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Mystery Plant: This versatile vegetable can turn up almost anywhere

OK, they’re turnips. That was easy.

This week’s not-much-of-a-Mystery Plant is one of the commonest vegetables there is, and I would almost bet that everyone who reads this column has tried and eaten them.

This species is no doubt best known for its massive, below-ground taproots — and, of course, taproots such as these are true roots, specialized for storage, and not to be confused with the similarly subterranean tubers of Irish potato, or rhizomes of daylily, both of which are technically stems. (It’s a bit complicated.)

The way I understand it, turnips aren’t totally buried in the soil, but reveal their purplish tops just above the soil line. Other easily recognized taproots include radish, parsnip and carrot. The best turnips to cook seem to be those that are crisp and shiny, and not too big.

Turnips are grown in many parts of the world, in most temperate areas of both hemispheres. They are a coolish-weather crop and don’t take heat very well. Plants are easily grown, sow (!) they say, early in the spring.

These are biennial plants in that they do their vegetative “thing” in the first season following sprouting, with a lot of energy put into the developing taproot, containing lots of water and carbohydrates. But there are also those gorgeous greens, full of wonderful things. If the taproots are left in the ground, the plant will wait until the second year’s growth to put up a flowering stalk. The flowers are characteristic of the mustard family — four sepals and four petals, bright yellow in this case. If the flowers are left alone, the plants will set fruit, forming slender pods each with several seeds. Turnip seeds (and those of turnips’ relatives) are rich in oils, and themselves provide a useful harvest.

Other members of the mustard family tend to share a somewhat peppery taste, especially in the leaves — a flavor that originates in certain sulfur-containing compounds within the plants. These compounds probably aid in keeping hungry insects away. Cultivated mustard is a member of the family, which also includes cabbage, bok choy, cress, kohlrabi and wasabi. Those great big, wax-covered rutabagas that you see in the stores are actually a hybrid between turnip and cabbage.

Turnips have, I think, earned something of a culinary reputation as an earthy sort of food source, without many frills. Of course, they are delightful by themselves or with other veggies; Himmel und Erde from Germany features turnips cooked with potatoes and apples. And there is a simple puree of turnips, leeks and pears, served steaming with a dollop of sour cream and some chives. Hey, even I can fix that — perfect for one of these blustery, late-winter evenings.

Those of you who are fascinated by the diversity and beauty of vegetables, as I am, may want to take a look at “The Random House Book of Vegetables” by Roger Phillips and Martyn Rix from 1993. It’s not on the current bestsellers list, but it’s filled with delightful essays, and loaded with beautiful images.

Answer: Turnip, Brassica rapa.


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