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?

Attack of the Rhombus Ravioli

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An artist’s impression of my kitchen at 6PM last night

I’m starting to wonder if I’ve taken too much on.

Part time work, full time parenting, this food blog, and my challenge to master every technique in Leith’s Technique Bible. What was I thinking when I chose to do something with the word “challenge” in its name? My whole life as a working mother is a challenge!

In any case, the wheels are clearly starting to come off.

That’s because last night I not only failed to make ravioli – I failed to rescue anything resembling a meal from the fiery wreckage.

While the first of those things has been known to happen on occasion (ravioli are hard, people), the second is a bit more unusual. In fact, I pride myself on being a quick-thinking cook who can take something to the table each night. Even if that something doesn’t bear much of a resemblance on the original dish. I am the queen of Plan B.

But last night, I tore through plans A to D, and ended up collapsed in a heap somewhere around W.

The ravioli started to go wrong when I made the filling.  And yes, I’m aware that’s the first part of the recipe. As soon as I’d mixed the pumpkin, bread crumbs and egg together, I knew the proportions were out. The filling was obviously too wet. Did I stop to adjust? No, not I! I forged ahead, and in doing so sowed the seeds of my own doom.

The next set of alarm bells I chose to ignore began to clang when I was making the pasta dough. I could make pasta dough in my sleep, but apparently, not this Wednesday. I added too much flour to the dough, and thought “I’ll just use the leftover flour when I’m rolling  it out”. Instead, I spent a long time trying to force the dough to take the excess flour. So now I had a wet filling and preternaturally stiff pasta.

Of course I decided to try my new ravioli wheel. This unwise experiment naturally ended with rhombus-shaped ravioli that refused to stick together and oozed filling.

Instead of calling it quits, I decided to try making larger ravioli. And then I decided to try making tortellini. And then I decided to fry the oozing ravioli rhombuses, because hadn’t I seen fried ravioli on an episode of Kitchen Nightmares once?

At this point, I can almost hear you yelling, “Why doesn’t she just stop?” We’ll get to that in a moment.

But first, I need to tell you that I burnt the fried ravioli. While they were on the stove I wandered off to help MJ locate her lost phone. I returned to a scene out of a public-service announcement. Smoke billowed from the pan, and the singed-pumpkin tang of failure hung in the air.

So I wiped out the pan, and put on another batch of fried ravioli.

Ten minutes later, MJ and Zool sat down to eat dinner. On each of their plates was four fried ravioli and some of my mother’s green tomato relish. Possibly sensing that now was not the time to play food critic, MJ made positive noises and ate the snack-sized meal without complaint.

I was left with two questions. What were we actually going to eat for dinner? and, Why had I kept going with the dish when, deep down, I knew it wasn’t going to work?

The first problem was solved by an emergency dash to the supermarket, to procure what Michael Pollan would call “a food-like substance”.

The second question was a bit trickier. It’s the sort of question that easily spawns others. Why did I keep marching grimly down the path to ravioli failure? Why did I ignore so many red flags that the dish was a dud? Why did I decide to make ravioli from scratch on a weeknight? I could go on.

There are many reasons I kept cooking the ravioli. A fear of wastefulness; a desire to find refuge in cooking a consumingly complex dish; the brain-frying exhaustion of being a working mother. But I think the main reason is that I am stubborn. And that’s a good thing. Stubborn is the flip-side of determined, and determined the reason I’m writing this blog post at 11PM afer a long, long day, while my toddler snores softly next to me.

I might be going a bit nuts, but if my default setting is to push through, then I think I’ll make it through everything. Even this crazy self-imposed challenge.

 

Have you ever persevered with a meal long past the point of common sense? Did you end up congratulating yourself for your determination, or cursing your stubbornness?

Weekly Reading #5

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

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‘Happy Easter’, from Zool’s Easter chickens

The Easter Edition

  • Easter in Norway from Thanks for the Food is exactly what is says on the tin. I am part Norwegian, but have had a lot of trouble reconnecting with the culture that died out in my family with my grandparents’ generation. Slice-of-life articles like this are great if you’re trying to immerse yourself in the Norwegian way of life. So break out the Easter chickens, and have a happy Norwegian Easter.
  • The BBC News Magazine asks How Did Hot Cross Buns Become Two a Penny? in their short history of commercially available buns. The comments are well worth a look too.
  • If all of this good cheer is leaving you feeling positively Medieval, head over to read Medieval Easter Traditions by a Medievalist Errant. Rolling (possibly rotten) eggs, free feasts, and tying people up in bed – if that doesn’t cheer you up, I don’t know what will.

On My Stove

There’s a very sensible reason why I chose the name of this blog. And then there’s the real reason.

If we’re being practical, onthestove.net meets all of the recommendations for a website name: three words or less; all words in common use; no difficult spellings; easy to say and remember; evokes the ethos of my brand. All of that. It even has a nifty double meaning – literally what’s being cooked; and a reference to the literary naming convention of calling a treatise “On the…”.

It’s all very clever.

But writing all that satisfied me intellectually even as it left me cold.

Here is the real reason behind the name:

I chose “On the Stove” because those words transport me to my little white stove. I am peering into a pot. The smell is immediate. There are tomatoes in that pot, just turning from pale and slippery to stiff and crimson. I feel hot. Not the near-to-death heat of frying wontons in the middle of an Australian summer, but the full-body warmth that comes from intimate proximity with a simmering liquid. My hand flits down to the temperature knobs, nudging them up and down, almost subconsciously. I know that stove as if it was a part of my body.

The vivid moments in my life come standing next to that stove – even more so than sitting at the table eating what I’ve cooked there.

Just like the hearth in previous eras, that gave warmth and food (and gods and goddesses and customs and ritual and layer upon layer of significance), that stove is the centre of my household. It is where I stand when I’m not working, and where my family comes to find me to ask “Are we going soon?”, or “Where’s my work uniform”, or “Why does water bulge a little above the top of a full cup?” (1)

The stove is the place at which ingredients from outside our house become the food we consume as a family.

Writing that gives me a thrill. I want to run to the kitchen and scrub my stove; to perform an act of worship with crème cleaner and a scouring pad.

So join me as I immerse myself in the possibilities of cooking, and explore the ways that people through human history have turned ingredients into food. And please, let me know – what’s on your stove?

(1) “Not yet”, “In your wardrobe”, and “Surface tension”