My father once dismissed my mumbled teenage excuse for getting home late with the family car by asking me, “Do I look like I just fell off the back of the turnip wagon?” The image of a mule-drawn cart heaped high with a bumpy cargo silhouetted against the moon rose in my mind, with my dad tumbling off the rear end. Wisely, I held my tongue. Ah, turnips, once the symbol of stupidity (turnip-head, not heard much any more) or deprivation (dietary staple for stateside Americans in WWII), have rolled back into fashion. Witness our Macomber Turnips Roasted with Bacon and Dates. Believe me, no one will mistake this dish with anything having to do with deprivation.
White turnips are the original root vegetable, good for fodder, not so hot for eating. Yellow turnips, also called Swedes or rutabagas, are believed to have been a cross between a turnip and a cabbage, resulting in a larger root vegetable with a less bitter flavor. Not less bitter enough, evidently, since both my mother and mother-in-law have an aversion to turnips that dates to their wartime experience. Interestingly, I recently discovered that turnips arouse dismay among Germans and French of the same generation and older, dating back to the First World War. The turnip’s reputation as an excellent forage food for farm animals (i.e. they could root it out of the ground and eat it without assistance) doubtlessly contributed to its disfavor as well–pigs forage for turnips; in good times you eat the pig; in bad, the army eats the pig, and you eat the turnips.
Younger cooks have been more open-minded about turnips and other “deprivation foods” (e.g. celery root). Rutabagas – yellow turnips also known as Swedes – do not universally taste as metallically bitter as our moms remember, but unless you’ve sampled a particular batch, or can talk to the farmer, you won’t know where it falls on the taste spectrum. Hakurei and Macomber turnips are easier to enjoy. The former are the small, sweet turnips popular at farmers markets these days (Stir-Fried Hakurei Turnips with Chiles, Garlic and Lime); Macombers are a medium-to-large turnip with a sweet flavor that have been traced as far back as the 18th century in Westport, Massachusetts.
Sweet turnips roast well at high-temperatures, caramelizing quickly, which makes for a short cooking time. This recipe easily doubles, but don’t ignore the instructions regarding space between the turnip slices; if necessary, use two pans. Roasting anything at 500° requires attention–these slices will need to be turned after 10 minutes. Care should also be taken with the bacon and dates–they can go from caramelized to carbonized if neglected. But a bit of vigilance produces a side dish that will quickly disappear, and if anyone suggests you’re falling off the wagon, at least it won’t be one filled with turnips. Enjoy. Ken
PHOTO NOTE: In one of the photographs you’ll see that after removing the bacon from the roasting pan, Jody added more bacon, along with the dates – Hey, it’s a Thanksgiving dish. We thought the turnips needed more lardons so we added them.
Caramelized Turnips with Bacon and Dates
- 2 pound Macomber turnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch wedges–use large white heirloom varieties if possible, like Macomber or Gilfeather
- 6 ounces bacon 1-inch thick, cut into ½-inch lardons
- 3 small bay leaves
- 1 cinnamon stick, broken up
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 6 ounces dates, (weighed with pit) cut in half lengthwise and pitted
- 1 teaspoon grated zest
- 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
- 2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
- Preheat oven to 500ºF.
- Put the turnips in a bowl with the bacon, bay leaves and cinnamon. Add the oil, season with salt and pepper and toss everything together.
- Put an empty roasting pan into the oven. The pan should be large enough to hold everything in a single layer with plenty of space. Let heat for 5 minutes.
- After 5 minutes, carefully remove the hot pan from the oven and add the turnips, cut-side down, with the bacon, bay leaves and cinnamon, leaving space between the individual slices. If the pieces are heaped together they’ll steam instead of caramelizing.
- Roast the turnips until golden brown on the contact side, about 10 minutes. Flip the turnips so the seared side faces up. Most of the bacon fat will be rendered at this point. Remove the lardons from the pan to prevent them from burning. Add the dates to the pan, turning them about to cover with fat. Return the pan in the oven and roast until the turnips are tender, another 6 minutes or so. The dates should be just starting to dry out a bit and get crispy.
- Toss with the zest, thyme and lemon juice and transfer to a platter, leaving the bay leaves and cinnamon behind.
- Serve warm.
My mother never served turnips when I was growing up. She’d eaten way too many rutabagas during the war. I was in my 20’s when I fell in love with Macomber Turnips from Westport Massachusetts, where I lived one year. There were fields of those big, sweet babies that we chopped up and ate raw in salads. I once watched a dog leave the road where I was walking and bound into an open turnip field, sniffing here and there, before digging a Macomber right out of the ground to eat.
I roasted these at a high temperature. Usually it’s “slow and low is the way to go,” but I wanted these to caramelize – and to do it quickly – in case it’s just one dish of many that you’re making for the holiday. These are turbulent times – may you be able to enjoy a joyful meal with loved ones around your table. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.
Bacon and dates are one of my all time favorite food combos. I’ve never tried turnips but have always wanted to! Pinning! Thanks for sharing 😊
Good luck. Just make sure you get your hands on some sweet or heirloom varieties, like Macomber or Gilfeather. They’re not strongly flavored like some rutabagas. Ken
Happy Thanksgiving! Turnips are a rather doughty winter vegetable here. Useful for Cornish pasties and stew and not much else. This looks impossibly glamorous. Dates and bacon a lovely addition. And the idea of caramelizing root veg very welcome at this time of year. Sophie
And Happy Thanksgiving to you too, Sophie! “Doughty” – I love it. You know a real Cornish pasty remains an unchecked box on my culinary bucket list, along with an eel pie. I was really surprised by these turnips, enough so that I took a leftover one, sliced it into sticks and ate it raw with hummus for lunch – it was great. Ken
Hello Jody and Ken, I hope you’re well. Happy Thanksgiving! This dish sounds wonderful, I love the sweet touch of the dates, and the crispy-on-the-outside-tender-on-the-inside turnips. Lardons always make everything taste better, so of course you were right to add more. I wasn’t aware that turnips were also considered war-time food in the States (though it is quite logical); here in France, I know quite a few people who will not touch Jerusalem artichokes, rutabagas or dark bread (which they call “pain de guerre”). I can understand… but it is a pity!
Darya–How nice to see your comment. Isn’t it interesting about all this stuff? Jerusalem artichokes have always been either “hippy California food” or something cutting edge here. “Pain de guerre” is a new one for me, although I have heard of bread being supplemented with sawdust (!!!) during times of desperation. Let’s hope we never have to face those times again. Ken
Your photography (that pouring shot!), narrative, recipe and combination of ingredients all together created a flawless post. We love turnips and I’m going to check the co-op today for the sweeter varietals you are recommending here. I’m always so happy when I see a new post from Ken & Jody! Happy Thanksgiving!
Thank you–the pouring shot was a fluke, which I loved. Good luck with the turnips. I keep wondering how many of these things are available outside of New England. And Happy Thanksgiving to you too. Ken
This looks amazing…and I just got some turnips from my fall CSA….will definitely give this a go… may even try it for Thanksgiving…
Great. Converting the world to turnips… one Macomber at a time. Happy Thanksgiving. Ken
I don’t think we can get that sort of turnip here, although the small, sweet white ones are available. This looks utterly delicious so I’ll have to hunt down something suitable. Swedes in the UK are, in my experience, never bitter but on the contrary are sweet and earthy. I like them in a mash with carrot and lots of butter and some nutmeg. Hurrah for root veg. Happy Thanksgiving.
That’s so interesting. When I was a kid we would sometimes go to my grandparents in upstate New York for Thanksgiving. I used to love the meal, which included a pork roast as well as a turkey, and venison mincemeat pues for dessert. But the one thing I dreaded was the mashed rutabagas, whose flavor struck me as harshly metallic – an experience confirmed by friends who also disliked the root vegetable. Now you’ve piqued my curiosity. Thanks. Ken
Hi, Jody and Ken,
Love the blog! I am making a HUGE batch of this for Thanksgiving, but I’ll be using Florida Mountain turnips from Florida, Massachusetts. Have you ever tried them? (I guess, technically, they are rutabagas.)
Have a great holiday!
No, I haven’t heard of them, but I’d really like to hear how they turn out. Leave plenty of space so they don’t steam! Happy Thanksgiving! Ken
Once I moved to central MASS (’85), I started hearing the regional version, “I didn’t just fall off the Hubbardston turnip truck..”. No disparaging meant to that north-central state town. Love turnips, parsnips and varied root veggies and they all seem to thrive when roasted. My grandparents lived in central NJ and root cellars were still active into the 1970’s in their neighborhood. Roasted veggies (fennel, potatoes, carrots, B. sprouts) are a highlight of our Thanksgiving meal. All the best to you too in these challenging times.
Happy Thanksgiving to you too, David. I had no idea that regional turnip had so many stout defenders and advocates. Thanks. Ken
This is a lovely simple post. It reflects well on you both at a very strange and disturbing time. On a more vegetative note, we prepared some parsnips on Sunday. I simmered them in milk until soft. Then blended them with a little salt added. The result was amazing. That lovely earthy taste of the root vegetable turned to creaminess. Please try it. So simple. I am a fan of pretty well any root vegetable, just as long as they are not prepared as they used to be in my youth. That is boiled to oblivion and served with overcooked meat and one other overcooked veg.
Ken, I will be in NY again in January and may be around for a few days doing some in-depth client research. If it suits, I owuld love to hook up for a beer/meal/whatever.
Have a great Thanksgiving.
Best to you both,
Thank you, Conor. Parsnips! I know they roast well, but I’ll gladly give your method a shot, sounds delicious. Send me some dates and I see if I can make NY work. The second half of the month will be a bit chaotic for us – we’re off to Africa at the beginning of February. Ken
Hopefully it will be the week of the 4th. Plans still being laid. Africa sounds exciting. I have a brother in Dar Es Salaam. A great place.
I’ve almost no experience with turnips and had considered puréeing a couple for a side dish for one of the upcoming holidays. Forget that! Your dish is the way to go!
I hope yours is a Thanksgiving you’ll long remember, surrounded by those you hold most dear.
Thank you, John. This is a very easy dish, which is what you want on an otherwise chaotic day of cooking. I hope your Thanksgiving is spent with those you love as well – the food will take care of itself. Ken
that is a great looking dish! I can almost over look the fact that it has turnips in it. I just had this turnip conversation with a friend today when she posted a turnip recipe, my grandma’s turnips were the stuff of nightmares and I think I need therapy to get over my fear of turnips!!
Did we have the same grandmother? I thought you looked familiar. Give sweet turnips a try – I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Happy Thanksgiving! Ken
interesting about turnips symbolizing stupidity which I didn’t know. Turnips and daikon are of different families but we tend to consider them somewhat similar and we call bad actors “daikon” actors for just standing around and being seemingly daft.
Your turnips look amazingly lovely though.
Thank you, Ayako. “He’s a daikon.” “What a daikon!” I’ll have to remember that when asked to give my opinion on the next Godzilla movie. I noticed how you buried your vestigial yearning for a Thanksgiving celebration this weekend by going swimming in a pool of red Bordeaux and Sauternes. :-) Ken
Such a beautiful recipe – I miss your posts and gorgeous photos!
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