These are sexy, magazine-ready Hakurei turnips…probably photoshopped!
These are honest-to-goodness Hakureis just out of the ground.
Even though I’m a 20-plus-year gardener who rises to the defense of almost any vegetable, if you say the word turnip, my first thought is still a mustardy-tasting mash, sitting unwanted on a plate, probably having been served as part of some retro, World War II Victory Garden dinner. Or I think of one of my first memories of rural Oregon, a drive I took to Canby, where I witnessed a gigantic pile of the root crop in a field, being chomped by three somnolent bovines. Either way, there’s nothing too trendy or sexy about those images. Why, then, would I plant turnips as part of the rooftop garden at one of Portland’s most happening wine bars? Well, because turnips have come a long way since the days of Winston Churchill, and they now deserve pride of place far beyond the cow pasture. As evidence of that, I offer for your consideration the Hakurei turnip, a marvel of Japanese breeding.
According to the Cooking Channel blog ( http://blog.cookingchanneltv.com/2011/07/16/hakurei-turnips-recipes-and-tips/) on Hakureis, turnips are thousand-year-old crops and were favored by the European nobility, but I suspect the older version of the crop was probably royally hailed because it provided relief from a steady diet of potatoes. I am glad a Japanese plantsman of the 50s had the vision to say, “No, we can do better!” and then did. Thank you, Hakurei hybridizer! Give me the most jaundiced, prejudiced turnip haters you know, and I’ll wager that after just one bite of a Hakurei – a raw bite at that – they will instantly convert OR deny that what they have just eaten is a turnip. Other turnips are dim versions of turnip-ness; Hakurei is the Platonic idea. Hakurei is uncharacteristically sweet, succulent, and crisp white, gymnasically versatile from the extremes of the crudité platter to the roasting pan.
At the Noble Rot rooftop garden I plant Hakureis all through the late summer and early fall. Spring plantings, while respecting the vegetable’s preference for cooler weather, have caused me problems due to the lengthening days. All but the earliest plantings bolt (start producing seed versus fattening the root), so I now reserve all Hakureis for post-solstice planting. That said, I have had delicious spring Hakurei turnips grown from a January planting in a greenhouse (not mine, nor on a rooftop), which seemed to provide the necessary heat and moderated environment to mature an early crop.
I’ll never forget a dish that Noble Rot chef Leather Storrs made from three or four shooter-marble-sized Hakureis with their greens. He separately cooked the roots (maybe par-boiled then finished off with a glaze….can’t remember exactly) and the greens (a quick sautee to brighten the color), then arranged the trimmed roots in the center of the plate as “eggs” with a protective “nest” of greens surrounding. That’s a brilliant vegetable being made more brilliant by scintillating culinary imagination. Plus, as I alluded to before, one need not have much imagination to appreciate them. The things are sweet, juicy, and firm in the raw as well, so they will still wow as crudité and sliced into salads as if a radish.
Turnips: It’s not all just about the roots. Don’t forget the greens!
Oh, yes, and there’s the greens as well. A southern gardener some years ago taught me a turnip trick that works well in the home garden. Turnip greens can be allowed to grow full and thick, then can be clear cut down to a couple inches above the top of the just-swelling root, the plants thinned at that point (baby ones eaten, yum, yum), and the remainder allowed to grow a new set of greens and bulk up in size. It’s a great two-fer from the same patch. Thankfully it doesn’t take a great chef’s culinary imagination to think of what to do with that pile of turnip greens. Even my weak chef brain gets it: put some cornbread in the oven and some bacon grease heating in a cast-iron pan!
I have to remind myself not to assume that the Hakurei turnip is the sine qua non, the apotheosis of what this vegetable may have in its genetic stock for us. We certainly know that we’ve gotten some of the worst turnip material out of the way, and perhaps even better things than Hakurei are still to come. In that spirit I’m still open to trialing other varieties, BUT it’s a high bar that any comer is going to have to leap to even equal the memorable, the marvelous Hakurei.
Trying something new: Territorial’s “Just Right” hybrid turnip. We’ll see how it holds up to Hakurei!