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.