Consider the Turnip

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For many people in the English-speaking world, the word ‘turnip’ conjures up a boiled bag of sadness that smells strongly of school. This is a waste of a good – yes, good – vegetable.

The turnip, when not cooked ad nauseum, is crisp, savory, and a good source of Vitamin C. Because of these qualities, it is beloved in many cuisines. The turnip has had a long time to worm its way into people’s hearts as it was one of the earliest vegetables under cultivation.

The first people to look at the slightly thick lower stem of the wild turnip and see potential lived in Northern Europe about 4000 years ago. By the time Roman authors such as Columella were playing “Is it a Turnip or a Swede?” (more on that later), the Turnip Appreciation Society had members stretching from the Middle East to Japan. Its firm texture made it ideal for pickles, while its propensity to caramelize at high temperatures ensured it became a favorite for roasting and frying.

It is a bit of a mystery to me as to why the turnip has fallen out of favor in countries like Britain and Australia. It was possibly a victim of the particularly dreary period of post-war cooking, which left many Britons with life-long aversions to locally grown vegetables. There was also a health scare in the 70s suggesting that turnips could cause goiter. It turns out that excessive consumption only exacerbates goiter in people with pre-existing iodine deficiency; but forty years later there are still twice as many search results on Google for the phrase “turnips goiter” than “turnips recipe”.

Regardless of the cause, the turnip (along with the Swede, silverbeet, and devilishly messy beetroot) have now been relegated to a small corner of the produce department frequented only by very old white ladies and me.

In terms of preparation, the turnip is the same as any other root vegetable. Peel it, and go from there. The most difficult thing about cooking with a turnip is working out just what you’re meant to be buying. Our old friend Columella described two types of turnips – napus and rapa. From those two words, and the later addition of ‘Swede’, has sprung an absolute tangle of words to describe two modern varieties.

For the purpose of this article we are going to use turnip to refer to the white thing with a pink bit up the top.

 

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Exhibit A: Turnips

 

Its yellow cousin – which goes by the name rutabaga, neap, Swede, or sometimes confusingly ‘turnip’ – will be left for another day. (Although if you are really desperate for something to do to a neap in your possession, you could do a lot worse than Clapshot).

 

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Exhibit B: A Swede, ready to be mixed with potatoes, boiled, and then seasoned with chives and butter. Seriously – Clapshot. Get into it.

Once you’ve mastered the difference, and braved the Old White Lady section of the produce isle, what do you do with your hard-won turnip?

  • Yuzu Pickled Turnip – A traditional Japanese side dish; with the added bonus of requiring bottled Yuzu juice which you will have to procure from your nearest Asian grocer (as if you needed an excuse to visit and poke around).
  • Canard aux Navets – In English, ‘Duck with Turnip’. Thankfully the finished product looks more like whatever you imagined when you saw the name in French.
  • Lebanese Pickled Turnips – Very different to their Japanese counterpart. An intriguing dish that taught me to taste bay leaves in a finished product, and which I frequently eat from the jar while standing with the fridge door open.

Turnip season is late winter to spring. If it’s winter where you are, then go forth and reclaim your vegetable heritage. After 4000 years, the turnip belongs to just about everyone.

 

Sardine Pate

 

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Sardine pate with roasted tomatoes and soft cheese on those fancy mini-toasts from the deli.

 

Eating fish is good for us, oily fish in particular. In fact, we’re meant to get through 2 serves (about 300g) of the stuff a week. Most fish, however, is expensive; which presents a real barrier when you’re as broke as we are.

Tinned sardines have the virtue of being both inexpensive and oily. Unfortunately though, they are tinned sardines.

I’ve been searching for ways to serve them up that don’t fill me with the crushing boredom and visceral revulsion that characterises most food when you’re poor. This one is a winner. It combines the colour, texture and savouriness of pate; and all the health benefits of fish. All that for just a couple of dollars!

 

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Sardine Pate (or at least what was left by the time I got to it with a camera).

 

Sardine Pate

Adapted from Ginette Mathiot’s recipe in “I Know How to Cook” for Sardine butter.

Ingredients

2 tins (125g each) of sardines in spring water, drained

A handful of parsley, roughly chopped

2 teaspoons of Dijon mustard

To serve:

Crackers or bread, antipasto such as sundried tomatoes, and cheese

Method

Place sardines, parsley and mustard in a food processor. Pulse until it is the consistency of pate. Taste and add a little more mustard or salt if necessary (there is no need to add salt at the start of the recipe as the tinned sardines will be fairly salty already).

Use as you would any other pate – for example, spread on bread.

Of Tortillas and Self-Knowledge

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So shiny!

 

My new stainless steel tortilla press was calling me.

Its siren song came day and night from the kitchen implement shelf – “Use me to make tortillas! Use me!”

It sounded suspiciously like the voice calling from my laptop (“Use me to write. Use me!”) and my stove (“Use me to create. Use me!”). I didn’t want to resist any of those calls. And yet I was. I hadn’t had a moment to pause in the week since the tortilla press had made a home with us, let alone to enjoy some kitchen experimentation. That’s not to say I couldn’t have fit in a desperate round of tortilla-making. But I couldn’t have fitted in enjoying it.

Mothers aren’t generally lauded for taking pleasure in their non-parenting pursuits. We are congratulated on our ability to multi-task, organise, and to get more done than seems physically possible in any given day. Yes, we are sporadically told to take care of ourselves. But ‘taking care of ourselves’ seems to mean having a glass of wine or the occasional bath. Enjoying an activity unrelated to motherhood over a prolonged period of time falls well outside the boundaries of socially accepted self-care.

Yet I have decided that this is what I want from my cooking. I have enough challenges in my life. What I need is languorous enjoyment of my leisure.

So what will my change in outlook look like on this blog?

The biggest change is that I’m switching to long-form writing. At the end of each month, I’ll publish a piece of narrative non-fiction about food culture and cooking. Throughout the month, I’ll post research petit fours about the topic that have given me joy along the way. Another new feature will be original recipes highlighting the most exciting possibilities related to that month’s topic. My weekly link round up will continue.

I’m also going to slow the pace of my exploration of food culture – meaning that my year at Leiths might become a decade. I want to delve into every aspect of aspics, and learn the subtle difference of sensation in dicing a carrot and a turnip. I want to wallow around in cooking and food culture, rather than rush through it on a self-imposed forced march.

Speaking of aspics, they will be the focus of my first long-form article coming out at the end of May. Please join me for a month of exotic, wobbling, Letihs-inspired jelly. It’s going to be glorious.

 

Readers, what are your secrets for finding the time to truly enjoy food in your day to day life?

On a First Name Basis

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This stock-photo model knows what I’m talking about.

 

I spend a lot of time with Stefano.

We often cook into the evenings, side by side. He makes me more adventurous, urging me to cook with new ingredients and techniques. Stefano has taught me everything I know about Italian cooking.

But I’m not sure if I should call him by his first name. Because despite how well I feel I know him, we’ve never met. Stefano Manfredi is the author of the bible of regional Italian cooking, Stefano Manfredi’s Italian Cooking. Should I call him Mr Manfredi? Just Manfredi, as is the academic convention for an author?

‘Manfredi’ just won’t do, though. Stefano and I have been through too much together to resort to such formality.

Thankfully, I’m not alone in feeling overly-familiar with cookbook authors. Recently I recieved an informal lesson in Jewish cooking from my friend C. As we rolled kibbeh, she told me different methods for making the dish that she had received from her mother and from ‘Claudia’. From C’s comments, I pictured Claudia as a perfectionist maiden aunt who had enough time to beat eggs before combining them with matzo meal. It turned out that she was in fact famed Jewish food historian Claudia Rodan (who is an egg-white beating perfectionist, but unfortunately not C’s maiden aunt).

Even the most tersely written cookbook is an incredibly intimate text. We learn about the life of the author from the headnote. We take advice from cookbook authors about something that is deeply personal – the food we prepare for our friends and family. At a physical level, we perform actions exactly the way the cookbook author has done before us. The relationship between cook and recipe writer involves emotional, mental and physical intimacy.

Hmm. Putting it like that, perhaps it isn’t seem so strange to use someone’s first name.

 

Readers, do you refer to your favorite food writers by their first name? How well do you feel you know them?

Weekly Reading #7

Every Sunday (or at least by the following Wednesday) I’ll share the most interesting articles I’ve read on cooking, eating and food culture in the past week.

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Biscuits as far as the eye can see. 
  • The folks over at The Conversation have some bad news for you. Everything You Eat is Made of Chemicals. The humorous introduction to food science explains how the word ‘chemical’ is misused in the popular discourse around food. It also includes a video of a man pouring multiple cans of Coke on a cast iron trivet. What’s not to love about that?
  • The Difference Between Potato Flour and Potato Starch, by Gluten Free Gigi, is an important read if you intend to use either ingredient. One makes your biscuits thrillingly crumbly, and the other makes them taste like potatoes. Yikes!
  • Finally, in honor of starving writers everywhere, here is 23 Recipes that Celebrate the Humble Bean by Serious Eats. Go bean it up, my friends.

The Danger of Chef as Dietician

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In my (completely unqualified) opinion, if a food can be balanced on a dumbbell then it is healthy. Problem solved.

 

It should be relatively straightforward. Dieticians tell us what to eat. Chefs tell us how to eat it.

But nothing involving humans is ever simple.

In Australia at the moment, celebrity chef Pete Evans is currently enjoying a somewhat troubled moment in the sun. Evans rose to fame as one of the kindly judges of the hapless home-cooks on My Kitchen Rules. (He also keeps tight control of his image, so I can’t post it here, but if you’d like to gaze upon his preternaturally white smile you can do so here.) You wouldn’t think to look at him that he’d be able to generate much controversy, let alone howling hatred. But generate it he has.

Evans’ nickname is ‘Paleo Pete’ and, when he’s not consoling people whose soufflés have fallen on national TV, he is vigorously promoting the Paleo diet. The diet is based around excluding food groups with the aim of returning us to a pre-Industrial level of health. Evans has been accused of advocating food in place of prescribed medicine; recommending bone broth instead of infant formula; and generally speaking too authoritatively on the issue of nutrition for someone who is not, in fact, a dietician.

Though Paleo Pete is advocating a diet that is a bit more controversial than most, he is part of a proud lineage of chefs turned nutrition crusaders. The most prominent is of course Jamie Oliver, who has done battle with everyone from hamburger-clutching American parents, to new mothers who don’t realise just how easy breastfeeding is. In fact, chefs and food writers have been at it for centuries, with most Victorian-era cookbooks including a section on ‘Invalid Cookery’.

It’s made me wonder just who has the right to publically give nutrition advice.

These questions have arisen because, in my challenge to learn every technique in Leith’s Technique Bible, I’m currently up to the section on nutrition.

Leith’s states that it is the cook’s responsibility to know the basics of nutrition, in order to provide a nutritionally-balanced meal to the people they serve. This duty is the same regardless of whether they’re cooking for family, friends, or a corporate buffet of 200 at the Hilton.

Cooks – either of the home or Hilton variety – need to know that a lactating woman requires more calories, a diabetic should have less carbohydrate, and that no one in the world needs a savoury dish that contains a whole carton of double cream. But should they ever publically advocate these positions, and in doing so represent themselves as an expert in human nutrition to a credulous public?

It’s clearly not practical to make every food professional take a vow of secrecy upon learning any health information. However, cooks and food writers (including bloggers like myself) need to take precautions when talking about nutrition.

  • First off, we need to make sure we actually know what we’re talking about. That means finding out what the scientific consensus is, rather than going with our ‘gut feeling’.
  • Secondly, we need to ensure that our training or expertise is clear. In case you’re wondering, I score a ‘0’ on both counts.
  • Finally, we need to link back to sources written by actual dieticians.

As a consumer, if the blogger or chef you’re reading isn’t informed and transparent, then consider if you should listen when they tell you to cut out dairy.

Weekly Reading #6

Every Sunday (Or Monday. Probably Monday) I’ll share the most interesting articles I’ve read on cooking, eating and food culture in the past week.

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Somehow, even though I didn’t have enough time to write a blog post yesterday, I did manage to make these biscuits. And eat all of them.
  • Food History Research Tips is the perfect starting point for any food history research project. The guide is hosted on the Food History timeline, and I wouldn’t recommend venturing into the main part of the site unless you have nothing to do for the rest of the week. It’s seriously addictive history.
  • The Kitchn answers the question: How Much Would You Pay a Professional to Babysit your Sourdough Starter? Reading this article, all I could think of was the scene in Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential where Adam the drug-addled baking savant rings his boss and yells at him, “Feed the bitch…feed the bitch or she’ll die!”
  • Opression Food is a video featuring Chef Sean Sherman (‘The Sioux Chef’). In response to the ‘food deserts’ wreaking havoc on many Native American communities, Chef Sherman advocates a return to pre-colonial foodstuffs as an act of political resistance. Fascinating stuff if you like your dinner with a side of politics.
  •  One for the gamers: some hero at Serious Eats has made the cake from Portal. Apparently It’s Delicious, No Lie.