Let’s Talk Root Vegetables – Turnip, Parsnip and Rutabaga
Or maybe that should be Rutabaga, Turnip, Parsnip as rutabaga and turnips are closely related in many ways (in post Revolution America rutabagas were called “turnip-rooted cabbage”, according to Jere Gettle) and parsnips — bless their sweetness — are quite different. But all three are root vegetables and we love them this time of the year because 1) they’re easy to grow, especially in the late season (well, maybe not parsnips that usually need a long season to mature); 2) they’re well adapted to cool and short growing season (even parsnips); 3) they taste even better after cold weather and frosts have set in; and 4) they keep well, sometimes for months in a cool basement, root cellar or refrigerator.
Then why do I see you out there holding your nose? Is it because they have that cabbagey twang (well, not parsnips) that gets your mouth vibrating like a guitar string when you take a bite? Get over it! My sense is that if you like cabbage, you’ll like turnips and rutabagas. It’s the texture, I believe, combined with that taste, that puts most people off. We’re all use to the bland starchy taste of potatoes. Yes, the meat of turnips and rutabagas had a stronger, distinct flavor when compared to potatoes. But in most cases, it’s milder than cabbage and when it’s not, well, you let them grow to big and harvested them before frosts set in — something that sweetens the starches of both those roots. Parsnips? They’re sweet to begin with.
Our Farmers Market here in Santa Fe, NM is filled with turnips right now (but hardly a rutabaga; go figure). And that shows that these high-altitude farmers and gardeners know what they’re doing. Except in the deep south, it’s good to plant turnips late in the season and pull them when young. Same with rutabagas. Parsnips can take up to 125 days to mature (turnips only need 50 -75 days) but can be planted weeks before the last frost. All three have the same pests as cabbage but, at least in my experience, don’t seem to be as susceptible. One of my first years gardening, we had some grub damage to the rutabagas. But the more organic material we worked into the soil (therefore, the more beneficial microbes) the problem just disappeared. Turnip greens are delicious when picked young and just slightly wilted (use a good olive oil on them) They’re also a great source of iron. Rutabaga and parsnip greens made a great addition to our stock pot when making broth, as long as their flavors were balanced with the usual vegetable stock ingredients (garlic, onion, carrots, celery).
Somehow the best tasting root vegetables were the ones we cooked up in the dead of winter. We grew a lot of them in the rainy Pacific Northwest because they’d tolerate a moist climate. In January, I could go out to the root cellar and pull them out of a barrel we’d filled with saw dust and root vegetables. By then, they might be showing little hairs. By February, they’d still be good. Roasting root vegetables is an especially good way to prepare them. Creamy mashed turnips, chunks of rutabaga added to stews (having trouble getting the skin off the rutabaga? Put them in the microwave for a minute or less first) or slices of parsnips fried in oil — now I like to use coconut oil — and voila! Parsnip chips! So get your fingers off your nose and onto the seed catalogs, online or otherwise, and dial up some root vegetables. Sure they’re good for you. But with care, they taste good, too.