For years, home cooks have asked me what to do with the turnips that inevitably show up in farmers' markets, grocery-store produce bins, and CSA shares in spring and fall.
And as much as I love turnips and their mild, slightly cabbage-like flavor, I can relate to this problem. Turnips are wonderful steamed or boiled and served with nothing more than a pat of butter, but you can't eat them like this more than a few times per season without getting restless. You need to be open to a little experimentation if you want to serve turnips in appealing ways, and you definitely need to embrace fat as a flavor enhancer.
What to look for when buying turnips
Most of the turnips sold in American markets are quite lovely in appearance, with a violet bloom around the stem end that fades into creamy white near the root. On the inside, they're white and somewhat crisp and watery; crunchy, like jícama, when raw, but not especially flavorful that way.
Small turnips tend to be milder and less woody in texture than large ones, but if you can only find big ones, make sure they're firm and heavy. (Turnips are only sometimes sold with their greens still attached, but when they are, the leaves can be a good indicator of freshness; wilting and yellowing are bad signs.) Luckily, turnips keep for weeks in the refrigerator, which buys you some time to decide what to do with them.
When you are ready to use them, peel them, take off the rough spot at the stem end, and cut them into pieces if they're large. If you've ruled out steaming or boiling, try my second go-to turnip-cooking technique, braising: Cook them in butter, stirring only occasionally, until they begin to brown, then add enough stock to cover them, a pinch of sugar, and some salt and pepper. Let the mixture bubble steadily until you can pierce the turnips easily with a thin-bladed knife. You can serve these as is (with some chopped parsley for garnish, if you like), or you can stir in a couple spoonfuls of mustard, a squeeze of lemon juice, a splash of cream, or some miso thinned with a little more stock. Turnips cooked this way are sweet-gently caramelized, really -- and irresistibly tender.
If you have company, you might want a slightly showier presentation. If I'm serving turnips to guests, I usually go one of two ways. The first is to roast them with duck. Rich duck and mellow turnips are a fabulous combination, especially when cooked in the same pan; the turnips brown in the duck drippings and absorb that dark, fatty flavor.
My second more or less elegant way to serve turnips is to purée them with butter and plenty of sour cream. Puréed turnips are velvety and slightly starchy without being too heavy. They make a beautiful bed for roasted or braised pork or chicken, and they're easily varied: Try adding roasted garlic or minced onions -- or, to take them in the opposite direction, a drizzle of honey or maple syrup.
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