The Local Ingredient: Turnip time

Morning Glory's white Hakurei turnips. — Stacey Rupolo

Turnips in general seem to be a pretty neglected vegetable in the U.S., except on the Cape, Islands, and Southeastern Massachusetts, where there are some pretty delicious varieties, as well as interesting histories.

There is the famous Eastham turnip, an heirloom variety grown for decades by the late Arthur “the Turnip Man” Nickerson, and celebrated each year with its own turnip fair. This year’s annual Turnip Festival is Nov. 18 in Eastham. Another variety grown along the South Coast, the Macomber turnip, is a big white root vegetable meriting its own historical marker in Westport, and featured each fall by regional chefs. Here on the Island, at Morning Glory Farm, we have the Cape White turnip, another hefty heirloom the farm has grown since around 2008.

“Cape Whites, I adore them,” says grower Simon Athearn. He says the farm used to grow the standard purple-top turnips, but after visiting colleagues at Four Town Farm in Seekonk and sampling some Cape Whites, they switched to this sweeter-tasting, more flavorful variety. Four Town Farm gave Morning Glory some seeds to start with; since then the farm has saved its own seeds from year to year.

It’s unclear about the exact origin of the Cape White. Was it originally from seeds of the Eastham turnip, or closer to the Macomber, or some altogether different heirloom? Athearn says he’s not sure. He has sampled the Eastham turnip, which he noted was even sweeter than the Cape White, with a more noticeable yellow hue, like the rutabaga.

Until we learn the true DNA, all we can do is enjoy the results. You can’t miss them at the farm, because they are fairly large and very white. This year’s supply at the Edgartown farm, however, will be coming from their friends at Four Town Farm, because Morning Glory unfortunately lost its own crop.

“The fall planting got wind-whipped during the Jose storm, and then geese did some heavy damage a few weeks later,” says Athearn. “I am considering them a complete loss this year.”

In terms of how to cook and sample the creamy Cape White, you can try roasting with olive oil and salt, or boiling and mashing with some salt and butter (no cream needed). Both methods are simple, and delicious. (Peel first.)

Last year, I sautéed some kale with garlic in a skillet, then sautéed diced Cape turnip, and combined the two with a drizzle of local honey. I haven’t tried much else because I keep returning to this preparation again and again.

In the process of writing this article and Googling the different varieties, especially the Eastham turnip and Macomber, I came across a variety of interesting preparations for the holidays. Some were the winning entries from the yearly turnip fair, such as Eastham Turnip Pie and Turnip Crème Brûlée. Another good idea was roasting apples, shallot, and turnip together in the oven. A curried coconut turnip soup also sounded tasty.

Don’t miss this underused fall vegetable!

Pan-Sautéed Cape Turnip with Kale 
Recipe by Catherine Walthers

2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 bunch Italian toscano (dinosaur) kale, stripped from stem, cut into thin strips (3 to 4 cups)
1 large clove garlic, finely minced
1 Cape White turnip, peeled and cut into small, ½-inch cubes (2 to 3 cups)
1 large clove garlic, finely minced
1 tsp. butter
1 tsp. honey

In a large, thick-bottom skillet, add 1 Tbsp. olive oil over medium heat. Add kale and sauté for 4 to 6 minutes, until tender. Use a pair of tongs to continually turn kale as it cooks. About halfway through, add the garlic and continue stirring. Add a pinch of salt to taste. If the kale is sticking, add a few tablespoons of water. Remove the kale to a small bowl.

Wipe out the pan and add 1 Tbsp. butter and 1 Tbsp. of the olive oil (to keep the butter from burning), and the diced turnips. Saute on low to medium heat, for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the diced turnip is tender and golden. Try one or two pieces to make sure it’s pleasantly tender. Season with salt and pepper. Just before serving, add the kale to the turnips, reheat, and drizzle on the honey. Serve hot.

Hakurei Japanese turnips

At the other end of the turnip spectrum, especially in size, is another mild-tasting turnip called Hakurei, a Japanese-style turnip. Grown at Morning Glory and harvested at the size of a Ping-Pong ball, these small, round, white turnips can be either cooked or eaten raw. Raw they are juicy and lightly assertive, and many love them cut up and added to all kinds of salads. Cooked, they mellow to a buttery flavor. Simon Athearn reports the combination of roasted beets, carrots, and Hakurei turnips is “pretty spectacular.”