Given enough deep winter shadows and snow, a person might entertain dark thoughts, thoughts at long last of turnips.
No matter the motivational-speaker peppiness of TV weather folks, such a winter as this may inspire a trip to the root cellar of collective memory. April is cruelest, T.S. Eliot wrote, and then there's winter, "feeding a little life with dried tubers."
Scarlett O'Hara would relate, returning to find the family plantation in ruins, nothing much remaining of Tara after the Yankee firestorm but scraps of this and that. Turnips were still there, naturally, "wilted for want of water but still standing."
In her weariness, Scarlett could not celebrate the discovery. These were desperate circumstances, but even so, the turnip wouldn't do. Scarlett grabbed a radish. She ate it gratefully, vowing to survive the ordeal and never to be hungry again.
One imagines she got around to the turnips.
Popping above topsoil would be the greens -- rich in vitamins and minerals -- and a bit of the root bulge in white or yellow or red, green, purple, black. With its variably peppery and sweet flavors -- a sulfur trace accounts for pungency -- turnip root flesh is no nutrition powerhouse. Aside from about 1 percent protein, maybe 6 percent carbohydrates, a fair amount of vitamin C and a touch of fat, the carrot- or onion-shaped root is mostly water.
And yet, such a provider. This member of the mustard family has over the millenniums sustained many a Roman, Arab, Chinese, Scot and Japanese. And Russians, of course. To think of turnips is to envision the terribly sprawling Russian winter, turnips lingering in the root cellar until May Day, their flavor often grown bitter with age.
Perhaps it's that quality of sheer stubbornness that has inspired the Russian folk tale published as a children's book under various titles: "The Gigantic Turnip" or simply "The Turnip." The narrative involves a turnip so immense that the effort to wrest it from the earth escalates into the sort of project that might attract bids from the Bechtel Group. But this is a humble family farm, so folks make do.
The old man cannot pull the thing up, so he gets help from his wife, who wraps her arms around him and they both pull -- to no avail. Then the cow wraps its front legs around the woman who is wrapped around the man, and so on through a great conga line of pigs, chickens, geese, cats, dogs and mice.
The turnip eventually breaches the surface like some earthbound whale. In one version, the turnip-pullers tumble over in a heap and laugh. Turnip stew all around.
Another breathtaking turnip appears in a tale by the Brothers Grimm. This story turns darkly toward fraternal rivalry, as the poorer of two brothers appeals to the king with a gift of an enormous turnip. Impressed by the fabulous tuber, moved by the poor brother's story, the king can't stop throwing money and property at the humble turnip grower.
Imagine the jealous rich brother's outrage. Murderous plots ensue.
In either tale, the turnip is elevated by size beyond its customary status. As the World Encyclopedia of Food has it, the turnip has for its long history "been considered a vegetable for the humble. There is good reason for this. It grows well in poor soil. It ripens quickly. It keeps relatively well."
The turnip has grown all over the world, but it does best in colder climates and soils near the seashore.
Of course, it's cheap. So much so that it has in the past been used to feed animals.
The Practical Farmer, published in England in 1732, de- scribed how a diet consisting partly of turnips could sustain cattle over the winter. The turnip's association with lean times emerges also in another entry from The Cambridge World History of Food, telling how in the Netherlands vegetables and fruit were largely underappreciated -- they were considered unhealthful -- but "tubers, beetroots, turnips and peas were often daily foods by necessity."
Even if they're not appearing on fashionable restaurant menus, turnips still offer prospects beyond the standard roasting with butter and a little salt. According to Faye Levy's International Vegetable Cookbook, the Algerians cook them with peas, garlic, cilantro and cayenne pepper. A Moroccan dish blends turnips with carrots, potatoes, cayenne, cumin and onions.
Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone offers a braised turnip with thyme, finished with a dash of Dijon and creme fraiche. And the above recipe uses other root vegetables and sherry.
Even this winter might, for a moment, seem a trifle less bleak.
Root Vegetables With Sherry
Makes 4 to 6 servings
1 1/2 pounds assorted root vegetables such as turnips, carrots, rutabaga, celery root, parsnips, peeled
1 large onion, sliced vertically from stem to root end
about 1/2 cup water or vegetable broth
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup dry sherry
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper, or to taste
If using parsnips, remove the fibrous core that runs down the center. To do this, cut the parsnip into quarters and, using a paring knife, cut out the core. Cut all root vegetables into sticks of fairly equal thickness and length.
Cook the onion in 1/2 cup water in a large skillet over medium-high heat until the onion is softened and most of the water has evaporated. Add the olive oil, sherry, root vegetables, salt and white pepper.
Cover the skillet and cook over medium-low heat for about 20 minutes, until the vegetables are tender, adding a little vegetable broth or water if the mixture becomes too dry before the vegetables have softened. Check for seasoning and serve hot.
Per serving: 100 calories; 1 gram protein; 5 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 14 grams carbohydrate; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 432 milligrams sodium
- From "Regina's International Vegetarian Favorites" by Regina Campbell (H.P. Books, 2003, $18.95)