Try cooking with squash and turnips. These underappreciated vegetables deliver big flavor.

Oct. 11, 2022
a meal cooked with squash and turnips
Try cooking with squash and turnips. You can make delicious meals like this Japanese simmered kabocha squash. Photo by Bill St. John

The summer pantry isn’t the winter pantry, is it? Oh, I suppose with refrigeration (or other preserving vehicles or methods), fresh or formerly fresh foodstuffs avail themselves all year round.

Also, that is, if you do not mind tomatoes from Chile with frequent flyer miles or dining out of your freezer.

But now might be the time of year to turn to, say, health-giving vegetables that themselves make the passage from summer through winter nearly unscathed. Solid winter squashes and many root vegetables are such.

Cooking with the winter squash

The winter squash is such a metaphor for life. Crack through its carapace-like shell and it’s little more than raw, bitter flesh, stringy and seed-laden. You’re a tough nut to crack, Acorn. Not much buttery there on first opening, Buttercup.

Sure — and also like life, right? — a fair amount of work and time, maybe a little bit of sugar (and some sweet butter) and winter squash comes around to be more than tolerable, truly, unctuously delicious.

Take pride to know that the winter squash is thoroughly American—North, South and Central. Its name comes from the Narragansett “askutasquash” (“eaten raw,” though referring only to the immature fruit). Plant archeologists have determined that farming it dates back 5,000 years to the region we call Illinois; 10,000 to that of Florida; and 15,000 years to Meso- and South America.

Shells of winter squash were containers, scoops, “dishware.” Its saponaceous-rich flesh sometimes washed clothing. Everyone snacked on its seeds.

What we call “summer” squash—a thin-skinned, moist-fleshed squash such as Crookneck or Pattypan — was grown here in Colorado and the American Southwest millennia ago. It was central to the “holy trinity” (or “Three Sisters”) of squash, beans and corn, a nutritionally complete diet that sustained and grew the indigenous populations of all the Americas.

Botanically, winter squash comes under the genus Cucurbita (hence, “cucumber,” along with all watermelon-like fruits, also a type of squash), and breaks off into two main “families,” Cucurbita pepo and Cucurbita maxima.

The “pepo” varieties, by and large, sport soft, edible skin. Our word “pumpkin” derives from “pepo” by way of old French and old English (“pompon” and “pompion,” respectively) and goes all the way back to ancient Greek, “pepon,” meaning “large gourd.”

Cucurbita maxima is hard-shelled, way so. They are so many and with many fanciful names such as Delicata (“Yo, over here, my skin isn’t that hard.”), Spaghetti (“Wanna see a sweet trick?”) and Hubbard, its name onomatopoetic for the thud (and unsightliness) of this largest of the Cucurbita maxima.

How to (safely) ninja a winter squash

Yep, that winter squash can be a hard nut to crack, so proceed carefully and slowly. I place any winter squash that I’m dealing with onto a wet and wrung-out kitchen towel, a sort of non-slip “bed.”

Splitting a winter squash is best done with a cleaver and a kitchen mallet. Most of us own neither. In their places, use your best, heaviest chef’s knife and a small metal saucepot (or even a hammer).

If the squash isn’t stable (that is, it tends to “roll out” from under the knife or cleaver, a very dangerous proposition) try to make a small slice that will flatten one side and lay the squash on that side.

Now, there are two ways to open the squash: One is to place the blade of the knife or cleaver dead-center atop the squash and forcibly whack the blade’s (or cleaver’s) top. The other is to insert the point of the knife or cleaver into the squash and work your way down into the squash, beginning to separate it into halves or sections.

You cannot pretend that a winter squash is just a large potato. Holding it with one hand and conventionally cutting it with the other is just too dangerous. (Exceptions, of course, are the peelable Butternut and Delicata, although in their raw state, still unwieldy and slippery, so be careful.)

Cooking with the turnip

The turnip’s story is none but woe.

“Oh, all that the peasants in the Middle Ages had to eat was turnips,” people say even today. “Weren’t turnips just animal fodder anyway?”

Indeed, medieval court kitchens eschewed many groceries that grew in the ground, among them onions and garlic, in favor of edibles that were plucked from the branches of bushes or trees. They preferred meats such as roast fowl or game that, as was said of them in those days, “flew freed of the Earth in the pure and open air.”

Try cooking with squash and turnips. This turnip is beautiful and purple. Photo by Bill St. John.
The turnip “elevated.” Turnips are underappreciated, but are delicious pickled or in soup. Photo by Bill St. John.

In the Middle Ages, what you ate signaled your social class. Garlic bulbs, carrots, and of course turnips — these and many more edibles — were food only for the lower classes.

I imagine that, in those dark days, those who were close to the land, whether their own or their lord’s, merely kept their tasty secrets to themselves. How delicious a treat, a pot of long-braised turnips and their greens, scented and flavored with leeks and garlic, then napped in some of your goat’s milk butter!

And if you think about it, the turnip (and root foods of its ilk such as the rutabaga or beet) likely played a role in our food history not only significant but also itself notably noble.

For millennia, ready human hands had it easy harvesting fruits, nuts and berries that grew on trees, vines or bushes, or picking vegetables such as peas and long beans that flourished above ground. It was easier still to glean the wild grains, lettuces and cabbages that simply sprouted about.

Yet, to get at the nourishment in the roots or bulbs stored underground in certain plants, why that took some digging by hungry people in search of it. Those same ready hands needed tools, if even something so primitive as a poking stick.

These sticks were the prototypes of the hoe and the plow. Couldn’t we claim, then, also of all following farming tools? It’s not too far-fetched to consider the turnip and its kin as the Fathers of Agriculture, that systematic growing of food that required furrowing fields and planting seeds and that we developed once we settled down from solely hunting and gathering.

Humans cultivated Brassica rapa, the Latin name for the common white-bottomed and purple-topped well before the time of Western recorded history, back to 2,000 B.C., originally in the region around the Baltic Sea and the Caucasus. The turnip is one of the most ancient of foods.

By the 1400s, it had spread throughout Europe; by the 1600s, into North America.

The best turnip buying season is between November and February, in the Northern Hemisphere. Look for firm, heavy-for-their-size globes, unblemished skins and, if the greens are attached, they should be crisp and fresh-looking. (Store greens and roots separately.) Smaller turnips are generally sweeter than larger ones.

Turnips are delicious pickled (the recipe here) but also, when cooked, give a dense, creamy flesh akin to that of potatoes, but with more zing and less starch. They are super in soups and fantastic as purées.

It was a vanity when the Italian author Agnolo Firenzuola (1493-1543), in his comedy “La Trinuzia,” first wrote the turnip’s historic epitaph, “Mal si può trar da la rapa sangue.” (There’s no getting blood from a turnip.)

But that was never the turnip’s job, any such sanguine art. Its work for us was simply to be healthy and delicious.

Making kabocha squash no nimono (Japanese simmered kabocha squash)

Adapted from carolinescooking.com, justonecookbook.com and chopstickchronicles.com. Makes 12-15 pieces, depending on size.

Ingredients

1 pound raw kabocha squash (about 1/2 whole squash), rinsed clean

1 1/2 cup dashi (or water)

2 teaspoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons sake

2 teaspoons white cane sugar (or 1 tablespoon mirin)

Directions

Prepare the kabocha by cutting it into long wedges, retaining the skin (when cooked, kabocha skin is eminently edible), and cutting each wedge into 5-6 pieces of equal size. Lay the pieces, skin side down, in a saucepan that will accommodate all of them in 1 layer snuggly.

Mix together the remaining ingredients and pour the liquid in and around the kabocha pieces. Over medium-high heat, bring the saucepan to a boil and then lower the heat significantly and simmer the squash with the pot lid slightly ajar for 15-20 minutes, or until a paring knife goes effortlessly into a test piece.

Remove from the heat, cover the pan and let sit for 30 minutes or more to cool down. Serve warm, cool or at room temperature, perhaps garnished with matchsticks of fresh, peeled ginger.

Making pickled turnips

Adapted from davidlebovitz.com and foodnetwork.com. Makes about 5-6 cups.

Ingredients

A jar of pink pickled turnips. Photo by Bill St. John
Pickled turnips are delicious and colorful. Photo by Bill St. John.

3 cups water

1/3 cup coarse sea or kosher salt

2 teaspoons cane sugar

2 small bay leaves

2 small dried red peppers

1 cup white distilled vinegar

2 pounds turnips, peeled

1 small beet, peeled

3 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced thin

Directions

Over medium-low heat, warm 1 cup of the water, the salt, sugar, bay leaves and peppers. Cook, stirring, until the salt and sugar dissolve; do not boil.

Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature. Then, to the pot, add the remainder of the water and the vinegar.

Cut the peeled turnips and beet into “batons,” the width and length of thick French fries, a little over 1/4-inch (but not as large as 1/2-inch) wide. Put 1/2 of the turnip, beet and garlic slices into a clean glass jar large enough to accommodate all the vegetables.

Add 1 bay leaf and 1 pepper to the jar. Then put the other 1/2 of the vegetables into the jar, topping with the remaining bay leaf and pepper. Be sure all the garlic slices go into the jar.

Pour the brine over the contents of the jar and put on the lid or closure and seal the jar. Let the jar sit at room temperature, in a relatively cool place, for 1 week. You may jostle the jar and its fuchsia contents once a day if you wish. Then refrigerate.

The turnips will keep for several weeks in the refrigerator and should be enjoyed within 2 months’ time. Strongly flavored on first opening, they will mellow in a few days.

Reach Bill St John at [email protected]


ADVERTISEMENT



About the author

For more than 40 years, Bill St. John’s specialties have been as varied as they are cultured. He writes and teaches about restaurants, wine, food & wine, the history of the cuisines of several countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the USA), about religion and its nexus with food, culture, history, or philosophy, and on books, travel, food writing, op-ed, and language.

Bill has lent (and lends) his subject matter expertise to such outlets as The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5280 Magazine, and for various entities such as food markets, wine shops, schools & hospitals, and, for its brief life, Microsoft’s sidewalk.com. In 2001 he was nominated for a James Beard Award in Journalism for his 12 years of writing for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Bill's experience also includes teaching at Regis University and the University of Chicago and in classrooms of his own devising; working as on-air talent with Denver's KCNC-TV, where he scripted and presented a travel & lifestyle program called "Wine at 45"; a one-week stint as a Trappist monk; and offering his shoulder as a headrest for Julia Child for 20 minutes.

Bill has also visited 54 countries, 42 of the United States, and all 10 Canadian provinces.

ADVERTISEMENT