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Inspired Ingredients – Hakurei Turnips

Something I learned from my first visit to Stone Barns is how corporatized and streamlined our food experience has become. There are thousands of varieties of every crop out there––carrots, beans, peppers, lettuces, radishes––each with a unique flavor, yes, but also each of which takes and gives something different to the soil and ecosystem as a whole. But in an effort to make the supermarket experience as monochrome, frictionless, and predictable as possible, the corporate powers-that-be have focused our food systems on monoculture and cultivating one or maybe two types of a single crop to present to consumers. So, when you go to any supermarket in the country, you can get the same Bugs-Bunny-Orange carrots, and maybe a purple carrot, but would be hard pressed to find a glorious Scarlet Nantes, for example.

So, I thought I might inaugurate a new series, "Inspired Ingredients," this time focusing on the things that are the building blocks of all our meals––you guessed it––ingredients! In particular, I will be spotlighting specialized ingredients with which you might not be familiar, and stuff that is a little different from your homogenized, fertilizer-enhanced produce that comes from the grocery store. And, of course, each feature will be seasonal! Finally, I want to emphasize the different things that can be done with an ingredient while minimizing waste, another important focus of my food journey lately.

Enjoy the first installment, featuring delicate, sweet Hakurei turnips!

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Turnips have a lengthy history and have been documented as a food source in societies going as far back as ancient Greece and Persia. In Europe, they were the starchy vegetable of choice for the nobility until the potato took root (lol) in the 19th century. We don't see a ton of them in American cooking, perhaps because of their penchant for becoming bitter when poorly cooked, and perhaps also because we, too, love potatoes so much!

Hakurei turnips have become a bit of a cult item in the culinary world, and were first cultivated during some of the food insecurity that gripped Japan in the aftermath of World War II. They are known for being small, easy to prepare, delightfully sweet, and utilitarian, since they can be eaten raw, unlike other varieties of turnip. Dan Barber famously includes Hakureis (when in season) on this ever-present first course veggie board at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. I didn't have any during my visit, but my understanding is that Dan Barber helped push the humble Hakurei into the limelight (as he has done with so many other crops).

I have forged a new relationship with Fair Share Farms, a North Carolina farm that also contracts with local and organic producers of milk, cheese, eggs, bread, and other products and delivers them weekly to a parking lot just across the street from my office at Davidson. I had been searching for a local creamery and chicken farm for milk and eggs, and discovered just that and so much more with Fair Share––it's a wonderful thing. Each week, their list of products is different, but often features seasonal produce grown at their own farm and ripe for harvest. Such was the case this week with a gorgeous bunch of Hakurei turnips.

Finding the turnips

One of my goals with this series is to encourage both of my loyal readers to avoid the corporate food chain and therefore spotlight ingredients for which you'll have to look locally. You likely won't find these little bundles of joy at your local supermarket, and may have to find a specialty food store or farmers market if you'd like to try them. Still can't find? Ask around or do research about local farms, like Fair Share, who sell directly to consumers. I'll always encourage people to find produce locally and go for what is available and in season, but if you have a real hankering for Hakureis after reading this blog post (which you might!), you can also try to find them mail-order.

These turnips grow well in colder times, so you can probably start to find little Hakureis in the early spring (or even in February, as I did in warmer North Carolina) at the farmers market, or more mature bundles later in the season.

Prepping the turnips

The beauty of these things is there's not much you have to do with them to get them ready to go, nor is there much of the plant that is wasted in the process! Detach the greens from the roots and save them––Americans often get root veggies and detach and discard the greens from the top, which are full of nutrients and can add a delicious, unique component to a variety of dishes (and remember, you can always save the greens for a different dish!). Turnip greens have a vegetal, almost slightly bitter quality and can be used, for example, in recipes that call for things like arugula or radicchio. Don't waste them (or the stems!).

As with any root veggie, it's important to wash the dirt off the bulb and rinse the greens, but Hakurei turnips don't need to be peeled. The only thing you'll want to snip and discard is the little root protruding from the end. Once your turnips are clean, trimmed, and separated between root and green, you're ready to go!

Using the turnips

Hakureis are some of the few varieties of turnips you can eat raw, giving them the nickname "salad turnips" for their possible use in salad. I will recommend that, if the ingredient allows, both of my loyal readers taste an ingredient in its raw form before cooking with it or adding anything to it.

Raw. Just like radishes, little Hakureis can be eaten raw or sliced thin and added to salads or side dishes as a garnish. They are crispy and fresh, with a glorious sweetness. Consider making them a part of your salad course, or perhaps constructing a salad made up of a variety of thinly-shaved root veggies. The leaves, too, can be used raw in salads.

Pickled or preserved. A great crime in the American food system is that most of us don't know how to preserve our food. It's so easy to go to the supermarket and buy something that we have lost the traditions of food preservation that had been passed down for generations to sustain populations in times of food scarcity. Not only do preservation methods wildly increase the variety of flavors you can add to your home cooking, but they also help eliminate food waste by preserving something you bought and, say, intended to cook but never got to. Or, if you're jonesing to do something like live off the land and grow your own produce (a lifestyle I am eyeing more and more these days), you can preserve what you grow in the warmer months for consumption in the colder months.

Do yourselves a favor and learn more about food preservation techniques to add another layer to your cooking! Whether it's curing, fermenting, pickling, jam-making, or dehydrating, there are countless methods of food preservation. I myself am just starting to get into food preservation methods in my own kitchen––one great resource (a project of my alma mater!) has been the National Center for Home Food Preservation, which has all sorts of great resources and how-to guides.

Pickling is a great method for preserving turnips. I did a flash-pickle of some of mine after slicing them into quarters and wound up with some flavorful, crisp, tangy, but still sweet pickled turnips that can add some wonderful acidity to salads, garnishes, sandwiches, and side dishes. Yum! Check out that link above for a great recipe for flash-pickling, something that can be done with almost any veggie.

Cooking. Of course, cooking is a great way to deal with turnips! Hakureis can be added to any root veggie roast, sautéed until just golden brown on their own, or even sliced thin and fried like a potato chip. They will take on different characters based on the way they are prepared––for example, a sauté will give them a buttery profile, while roasting to perfection enhances the natural sweetness of the root. A purée of turnips is also a killer option for an accompaniment to a composed dish. Only thing to watch out for, however, is that turnips will get very bitter if they're overcooked, so be careful not to cook them too hard, no matter which approach you try!

For the stems and greens, a simple preparation is best––sauté in olive oil and a bit of garlic and salt until just wilted. I like to VERY quickly blanche my greens in boiling water (followed by an ice water bath) before sautéing them to get a vibrant color and more robust flavor.

Recipe spotlight: Ginger, soy, and honey-glazed Hakurei turnips

I did a bunch of searches for a dish that could feature all the parts of the turnip, including the stems and greens, and found two that appealed to me, so I decided to somewhat combine them. This recipe emphasizes the flavors of the country of origin of this turnip (Japan) as well as the sweetness of the particular type, and makes a killer side veggie dish for any manner of protein. It's also a delicious meal on its own, with starch and green vegetables and plenty of nutrients. Add it to a ginger-marinated chicken or salmon filet, or a savory quinoa, perhaps, to contribute a complete protein!

Shopping list:

- Hakurei turnips

- Ginger root

- Fresh garlic

- Honey or brown sugar

- Soy sauce

- Sesame oil, olive oil, or butter

- Yuzu, lemon, or lime

- Optional: broth or stock, mirin, sake, fish sauce

I always recommend having everything ready to go before beginning to cook, a system that results in what the French call a mise-en-place:

1) Wash and trim the turnips, removing the greens. Chop the turnip roots into halves, or even quarters, depending on how big they are. Chop the stems and leaves into about one- to two-inch lengths, getting longer as the stalks get leafier.

2) Finely mince a clove of garlic or two and grate about a half inch to an inch worth of fresh, peeled ginger root. I like to use my microplane for grating ginger. If you'd like to add even more citrus flavor,

Add a bit of fat to a pan over medium heat. When oil/butter is shimmering, add garlic and ginger and sauté a minute or two until fragrant. Deglaze the pan carefully with a little bit of water, mirin, sake, or broth and add a couple tablespoons of honey or brown sugar and soy sauce, stirring to combine. If you want more umami, add a couple splashes of Thai fish sauce. Add turnips to the pan, cut-side-down, and cover about a third to half of the way with the same liquid you used to deglaze. Stir again until combined and bring to a simmer.

Reduce this mixture over medium heat until the liquid is syrupy and the turnips are tender and golden. Be careful not to overcook the turnips, as they can turn bitter quickly––if the turnips look done before the glaze is sufficiently reduced, you'll need to remove them with tongs or a slotted spoon and continue to reduce the liquid, adding them back to the glaze to coat once the reduction is ready.

Meanwhile, do a flash-blanche of the greens and stems in a colander by boiling some water, dropping the greens in the boiling water for a couple of seconds, and then transferring them immediately to an ice water bath. Remove from water and allow the greens to drain.

Once the turnips are cooked and glazed, wipe the pan of glaze and add a bit of oil and soy sauce to the same pan. Heat over medium-low flame and then add the greens, cooking until just wilted. For acidity, I like to finish off the greens with a squeeze of lemon, lime, or, if you can find it, yuzu, and also a bit of zest. Alternatively, if you have some of your flash-pickled turnips, including a few of those is another great way to add acid to the dish!

Here you have a perfect little dish––tender, rich, aromatic, and sweet turnips with an umami component from the shoyu (and fish sauce, if you used it), a bit of spice and heat from the ginger and garlic, and savory but slightly tangy greens to tie it all together.

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Hope you all enjoyed the first in my new series! Keep your eyes open for new ingredients, and think of ways to use as much of them as possible. I have no idea what I will feature next, but I am excited to see what Fair Share Farms and other local growers are producing, and hope to bring you at least one of these featurettes every month.

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