When describing a person, hearty means vigorous, joyful, and full of heart, perhaps calling to mind a cheerful farmer plowing into a huge breakfast after having completed the morning chores. Heartiness in vegetables is a double-edged sword, as often the heartier vegetables are stored in a haphazard fashion, or tarry forever in the supermarket aisle or crisper drawer. Like other storage crops, the hearty turnip arrives in late fall and can be table fodder all winter—if it is properly stored. For this reason, it is considered a rustic, even low-brow vegetable, although the flavor progression from fresh (mild) to storage (spicy, assertive) can be a test of wintertime pairing and preparation skills.
Turnips themselves are a radiant white root, often marked with purple shoulders. So-called golden turnips are really rutabaga, a close relative that is interchangeable in the kitchen. Beginning in late September or October, baby turnips are harvested to make room underground for their neighbors to grow larger. These little ones are so sweet they can be eaten raw like radishes, or roasted whole without removing any outer flesh. When young turnips appear at the market with their greens still attached, snip them off when you get home, and store these two items separately–the turnips in an open plastic or paper bag, and the greens wrapped in a clean cloth. If they are left intact, the roots (that’s right, the turnips) will continue pulling nutrients from the greens, keeping the turnips nourished but rendering the greens a sickly, slimy yellow. Turnip greens can be stewed or sautéed in the manner of kale, beet greens, and collard greens.
Larger turnips become available later in the fall, when their greens have been “bitten” by frost and killed. While they can stay safe underground for a while, most farmers get them to market before truly bitter weather hits. Grownup turnips have an assertive flavor, and tend to become very spicy. As the weather goes from cool to cold, the turnip’s tang is a perfect counterpoint to the other crops that come in from the cold, such as potatoes and winter squash. Include turnips in roasted vegetable medleys, layered and baked into gratin, and alongside gamier meats like venison, goose, and heritage pork and lamb.
A withered, flaccid turnip is sure to be startling in its flavor—somewhere between bitter and spicy, and woody in texture. To resuscitate such a turnip, peel the outermost ¼ to ½", and soak the remaining root in water to rehydrate the cells. Cook yesterday’s turnips with apples or apple cider, or pair them with starchy, sweet vegetables and plenty of milk, cream or butter.—Lisa Reeder
Modern root cellar storage
In our agricultural past, root cellars were dug into the earth beneath homes and outbuildings, and provided a temperature-controlled setting for storing food and drink. Some cultures even overwintered foods in pits in the ground, cushioned with dried hay or grass and then buried underneath tented dirt.
The modern homesteader will realize that many “storage” crops do not want to be refrigerated; in general, refrigerators are fairly humid, and tend to foster mold growth and decay. It is possible to create a cellar-like space in most homes, but one must think like a root vegetable—cool, dry, dark, protected. Finally, the adage “One bad apple spoils the bunch” is true, not only for apples but also for any fruit or vegetable stored en masse. Choose only intact vegetables and fruit to store.—L.R.
Key elements of root cellaring: Cool, dark, high and dry
Cool. 55 degrees is ideal, but ranging down to 35 degrees is fine if other conditions are held constant.
Dark. Sun and warmth say “spring!” to sleeping roots, so avoid at all costs. Cover windows to keep sunlight out, or tent vegetables with a tarp (but beware the condensation that might ensue).
High. Protect from pests, like mice and bugs. Storage off the floor is best; shelves are ideal as they protect and allow for air circulation while discouraging varmints. Try loading veggies into smaller cardboard boxes that fit the shelves, can be labeled, and offer easy toting to the kitchen. If shelves aren’t an option, set vegetables in cardboard boxes (or milk crates) set into plastic bins on the floor. Cover the top of the bin and box with fabric that will allow some air circulation.
Dry. Humidity is Virginia’s worst enemy when it comes to natural preservation methods. Fruits and vegetables can be covered with burlap or a porous cloth to preserve their own moisture, but should not be subjected to condensation. Modest air circulation is good; cold air seeping through an exterior wall is great.
Don’t forget to check on your veggies! Put on a headlamp and get involved at least once a week. Shift softening vegetables into the refrigerator for immediate use. Change out any boxes or fabric that gets wet or shows signs of mold.