Turnip For What?

If you belong to a local CSA, or shopped the final week or two of the Downtown Farmers’ Market, you probably are well-stocked with late-season root vegetables.  For us this fall, we seem to be almost over-stocked up with turnips in particular. Then, we realized, in the eight years that we’ve been writing on the AllSpice blog, we have yet to talk about this cheeky little vegetable. We’re correcting that oversight right now, and telling you all about turnips.

Lathe-rounded plant? The turnip (Brassica rapa) is a root vegetable that is grown all over the world for its white, fleshy taproot.  Want to go for the extra credit on the vocabulary exam? The taxonomy of the word turnip is a compound of tur- (as in turned/rounded on a lathe) and neep, derived from Latin napus, the word for the plant.

Tiny = tender. Smaller, more tender varieties of turnip are grown for people to eat, while larger turnip varieties are grown as livestock feed.

Mistaken for a rutabaga? In parts of northern England, as well as Scotland, Ireland, and eastern Canada, a turnip is sometimes just called a neep, although that word also sometimes refers to a rutabaga, which is a larger, more yellowish Brassica root vegetable.

Scottish poet Robert Burns

Little-known turnip fact: Cooked, mashed neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes) are traditionally served with haggis (if you don’t know, you don’t want to know) at the Burns Night celebration, every January 25, celebrating the Scottish national poet Robert Burns.

Another little-known turnip fact: in Ireland and Scotland, people carve turnips for jack o’lanterns at Halloween. (Is that technically a turnip o’lantern, then?)

Mistaken for a potato? Turnips are white and dense on the inside, like a common potato, but they have a more bitter, peppery flavor than tuberous potatoes or other root vegetables. In that regard, they’re kind of “radish-ish.” Roasting your turnips can yield a milder flavor. 

Possible cruel surprise alert! Be careful! Cooked, mashed turnips look almost identical to mashed potatoes — but have a very different flavor — and can cause surprise and consternation to guests who pour gravy all over their buttered mashed turnips, thinking they’re actually potatoes.*

Roots and leaves. The tops on turnips are sometimes eaten as “turnip greens,” and are a staple of traditional southeastern (US) cuisine. The tender leaves, when cooked, look and taste like mustard greens. Larger leaves, like the larger turnips that grow underneath them, tend to be more bitter-tasting;  pour off the water from the first-boiling of these greens, and replace with fresh water for a second cooking.

Little-known fact: bok choy, Chinese cabbage, and broccoli rabe are all relatives of the turnip, but with tiny “storage roots.” These vegetables are grown just so that we can eat their leaves.

Weird cousins and turnip relatives: There are even more botanical and taxonomical relatives of the humble turnip, which may already be hiding in your CSA share (or refrigerator’s crisper drawer):

  • kohlrabi, a cabbage-turnip cross, which is also called the “German turnip;” and
  • celeriac / celery root, aka “turnip-rooted celery” which not a close relative of the turnip, but looks like a knobby, ugly turnip doppelganger.

Turnip for what? How do you cook turnips (and their ugly-but-delicious relatives)? As proud members of the root vegetable family, turnips taste wonderful roasted, all by themselves. Turnips are simple to combine with other brassicae, too (like broccoli and kohlrabi, in this great roasted brassica- lentil salad recipe we adapted from Jordan Claesen’s Grade A Gardens CSA newsletter).

Turnips are also good uncooked. In my twenties, the first turnip recipe I really liked was as a raw turnip appetizer, sliced into bite-sized matchsticks and served with an asian peanut sauce. Turnips are also easy to grate or shred, to toss in a flavorful dressing and use in a winter-vegetable-citrus salad (also this salad) or in place of cabbage in your favorite slaw.


One last ridiculous turnip thing: “we know it’s rubbish, but is it art?” The Turnip Prize is a spoof UK award making fun of the Tate Gallery’s Turner Prize by rewarding deliberately bad modern art. It was started as a joke in 1999, but gained national media attention and inspired similar prizes. Credit is given for entries containing bad puns as titles, displaying “lack of effort.” However, entries with “too much effort” or “not s**t enough” are immediately disqualified. The first prize is a turnip nailed to a block of wood.

The competition is based on the supposition, “We know it’s rubbish, but is it art?” The 2005 prize-winner, Ian Osenthroat, a 69-year-old former photocopier salesman, won with the exhibit “Birds Flew,” a bird’s nest with a flu remedy box. He commented, “I have entered this most coveted art award on several occasions and I really feel that the lack of effort this year has really paid off.”

The 2019 Turnip Prize opened for entries November 1. Contest entries are being taken until November 21, and organizers instruct prospective contestants that “Entries should take the least amount of effort possible to create.” Contest judging is November 24.  If you’re interested in finding out more about the contest (or about entering), there’s information on the Isle of Wedmore website.


*As children, we had unfortunate experiences with mashed turnips (not mashed potatoes), and with sliced beets (not baked apple slices with cinnamon red-hots), and elderly relatives who made us eat everything on our plates, anyway. 🙁

[And, yes, we know the song is called “Turn Down For What,” but there aren’t any songs titles (or good jokes) about turnips, so … here we are. ]

top turnip photo credit: thebittenword.com
purple kohlrabi and celeriac via Blackbottom Farm Collective
turnip varieties photo via Johnny’s Seeds
Robert Burns portrait by Alexander Nasmyth, national galleries