For millennia, the turnip has been an object of hatred and contumely. According to the food writer Waverly Root, the ancient Romans used to “pelt unpopular persons with turnips.” He also tells us that Rabelais dismissed Limousin, in southwestern France, as a region of “turnip chewers.” And Pliny, in his Natural History, remarked (in jest?) that the leaves were nicest “when yellow and half dead.” But if the turnip gets bad press, perhaps the style of preparation is to blame.
On a recent Sunday, Nancy Singleton Hachisu scrubbed a bowl of small common turnips with a coconut fiber brush during a cooking demonstration at Brooklyn Kitchen. Japanese farmers, she explained, don’t peel their vegetables. “The skin is what we want because it’s the part closest to the soil.” As she talked, she tailed and trimmed the turnips, leaving half an inch of stem, and set aside the leafy tops.
Singleton Hachisu, who is from California, is the author of the newly released Preserving the Japanese Way (Andrews McMeel Publishing). She married into a traditional Japanese farming family, and she and her husband, a grower of organic rice and vegetables, have a compound north of Tokyo. Singleton Hachisu makes her own miso and soy sauce, umeboshi plums, salt-preserved fish — the works.
Some of her fermented foods are in crocks for up to three years. But for such root vegetables as turnips, she favors a quick salt cure. A lightly pickled turnip has none of the stodginess that long-cooking can bring out.
For every eight hundred grams of cleaned vegetables (cut lengthwise into four or six pieces), you rub in a teaspoon of coarse sea salt with your hands. The salt breaks down the cell walls and draws out water and bitter juices. After about twenty minutes, you squeeze the liquid from the turnips — there won’t be much — place them in a clean bowl, and add two chopped pitted umeboshi plums and a few drops of soy sauce. Just before serving, you finish the turnips, which should have retained their crunch, with a scatter of dried bonito flakes. That’s it. Cooks often speak of commingled flavors, but here each element tastes purely of itself. The technique works equally well with daikon and other members of the radish family.
Toward the end of the afternoon, Singleton Hachisu pan-seared thick-cut cut pork chops that she marinated in shio koji, a fermented rice condiment. Plates of meat garnished with small bundles of turnip greens were sent round. Divested of their yellowed, half-dead bits, the salt-wilted tops were delicious. They tasted of the earth and of the approaching winter, and for a moment the room went silent as we chewed.