Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Turnips 'R Us

Purple-Top White Globe Turnips
We have a saying around here: “You can’t keep a good turnip seed down.” The turnips are always the first garden seed to germinate and will do so with a wide array of temperatures. You can pretty much count on every seed to germinate too, even if the seed is several years old.

Vilmorin listed over 50 varieties of turnips back in 1885, but now you’ll be lucky to find even half that many still in production. For the most part, the turnips that are available in the supermarket are usually the standard “Purple Top White Globes” like are shown in the picture. But turnips come in a wide variety of shapes and colors. Baker’s Creek offers 11 heirloom turnips this year and there are a number of hybrids that were developed for the fresh salad market. Johnny’s Selected Seed carries a couple that are excellent – the “Hakurei” and “Scarlet Queen” are both sweet and delicious raw.

Turnips appreciate a fertile soil and the greens will be lush, but they grow quite well in a less-fertile soil too. They are one of the fastest growing veggies out there and if you plant them thickly, you can harvest an abundance of greens in about a month just from the thinnings. I plant mine in four-foot beds, four rows to a bed with the rows about 8 inches apart. I first thin them to stand about 2 inches apart, then I pull every other one to harvest as greens. Finally, I let the remaining roots grow, harvesting the biggest first. An 8 foot bed (or 32 linear feet) is a good start for a small family.

Here in North Texas, we direct seed a crop around the first of March and another between the middle of August and first of September. The spring crop is done by June 1st and the fall crop can be left in the ground (lightly mulched) and harvested all winter, though the greens won’t survive hard freezes. The roots are at their sweetest during cold weather. Turnips are biennials and those left in the ground all winter will go to seed in the early spring. If you are trying to save seed from a small garden, you can harvest the seed from one variety then. You can save seed from another variety by holding back a couple of roots in the fridge from the spring planting and replant them in the fall. To store them, leave the bottom root intact and leave just enough of the top so you can still see a little green. Two roots will give you an ungodly amount of seed!

As you can see in the picture, some of the leaves have been chewed on a bit. Since we’re growing them for ourselves and not for market, I don’t really care about a few holes in the leaves and would rather not spray them with anything. However during warm weather, we really have to watch out for Harlequin bugs. They can suck the life out of a large crop of turnips in just a few days and can be controlled with a simple Pyrethrum (organic) or Permethrin (the synthetic version) solution.

Turnips are high in vitamins B6 and C, folate, calcium, potassium, copper and manganese. The greens are a powerhouse of vitamin A and a good source of vitamins C, E and K. It has also been suggested that foods from the Brassica family (cabbage, broccoli, turnips, etc.) help lower estrogen levels, possibly lowering the risk of breast cancer.

The small green thinnings are delicious as a spicy salad green, though I prefer to cook the older greens. To prepare the older greens for cooking, after washing and separating the stems, grab the stem in one hand and strip the green off with the other. You can chop the greens smaller if you like, but they will wilt down quite a bit during cooking. We like ours cooked with a little salt pork or bacon and onion, but I remember as a vegetarian I really didn’t care for the smoked meat flavor even if I had been willing to eat it. They are equally good braised in a little olive oil with some onions. During the spring, the greens may seem a little bitter. I’ve heard that can be corrected with a little sugar, but a little vinegar seems to do a better job.

As for the roots… well, let’s just say if you give me a choice between potatoes and turnips, I’m going to choose the turnips every time, though I guess that’s an acquired taste. They are delicious added to a pot roast or roasted on the grill. However, I love them creamed. I take several coarsely chopped turnips and add them to a heavy saucepan with a little butter and salt and set them on a slow burner. The salt will extract the liquids and you can braise them without adding any water. Add a little cream and mash them just like potatoes. They are exquisite!

I didn’t grow up eating turnips but I got to them as fast as I could! J
2 Gallons Raw Greens = 1.5 Quarts Cooked

Friday, May 6, 2011

Tastebud Royalty

Vegetable Side of Summer Squash & Pearl Onions
I am thankful to have been raised the way I was. My father was a farmer and we’d never heard anything as ludicrous as “voluntary simplicity”. For most of the people I grew up around, simplicity was completely involuntary and it was just a fact of life. And of course, being in a small town, we didn’t have a lot of choices what purchases we made. Food wasn’t grown year round in hothouses and shipped all over the country 40 years ago. Most everyone had a small garden or knew someone that would share with them.

We “put in” our garden in April. It was simple – sweet corn (my mother calls it field corn, but it was just an open-pollinated variety that isn’t as sweet as the hybrids), black-eyed peas, yellow crookneck and pattypan squash (we’d never heard of zucchini), cucumbers, tomatoes, bell peppers, cantaloupes and watermelons. Some years we grew pinto bean snaps (still my favorite green bean of all) and most years we did a small patch of onions, radishes and potatoes in the spring. My mother sure knew how to ruin a perfectly good summer morning by announcing we were heading out to pick those cursed bleah-ck-eyed peas! And of course, she canned enough of them that we had to eat them ALL YEAR! (I’ve never quite gotten over my hatred of black-eyed peas but my husband loves them, so I grow and eat them too.)

My dad prized watermelon over just about everything else and every summer a war would ensue between him and the coyotes over the melons. We slept with the doors and windows open so he could hear the dog bark when they were in the melon patch. Course a shotgun blast in the middle of the night is nothing unusual when you live in the boonies!

Salads were a different approach growing up too. Nowadays everyone thinks a “salad” must by definition contain lettuce or spinach. I knew no one who grew those things near us and the only lettuce available at the grocery was iceberg. Spinach came in cans. At our table, a salad was a plate of sliced red-ripe tomatoes and cucumbers with a sour cream dressing. Or maybe cherry tomatoes and bell pepper slices. There was often a drinking glass filled with crisp spring onions and radishes standing in a little cold water. Dessert might have been dead-ripe peaches sprinkled with a little sugar or fresh melon slices.

My dad’s approach to food was very simple. If he grew it, it was delicious. Lip-smacking delicious. It never occurred to me that I might dislike anything that was set before me. But one time a childhood friend from town came out to spend the night and my mother served some of her home-canned corn at the evening meal. The little girl wouldn’t touch it because it had a little black pepper in it! I was probably 6 or 7 and I thought her behaviour was just bizarre. Little did I know at that very moment, we were cranking out an entire generation of people who were learning to eat what their tastebuds demanded rather than eat local food grown in season.

When we moved here and I realized I could garden freely in any amount I wanted, I was stunned by the possiblities! As garden catalogs began arriving in the mail, I realized there were a great many things I’d never even tried. Or if I’d tried them, they’d been canned or poorly prepared and I didn’t much care for them. We certainly never had anything as exotic as beets, carrots, turnips or winter squash where I grew up. I decided right then and there that I would LEARN to like anything I could grow. And I did.

A couple years later as I started growing with the intent of selling, I found out real fast that others did not share my philosophy. I don’t care how much people scream the words “organic” and “green” and “seasonal”, just TRY to get them to eat something they’ve never had before or think they don’t like because it’s in season and what’s available right then. Give them a recipe to prepare it and they’ll look at it like it’s in Greek because they don’t know how to cook. Tell those people we can’t grow lettuce and spinach in Texas during the summer and they’ll high-tail it straight to the supermarket to get some that was grown in California.

The really funny part? Supermarket produce has almost NO flavor compared to what you can grow yourself, and it doesn’t matter how pretty or fresh it is. I learned early on that stringless green beans are almost completely flavorless. But if you give a consumer the choice of those or beans they have to string themselves, EVEN if you tell them the latter have a better flavor, almost every time they’ll choose the stringless because they’re too lazy to string them.

Sweet corn is another flavorless choice from the grocery. Many of the older varieties of corn aren’t ridiculously sweet. They taste like…. corn. Modern hybrids taste like sugar and often there’s not even a hint of corn flavor. Furthermore, the sugar in corn begins turning to starch immediately on picking it so when you find it pre-husked & shrink-wrapped on a styrofoam tray, you can be assured it’s going to taste like packing peanuts. Without the good flavor of packing peanuts.

Same with melons. They are now bred and selected to be sweet with nary a hint of any other flavor. I’ll never forget the first time I smelled a Charentais melon ripening in the garden. It had rained the day before and the melon had split open. The smell was maddening! Most all of the older heirloom melons actually have flavor and not just high sugar content. They are no longer grown for mass market because they don’t ship well or they’re not the right color or the fruits are not a uniform size like the sweet hybrids.

Kids learn to eat and like what their parents eat and like and it’s only after they’re exposed to convenience food and the culture that spawned it that they become strongly opinionated about what they eat. I’m not saying that a child doesn’t have an opinion about, say, broccoli or beets or brussels sprouts, but when a child can say with a straight face that he doesn’t like vegetables of any kind, there’s something wrong with the society he lives in and the people that raised him to think that way. (He also has poor manners if he says that at the table of someone who's painstakingly prepared a meal, but that’s a whole other can of worms!)

Simple foods need little else to make them taste good. So when I hear the snobby Tastebud Royalty complaining that they don’t like this and they don’t like that and they don’t care for something else, the joke is on them. Their tastebuds have just never experienced real food on a regular basis. Furthermore, they’ve probably never actually been hungry. Our tastebuds comprise less than 1% of all the cells in our body that are hungry for REAL food – they can be ignored occasionally. J