Wintery turnips turn up in summer

June 24, 1998|By Rob Kasper

I was not prepared to deal with turnips in June. I tend to think of turnips as winter fare, a bulbous root you eat when there is snow on the ground and a bite in the wind. Yet Sunday morning, as I wandered through the farmers' market under the Jones Falls Expressway at Saratoga Street in downtown Baltimore, I had a surprise meeting with a bunch of freshly harvested turnips.

They were thrust upon me by Scott Williams, who along with his wife, Cinda Sebastian, and their kids, Carlisle and Waverly, grows vegetables on their Carroll County farm and sells them at area markets. Until the encounter with the turnips, I had been in a summer-food mood. Wearing shorts and a T-shirt, I had been moseying around the various stands, buying strawberries, sour cherries and potatoes.

Along the way I had questioned various farmers about the summer's coming attractions. Les and Pam Pahl told me the sweet corn on their Western Baltimore farm looks promising. They added that if the weather is cooperative and the deer don't get too hungry, sweet corn could be out of the fields and onto the supper table in a few weeks.

The cantaloupes are just a few weeks away from harvest, said Robert W. Knopp Jr., a Severn farmer. I looked forward to July and breakfast dates with those sweet melons.

As I arrived at Williams' stand, he filled my order for salad greens and also filled me in on the just-completed successful season of his son's Little League team. A bit later his teen-age daughter answered my questions about the start of her swim-team season. In the midst of this summertime talk, Williams handed me a bunch of turnips. Try these, he urged.

I thought of telling him that my family background prevented me from associating with turnips in warm weather. I had been raised to believe that turnips showed up only in the winter. I also had been taught that eating turnips gave you big biceps.

The sources of these beliefs are my father and "Li'l Abner," the newspaper comic strip created by Al Capp. Every time a bowl of steaming turnips appeared on our family table, my father would announce to my brothers and me that turnips were Mammy Yokum's favorite food. As avid readers of the comic strip, we knew that Mammy was Li'l Abner's mother, a gal with a strong will and big biceps who presided over the community of Dogpatch. Mammy did not work out with weights. Instead, she got big arms by eating turnips.

So as a kid I ate turnips, or tried to. I can't say that I was ever in love with turnips, so I didn't eat a lot of them. Maybe that is why my arms never got very big.

But those were turnips that had been harvested in cold weather. Maybe warm-weather turnips would be different. That is what I told myself Sunday morning as I carried the turnips home from the market. I convinced myself that eating June turnips might expand my culinary horizons as well as my biceps.

We had the turnips for dinner, mixed in with some mashed potatoes. The flavor of the turnips seemed to get lost in the potatoes, but my arms felt stronger.

For my next experiment I plan to bake warm-weather turnips in the oven with a little water, then sprinkle them with some Parmesan cheese and finish them off under the broiler. I like cheese.

Besides, if I want to be like Mammy, I am going to have eat turnips, even in June.

Baked Spring Turnips

Serves 4-6

6 turnips

2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 shallots, or 1 small white onion, minced

1 glove garlic, minced

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Heat the oven to 450 degrees. Peel the turnips and cut until they are about the size of a new potato.

Pour a thin film of olive oil into a 7-inch oven-proof (gratin) dish. Sprinkle with the minced shallots and the garlic. Arrange the turnips on top, and add just enough water to rest the turnips in.

Bake for 20 minutes, then test the turnips with the point of a knife. If they're still hard, add a little hot water and cook for another 10 minutes. Repeat until the turnips can be pierced easily.

Heat the broiler. Sprinkle Parmesan cheese over the turnips and broil until golden brown, about 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, and serve immediately.

-- From "Sweet Basil, Garlic, Tomatoes and Chives," by Diana Shaw (Crown, 1992, $20)

Pub Date: 6/24/98

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