'd be feeling even the eensiest bit of excitement about the arrival of turnip season. As vegetables go (and I eat a LOT of vegetables) they're historically way down on the list of things I'd ever have sought out. It's not like I've ever been down on them--they're perfectly fine, but mostly I just used really as fillers or at best background and "beef" for stuff like soups, stews, meat pies, pastries, or that sort of product. That all changed last January in the town of Tebourba in Tunisia, which is when I tried this really simple but really memorable (for me at least) dish.
The dish is really incredibly simple, simple, simple stuff--just really good and something I'd never have thought of in two centuries if left on my own: Turnips sliced up and then dressed with the Mahjoub's very amazingly good harissa that's been thinned with a touch of white wine vinegar and olive oil. Sounded strange when he told us what we'd be tasting, but shows you what I know. It tasted great. Very refreshing. Spicy. Really good. So much so that I've been waiting for months for the local turnips to come in to the market.
As I alluded above this would be the first time in my life that I ever waited impatiently to see a turnip. It's not hard to understand why--mass-market turnips are generally very large, not particularly great and for, at least, hardly worth waiting on. But with turnip awareness turned up so high in Tunisia, I realized that what is worth waiting for and being excited about and eating a lot of when they're in season, are the heirloom baby ones. Reading about 'em everyone describes them as some version of "crisp," "juicy," and really good raw, all of which mesh nicely with my experience of eating them. Makes me realize why I never thought much of the commercial stuff--clearly the fresh baby heirloom varieties are way better for folks who are looking for full flavor.
I don't think anyone around here would class turnips and harissa like they would mozzarella and tomatoes or peanut butter and jelly. But hey, there's hope. Harissa is a pretty powerful product. Every day--no joke--I have more and more people telling me some new way they experienced it. The Creamery's been tossing it with their mozzarella and a woman stopped to tell me she'd tried at the farmer's market and loved it.
Returning to the turnips. So when we got the mill Majid and his brother, Rauf, who manages the olives and the oil, sat us down at a small, quaintly set table in a little open "room" off the courtyard of the mill, and quickly served us a bit of this salad. Majid warned us maybe five or six times not to eat too much of it because we'd soon be eating a lot more. In truth it was hard to hold back though because it was so good. Super simple like I said; you don't need any innate cooking ability to handle this one. Just mix some of the Mahjoub's sun dried, traditional harissa with a touch of white wine vinegar and a bit of olive oil. Mostly the liquids are just to thin the very densely textured harissa a bit so it's more easily tossed with the turnips. Cut the baby turnips into slices, about Â¼ or Â½ inch thick. Toss with the harissa and let sit as long as you like. Majid and his wife Onsa prefer to let them marinate for a while, but I've actually eaten it tout suite after tossing and it's still quite good that way too.