Turnips come in a variety of forms, the most widely available being the squashed globe shape with creamy coloured skin and a purple crown (where the turnip grew above the surface of the ground and was exposed to sunlight). They have a rounded flavour - sweet and slightly peppery - and are nutritionally rich.
Although available pretty much year-round we think there are two optimum times for turnip eating. The first is in early summer when fresh, tender, baby turnips are available. The second is towards the end of the year when the more mature specimens make a tasty, healthy and economical contribution to a warming winter diet.
Turnips are thought to have originated in N. Europe around 2,000 BC and were one of the first vegetables to have been cultivated. They were a very important food for the Romans and a staple across Europe before the potato.
Turnips seem to have something of an image problem in Britain, perhaps as a result of them being grown primarily for cattle fodder in the nineteenth century. Other nationalities view this vegetable much more positively and have put it to many imaginative uses. The French braise or sauté them, and serve glazed turnips with duck; Italians use them in risottos; the Chinese have long enjoyed sweet roasted turnip and in Japan and the Middle East many forms of pickled turnips are very popular.
The turnip (Brassica rapa) is a cruciferous vegetable (a member of the mustard family) that thrives in cool climates.
Turnips should be firm and heavy for their size (indicating a good moisture content) with a smooth undamaged surface. Smaller turnips are sweeter and more tender. Young turnips are sometimes sold with their leaves attached, in which case they should be crisp and green (and are excellent when rinsed and briefly steamed).
Remove the leaves (if present) and keep in the fridge, or other cool, dry place. Baby turnips should be used within 2 or 3 days, larger winter turnips will keep for a week or so.
Wash and trim before use. Baby turnips can be used whole (they're good grated raw in salads), larger ones should be peeled.
To bake, cut into slices or cubes and place in a baking dish with a sprinkling of water. Cover and bake at around 200°C until tender (30 to 45 minutes). Larger chunks can be roasted like potatoes alongside meat or poultry and can also be boiled or steamed. The flavour intensifies during cooking so avoid cooking for too long or the taste can be a bit overpowering.
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