Here’s a tale of two turnips, one big, one small. One a quick crop, one slow. One for fresh eating, the other for winter storage.
When I was growing up, storage turnips were the only kind I knew. They were round globes at least baseball size, yellow, white, or purple-topped. We made a point of eating them at Thanksgiving, strong-flavored and richly buttered.
Some of the yellow ones were probably rutabagas, a close relative also known as Swedish turnips or just Swedes. I have a soft spot in my heart for this larger version, because it’s a champion keeper, and many years ago it got me through a lean winter when I was first eating out of my garden.
Gardeners in recent years seem to favor fresh-dug winter root crops over ones for long- term storage, and it’s easy to see why. How often do you see a house listed for sale that boasts a root cellar?
Walling off a corner of a regular cellar and using a cellar window for ventilation is a great project that makes stored roots easily accessible. But that’s a much bigger project than building (or buying) a few cold frames, erecting a simple plastic-covered greenhouse, or setting out a row of plastic-covered hoops to make a grow tunnel.
In areas where winters are less than fierce — read, our region except last winter — you can use a covering of straw or evergreen boughs, or look for extra-hardy varieties that need no protection at all. Brett Grohsgal, at Even’ Star Farm in Lexington Park, Md., is the leading pioneer of that approach.
Among the root crops we dig fresh in winter at our farm are carrots, baby beets, scallions, radishes, leeks, parsnips and a little white Japanese turnip called Hakurei, which we harvest at golf ball size.
Hakurei turnips taste sweet, like so many crops that are harvested young and, even more important, harvested in cool or cold weather. They’re so mild-flavored that they’re barely recognized as turnips, and so tender and crisp that they can be eaten raw, just like radishes. (Their tops are more tender and tasty than other turnips’ greens as well.) I slice the roots thinly to put in salads or to toss into a stir-fry for the final minute or two of cooking. They’ve taken the place of the water chestnuts that once gave my stir-fries an appealing crunch. I cook with them often, but a brief saute is better than roasting, since so much of their content is water, easily lost.
Sown in late summer, Hakurei turnips are ready in 38 days, to pull as needed. Then keep re-sowing to have a succession of harvests throughout the fall and winter, followed by later winter harvests to pick in the cool weather of early spring. We find that sowings made between mid-November and mid-December want to go to seed quickly after the golf-ball stage, but that’s the size when they taste best anyway.
I’ll cook up a bunch of them for the Thanksgiving table, with a squirt of maple syrup added just before serving. But truth to tell, I’m also feeling nostalgia for a buttery bowl of good old Swedes — hearty, deep-flavored and thoroughly satisfying.
Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”
Before storing wooden garden stakes, allow mud to dry and remove it with a stiff brush. Stakes should be bundled and stored in a dry space for the winter. Don’t leave stakes lying around the garden; ground moisture will cause them to rot and they may attract termites.
— Adrian Higgins