Buckle up everybody, for I am here to defend and exalt turnips. In fact, I’d go so far as to claim that turnips, when mashed, are better than their potato counterparts, and a far more interesting vehicle for gravy. Cooked turnips are firm yet velvety, slightly nutty, and bring a bit more oomph to your holiday spread. But, full disclosure, my not all of my turnip-eating Christmases have been merry.
Whenever I hear the sentence, “We made something special just for you,” my pulse quickens, and I get ready to report a crime. The first time I heard it was a Christmas spent with an ex’s family in rural Ontario, where I was presented with a dish called “turnip fluff.” To make turnip fluff (not that you should), you boil a bag of turnips, add sugar and butter, then start shaking in cinnamon and forget when to stop. Mash all that, place it in a pie dish, top with marshmallows, and bake until Satan tells you that’s enough. (Satan doesn’t have a safe word.) The meal that featured this dish was—unfortunately—a torrent of injustice, and I never went back to that house in rural Ontario for another holiday. But turnips have endured far worse fates than a lousy cook who’s heavy-handed with cinnamon.
People have been eating turnips for 4,000 years and deriding them for just as long. If an ancient Roman a hurled turnip at someone, it meant that person was hated. At the end of the 16th century, European colonists brought turnips to North America to give them a fresh start (like when you move after middle school and reinvent yourself at your new high school). You see, at that time in England, turnips were eaten by farm animals and poor people.
During the Irish Potato Famine, Turnip Husbandry was published to encourage the tenant farmers to plant the crop and use it to feed their animals and themselves, and both world wars caused food shortages that forced European populations to eat the tuber. Noble efforts were made to rebrand turnips: A cookbook called Turnips Instead of Potatoes was published, and the master chef at the Savoy Hotel in London invented a turnip pie and named it after the British Minister of Food Lord Woolton. The efforts paid off—somewhat.
Personally, I’ve always loved the little root vegetable. Growing up in Jamaica, I was served turnips in either chicken or beef soup. Their earthy toothsomeness punctuated a rich broth fortified with carrots, Scotch bonnet peppers, thyme, pimento, and scallions. When my father was diagnosed with Type II diabetes, I learned as much as I could about how to make meals suitable for him. My research revealed that turnips lower blood sugar levels and help correct other metabolic disorders associated with diabetes, such as high blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Unlike potatoes, your blood glucose level doesn’t spike after you consume turnips. So, I began experimenting. That experimentation, on one fateful Christmas, led me to make mashed turnips. And I’ve never looked back.
The dish is dirt cheap to make during winter, and the flavor of cooked turnips is exquisite. They’re earthy, slightly peppery, and just a tad sweet—like if a beet went to finishing school in Lausanne and started dating a radish. Turnips are the sort of tubers, like rutabagas, that people just aren’t sure what to do with. But if kale can become the darling of Whole Foods, I don’t see why turnips can’t have their moment in the spotlight.
This holiday, with everything else we have to fret about, mashed turnips offer a worry-free choice for people concerned with their blood sugar spiking. And, even if you don’t have to worry about such things, mashed turnips are delicious, full of earthy, nutty flavor, and oh so velvety. I strongly encourage you to give this delicious side a chance this holiday season (and don’t forget the gravy).
- 2 ½ pounds turnips, peeled and cut into cubes
- 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 4 sprigs of thyme, leaves removed from stems
- ¼ cup butter, softened
- ¼ cup grated parmesan
- 2 tablespoons cream cheese, softened
- 2 tablespoons sour cream
- 2 tablespoons scallions (green parts only), chopped
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
Place turnips in a stockpot and fill with cold water until they are fully submerged. Boil until fork-tender (10-15 minutes). Drain fully in a colander (turnips can be very moist; this step ensures that all the extra water is drained off). Once drained, return to the stockpot and mash with the rest of the ingredients. If a softer mash is desired, adjust the consistency by adding heavy cream until they’re as soft as you want ‘em. Keep warm in the oven or heat in a bain-marie before serving.