I was admiring a display of spring produce at the Dane County Farmers' Market a couple of weeks ago when another shopper pointed to the bunches of teeny all-white turnips arranged on the table and asked, "What are these, anyway? They look like colorless radishes." The vendor called them salad turnips, a nicety that often refers to common turnips (the hefty, purple-topped types) in their toddler phase.
In this case, though, they were the less ordinary Tokyo-type turnips, a grown-to-be-small Oriental orb that, like radishes, is usually relegated to the veggies and dip platter in American dining. Both table radishes and salad turnips are great in that venue; they're juicy, crisp, fresh-tasting nibbles that need nothing but sea salt or a zesty dressing to accent them. But they deserve more consideration than that.
Chopped or grated raw, they can make many a salsa, slaw or relish. Cooked until barely tender (any more than that and they lose their mojo), they add intrigue to side dishes and entrees. Steaming, stir-frying, roasting and light braising work better than boiling or microwaving. The bulbs can also be pickled and the greens are edible, too, of course (think soups and sautés, and if they're young use the greens in tossed salads or sandwiches).
Of the two, radishes have more zip and heat. They make a good match with orange zest, ginger or garlic. If they could only have one partner, the best one would be fresh mint, in my book. Slightly bittersweet salad turnips contrast well with even sharper notes - hot peppers, vinegar, curry spices. They both love butter - what vegetable wouldn't? Try slicing them really thin and tucking them between slices of well-buttered bread with lots of salt and pepper. Or pan-sauté the petite beauties, whole, halved or quartered, until lightly browned.
Red, White and Spring Green Crunch Salad1 bunch red radishes, stems, leaves and ends trimmed off
4-5 small salad turnips, scrubbed (about 1/2 pound)
1 small cucumber, halved lengthwise and seeded
4 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
3 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
salt and pepper to taste
Finely dice the radishes, turnips and cucumber. Combine with remaining ingredients and 4-6 tablespoons water in a bowl. Chill 1/2 to 1 hour before serving. Makes 6 servings.
Alice Waters's Caramelized Turnips
Heat oven to 425 degrees. Select young, tender Tokyo turnips. If they're small enough, no peeling is necessary; they only need to be rinsed and dried before cooking. Cut them in half and toss them in a bowl with a generous splash of olive oil and salt and pepper. Spread them out in a single layer on a baking sheet. Roast 10 minutes, toss gently and spread them out again. Roast another 5 minutes then check for doneness-you want them to be fork tender and nicely caramelized.
Adapted from Chez Panisse Vegetables (HarperCollins).
Sauté of Red Radishes, Greens, Garlic and Chives
2 bunches medium-sized table radishes
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons chopped green garlic or garlic scapes
1-2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
salt and pepper
Clean radishes well. Discard all imperfect leaves. Cut stems off remaining leaves; discard stems and coarsely chop the leaves. Trim and quarter the bulbs. Heat butter in a large skillet over medium-high flame. Add radishes and cook, stirring often, 2-3 minutes. Stir in greens, green garlic and chives. Cook until greens are wilted and radishes are barely tender, another 1-2 minutes. Add salt and pepper. Serve as a side dish with fish, steak or chicken. Makes 4-6 servings.