White turnips (Brassica rapa var. rapa) with their purple-rose blush start out much prettier than they end up when peeled and cooked in stews or sautéed in butter. Raw, they also have a mustardy tang that gets lost after heating. This is not at all to disparage the ever-popular turnip, whose swollen taproot has been a standby of the world diet since antiquity. Because of its spiky taste and leafy greens, it was formerly confused with mustard. Indeed, the two plants have related names in Greek (siNAPi and NAPu) and Latin (napus), which are the ancestors of various words in Europe (French navet, Spanish nabo, Italian navone), and in Britain, where neep survives as the ordinary word for turNIP in Scottish and various other dialects. The same root (no pun intended) shows up in parsNIP and most likely in catNIP.
You will not go wrong by cutting raw turnip into very thin strips and adding them to coleslaw or serving them in a rémoulade sauce (see Céleri Rémoulade). The greens are a tangy alternative to all the other greens we wilt and serve. But it is the cooked turnip that has always taken center stage. Before the advent of the potato, it was the primary winter root vegetable in cold climates.
The glamorous treatment below shows the French temperament in fine form. The human hand “turns” (the technical term for this) the raw turnip into small “olives.” This is not only decorative but shrewd and sly. Shrewd because it yields small and therefore quick-cooking nuggets of uniform size with consequently identical cooking times.* Sly because it may remind the sophisticated diner of that other duck classic, canard aux olives. But these are quite distinct dishes in the eating. Whereas olives, usually green and acid, clash fugally with the fatty richness of the duck, turnips in their blandness offer a more comforting, unassertive counterpoint.
Despite all these virtues, turnips have acquired a negative reputation, no doubt among those who had to eat them too often. In French theatrical slang, a failure, what we would call a turkey, is a turnip, a navet.
Anne Page, in a mixed metaphor in The Merry Wives of Windsor III. iv. 71–2, says she would rather be buried alive and pelted to death with turnips than marry Fenton: “Alas! I had rather be set quick i’ the earth, And bowl’d to death with turnips.”
*Some readers may recall a parallel scene in Wuthering Heights: “We entered together; Catherine was there, making herself useful in preparing some vegetables for the approaching meal; she looked more sulky and less spirited than when I had seen her first. She hardly raised her eyes to notice me, and continued her employment with the same disregard to common forms of politeness as before; never returning my bow and good-morning by the slightest acknowledgment.
‘She does not seem so amiable, ’ I thought, ‘as Mrs. Dean would persuade me to believe. She’s a beauty, it is true; but not an angel.’
Earnshaw surlily bid her remove her things to the kitchen. ‘Remove them yourself, ’ she said, pushing them from her as soon as she had done; and retiring to a stool by the window, where she began to carve figures of birds and beasts out of the turnip-parings in her lap.”
© 2007 Raymond Sokolov. All rights reserved.