Welcoming Turnip Season

The author didn't care for the vegetable until he traveled to Tunisia. Three ways to prepare them.


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 ¼ or ½ 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.



Turnip greens and harissa

Thinking more on the dish over the last few weeks I started an adaptation that I'm pretty high on. I don't know if anyone in Tunisia does it but it's darned good I think. My thought was to stop stopping using only the bottoms to the exclusion of eating the tops. Truth is that the greens on these guys are just as delicious as the turnips. While collards collect a lot more popular exposure up here, turnip greens are great I think. I actually like them a lot more than collards or kale. Mustard greens are my usual top choice, then turnips. In Britain they call 'em turnip tops. Radish greens are great too, by the way. I still remember one woman who grew up in the rural south, whose family had a small farm and for whom turnips were a major part of their diet. She said they used to regularly eat both parts and referred to them merely as "tops" (the greens) and "bottoms" (the actual turnips).

So rather than stopping at the root, I just kept slicing all the way through the leaves. I cut the greens down to salad size (whatever that means to you) and tossed them into my mixing bowl too. Basically you end up with an entire salad of turnips and greens tossed with what, in essence, is a harissa vinaigrette. It takes all of...two minutes to do and it's incredibly good (if you like spicy food, I should say).

Mashed turnips and harissa

So from there, the transitive property took me one step further from the original dish, but with equally excellent outcomes. I really like this one a lot. Cook the turnips in some boiling, salted water 'til they're very tender. Take 'em out but hold onto the boiling water. Let the turnips drain in a colander for a few minutes--they're already prone to having a bit more water than one wants for this dish so try get rid of all the excess liquid on the outside. While they're draining, turn the heat back on under the pot you cooked them in. Chop up the turnip greens and add them to the reserved cooking water and simmer for five or so minutes 'til they're done--no need to cook the hell out of them but cooking time will of course vary depending on the toughness of the bunch you have on hand. When the greens are done, drain them and then toss them with good olive oil and some sea salt.

When the turnips have had time to drain, mash them up til they're the texture of hummus or mashed potatoes. Turnips, as I said, can have a bit more water than I'd want for this--if you see a lot of liquid drain or strain off as much of it off as you can. Then mix the mash with olive oil and salt. The Mahjoub's oil is the obvious and very good choice.

While the mash and the greens are still warm (you can rewarm them no problem if you do the first two steps ahead) toast some good bread--I'm biased towards the Sicilian Sesame Semolina but Paesano or Farm bread are great. If you like garlic, rub it with a cut clove of fresh garlic. Put on a bit of olive oil. Spread on a bunch of harissa. Spoon on the turnip mash, they lay the greens on on top of that. Add salt and pepper if you like. Eat it with your hands or a knife and fork if you're feeling more fastidious. If you're inspired lightly fry up an egg and lay that on top too. It's pretty great with the egg so I encourage you to try it that way. You won't go wrong with crescent of extra olive oil across the top too.