Grandma's turnips get a thoroughly modern makeover
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
When I was growing up, my grandmother always cooked for Thanksgiving. One of the staples of the table was her mashed potatoes and turnips. It was a simple dish: The potatoes were boiled and blended with enough turnips to add an edge, along with a little butter, milk, salt and pepper.
I took over the cooking a few years ago and switched up the menu. I added my stepmom's sweet potato-carrot puree. And, to avoid another baby-food-style mash, I roasted chunks of turnips, potatoes, parsnips and pearl onions instead. But the truth is I have always felt guilty about 86-ing Grandma's recipe.
Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock to the rescue. In "The Gift of Southern Cooking" (Knopf, 2003) I found the recipe for Silken Turnip Soup, a more refined cousin of Grandma's holiday standard. The soup is a pristine white. It looks and tastes as if it contains plenty of cream. In fact, it's mostly turnips, with a little potato to add richness, butter, chicken broth and a touch of nutmeg.
Peacock first tasted Lewis's turnip soup when he visited her in Brooklyn, where she was executive chef at the historic, now-defunct Gage & Tollner restaurant. The pair had met earlier that year at a dinner she cooked at the Georgia governor's mansion. Peacock, then a 25-year-old chef with aspirations to live and cook in Italy, had been smitten with what he describes as the "ethereal, almost indescribable complexity and delicacy" of Lewis's turtle soup.
Peacock arrived for a late Sunday brunch. The first thing Lewis sent out was a small bowl of turnip soup. "It has the illusion of richness, but it's a very lean soup," said Peacock, who is executive chef at the Watershed Restaurant in Decatur, Ga.
He later served this soup with Lewis, who died in 2006, and at several of his own Thanksgiving dinners. "You get that wonderful feeling, but it's not filling. For me, it's a terrific start."
Lightness at the beginning of a feast is essential. You could easily serve a full bowl of turnip soup without spoiling anyone's appetite. But I might serve mine in espresso cups as an hors d'oeuvre.
The soup is a cinch to make. Slow-cook the onions in butter, then add thinly sliced turnips and the potato. Steam them until the vegetables are soft. Add the broth, then puree. Lewis garnished her soup with thinly sliced basil; Peacock likes to use the tiny basil buds that have a floral intensity. I tried it with some finely diced green apple, which added crunch and a hint of tartness. Some toasted rye croutons also would add punch.