Sunday, May 13, 2012

Squeezing Turnips

Most of us have heard the cliche “You can’t get blood from a turnip.”  The adage is usually quoted to remark on some state of financial duress or when we’ve been asked for something we deem as far beyond our means to provide.  A lot of us see the precept as inarguable.  I, however, do not and here’s why.  If blood is life’s force and it’s something you can’t get from a turnip, then it would logically follow that a turnip should sustain nothing at all.  Well I’ve watched three seasons move across my father’s humble turnip patch and have been repeatedly amazed at how so many species take their sustenance from what that garden provides.  And those turnips have given far past what was asked of them.

Papa initially planted the turnips for his beloved honeybees.  Last summer, autumn and winter here were warm and dry - he worried they’d not have lush enough foraging territory in spring so he planted the turnips with the intention of letting them run berserk.  When the turnips were at their peak in early autumn, my uncle would stroll over for a visit, pull a turnip and eat it raw while chatting with and generally catching up on life with his brother.  My oldest daughter would harvest a sackful to take home with her to roast or boil.  Neighbors reaped some of the turnips’ green foliage to boil and sauté - a true southern delicacy when teamed with a hot pan of cornbread.

As autumn’s brilliance faded into winter, the turnips began heaving themselves to the soil’s surface.  Their remaining greenery grew thick and wildly upward into leggy stalks.  Deer and at least one groundhog feasted themselves silly as I found half-eaten purplish orbs scattered helter-skelter around the garden.  Either they came back for leftovers the next day or yet more wild creatures dined on the castoffs - fresh bites had been taken from a few such turnips over several days.

With spring’s arrival, the patch flowered into an explosion of delicate yellow blooms.  The garden literally hummed as Papa’s honeybees nursed en masse, carrying pollen back to their hives to provide sustenance for not only themselves but the countless family dinner tables and restaurants our apiary supplies with honey.  Several kinds of birds now reside in the turnip patch and feed from the scattering seed now that the blossoms are spent.  That groundhog now fairly waddles in and out of the thicket, having developed a taste for aging but easily accessible turnips which lie entirely exposed.  I now detect the tiny green shoots emerging from the turnip patch floor which signal their readiness to provide yet again.  No blood from a turnip?  I invite you to rethink that one.

This week’s recipe repeatedly nourishes and satisfies too.  Thanks to my friend, Norman Darlington of Darlington Richards Press and Bunclody, Wexford, Ireland for validating that this version is the real deal!

Irish Soda Bread

4 cups all purpose flour
4 tablespoons cold butter, diced
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg, slightly beaten
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups buttermilk

Preheat oven to 425 F.  Sift together flour, salt and baking soda into a large mixing bowl.  Using a pastry cutter, work butter into flour mixture until it resembles coarse meal.

Make a well in the center of the flour mixture.  Add beaten egg and buttermilk to well and mix it with a wooden spoon until dough is too stiff to stir.  Dust hands with a little flour, then gently knead dough in the bowl just long enough to form a rough ball.

Transfer dough to a lightly floured surface and shape into a round loaf. Transfer dough to a  lightly greased 8” or 10” cast iron skillet.  Using a serrated knife score the top of the dough about ½” deep in an “X” shape to let the devil out!  Transfer to oven and bake until bread is golden and bottom sounds hollow when tapped with a knife - about 40 minutes.  Transfer bread to a rack and let cool briefly.  Serve warm, at room temperature or sliced and toasted.

Finally, a haiku to finish your meal.

full-bellied moon -
catfish lurking
beneath my line


  1. You have just given me an idea. I have one more space in my garden to plant... perhaps I'll put in a few turnips! Love them!

  2. Merrill, I've developed a taste for eating them raw as my uncle does!