Sweet White Turnips & Creamy Turnip Soup
Turnips get a bad rap. Like some people, they’re unpopular largely because most people haven’t gotten to know them—and because in our store-bought-vegetable society, there’s always someone more glamorous stealing the attention. But if you want to get into seasonal living and cook from your garden all year, in the depths of February turnips will be your best friend. And cooler than people think, at that.
Get the sweet ones
Do not go and buy any old turnip, though. Unless you favor size over taste, as most of us don’t, you want “sweet white turnips” specifically, and the best two varieties to start with are Hakurei and Oasis. You can buy Hakurei here from Johnny’s, or Oasis here from Fedco.
Sweet white Hakurei or Oasis turnips grow into pure-white globes that, at their biggest, are just over half a pound. They’re crisp with a mild, sweet (not sugary—think like a sweet carrot) flavor. They can be eaten raw as a sort of milder radish, or cooked. They’re at their best in soups or stews—a perfect winter vegetable. Their greens are also edible.
Easy to grow
Turnips are some of the easiest vegetables to grow. Just sow them in a bed of tilled soil—spacing your rows about a foot apart and your seeds about an inch apart—and sprinkle soil or compost over them to a depth of ¼ inch. Don’t worry if you sowed them a bit thick—they take crowding unusually well. Weed them when they’re big enough, mulch between the rows, and forget about them till harvest.
Now, you can grow turnips in the spring, but I don’t. They really shine when grown in the fall—that’s when they get big and mild and sweet. Plant fall turnips during the first two weeks of August, and do make sure they get enough water for the first couple weeks of their lives—that’s the only dicey part.
You can start harvesting in early October—just pull the biggest ones out. It’s ridiculously easy, they stick up almost all the way out of the ground. Once you’ve pulled the big ones, all the smaller ones will grab their chance to swell up—it starts to seem magical, the patch just keeps on giving. Leave a fair number in there to get as big as they can for winter storage. Don’t worry about frost—they’ll actually be a little bit sweeter if you harvest them after the first few light frosts.
A storage star
The first thing to remember when storing root vegetables is: cut off the leaves right away. If you don’t, the leaves will draw moisture from the root in an attempt to survive, and the root will lose its crispness. Next, put your turnips in a plastic bag—nothing too airtight, keeping in too much moisture encourages mold. Mine are in a plastic shopping bag with the handles tied. Then, put your turnips in a root cellar or in the fridge.
Now here is the miracle of turnips: in the fridge, at least (I haven’t used the root cellar personally), they will keep all winter. It is February and I have half a bag of turnips in the fridge, and except for one or two small ones, they are just about as crisp as the day they were pulled.
Creamy Turnip Soup
To me, turnips are the winter soup vegetable par excellence. Sweet white turnips cut up in a stew of venison or beef along with carrots and potatoes (add the turnips last, they cook quickest) add a hint of sweetness that ties the other flavors together. If they’re cooked long enough to fall apart a little, they also thicken the stew. Turnips in a thick, pureed winter soup offer a powerfully comforting mix of savory and sweet.
2 T butter
1 large onion, chopped
1 large clove garlic, minced
8 medium-size turnips (2 ½ pounds), peeled and chopped
2 potatoes, chopped
6 cups broth (bouillon cubes and water work fine)
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup milk (or half-and-half)
Brown the butter on medium-high heat in the bottom of your soup pot (a Dutch oven is ideal), then turn the heat down to medium and saute the onions till they’re almost done. Add the garlic and saute for about half a minute more.
Put in the turnips and potatoes and stir for a minute, then add the broth. Bring to a boil and simmer till the turnips and potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes.
Puree the soup in a blender, then add the milk, and add salt and pepper to taste.
(In a box: Need it ready sooner? Heat the broth in a separate pot while you chop, or if using bouillon, heat the water in the kettle.)
Heather Munn has a BA in literature from Wheaton College and now lives in a Christian intentional community in rural Illinois, where she and her husband, Paul, host free spiritual retreats especially for those transitioning out of homelessness or addiction. She has published a young adult novel, How Huge the Night, with Kregel Publications.