Most of us think of turnips as a winter-storage crop, the ones with the rutabagas at the bottom of the root cellar when the potatoes, carrots and onions are all gone. But in recent years, turnips have been showing up at the farmers market in a sweeter, more tender form. As growers have sought to fill that awkward time when it feels like summer but the produce supply remains thin, they’ve turned to Japanese turnips.
These bulbous taproots look like a radish, and the first time I tried one I braced for that radish fire, but I got water instead. A lot. Japanese turnip might be the juiciest root on earth.
It’s also sweet, without the slightest hint of a waft of a menace of a bite. At least in the root. The pungent flavor of the brassica clan is relegated to the leaves, where it can be as menacing as any mustard green.
Insiders use its Japanese name Hakurei, which translates to “esteemed companion.”
Stateside it’s often just called a salad turnip, or, inaccurately, spring turnip. In truth, it can be planted and harvested throughout the summer, but most farmers have other things on their minds by then.
While the home gardener can enjoy their esteemed companion all summer long, if they are so inclined and have the space, the cook who wants to drink a salad turnip should act quickly, before the Hakurei are washed away by the bounty of summer.
My favorite, basic way to cook the juicy root is to pan-fry it with its own greenery. Turnip greens are not only strong-flavored but tough, so they should be boiled separately. Meat or other protein can be included as well. I’ve made the esteemed companion with red meat, bacon, eggs, and I can imagine it being delicious with tofu as well.
Cut off the spindly taproot, and the greens. When eating it raw, don’t leave any greens attached to the turnip. When cooking, cut about an inch above the turnip’s top.
Chop the stems and greens finely, and add them to boiling, salted water. Boil five minutes or more, then drain the greens and rinse them with cold water.
Meanwhile, slice the turnip in half, lengthwise, and lay the two halves on the cutting board. From here, cut it however you like. I like to slice the halves into quarters, and cut each of those in half again, all while the half-turnip lies flat, held together by my other hand.
Brown your slices in olive oil or butter, with salt, pepper, and a splash of garlic powder, and then add the greens back to the pan and stir them in. That’s it, in essence, although there is much more one could do. Replace the olive oil with sesame, and the salt with soy, and you have a Japanese-style side dish that can handle a dash of fish sauce, too, if you’re so inclined, and some fresh garlic scapes if you’re so fortunate, as well as the aforementioned proteins. It tastes a lot more like the other ingredients than it does turnip, but when you happen upon a chunk, it’s like getting hit in the mouth with a warm sweet water balloon.
I recently cooked some minced turnip stems and leaves with some slices of fatty, juicy jowl bacon from Lifeline Farm in Victor, MT. The bacon began to release oil and water as it cooked, at which point I added the stems. After a few minutes the water began to evaporate, so I added the leaves, which brought moisture level back up. I cooked it, covered, as low as possible, until the bacon was crispy, adding sherry (or water) when the pan got too dry. It sputtered peacefully on low, in that unique state of simultaneous frying and steaming that I call freaming. It results in a southern-style, pork and greens flavor.
Another time, I baked a thick salmon steak with lime, sugar, soy, sesame oil and Hakurei. I dusted the whole business with minced turnip leaves and baked at 350, adding the turnips about halfway through. I left the sliced turnip roots un-turned in the pan, to leave their white sides unstained by the dark jus.
Perhaps the simplest and most refreshing — summer-y, as they say — way to enjoy our esteemed companion is nothing more than sliced, per above, with nary a green part left on. Then, a sprinkle of salt, washed off with a squeeze of lime.
One could take this idea a step further by making fridge pickles. But I prefer to leave my sliced salad turnip in a bowl of white vinaigrette, where it not only absorbs the dressing’s tanginess, but somehow seems to distill it into a more concentrated form, such that eating the marinated turnip is more tangy than had you just drank the dressing.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
1 tablespoon white balsamic
¼ teaspoon salt
If you don’t have white balsamic, add extra lime juice. Add slices of turnip, wait at least five minutes before eating. Better after a night in the fridge.