Turnips — those pale, waxy orbs usually found sitting forlornly in bins at the supermarket — may win the title for the world’s most unloved vegetable. It’s no wonder: here in the States, the turnips one most often encounters are bulbous, fibrous behemoths utterly lacking in color, texture, and flavor. Even when roasted into oblivion and doused with butter, they’re a hard sell. Thankfully, learning to love turnips is not difficult if you can track down a bunch of the tender hakurei variety. This Japanese breed, with its smooth, snow-white roots and deep green leaves, is equally wonderful raw, roasted, simmered, or even lightly pickled.
In Japan, turnips (kabu / 蕪) are usually sold with their tender green tops still attached. In one common preparation, the roots are first simmered in a mixture of dashi, mirin, sake, shōyu, and sugar, then served alongside the blanched greens. This simple technique utterly transforms these otherwise unremarkable vegetables: upon emerging from their bath in the salty-sweet cooking liquid, the turnips have a remarkably silky texture and the unmistakable savory depth imparted by dashi.
Another equally good (and even simpler) preparation is turnip miso soup, made with both the creamy roots and tender leaves. For this recipe, diminutive turnips are pared into wedges and lightly simmered in dashi until tender. Stir in some miso, add the blanched, chopped greens, and you have a sprightly spring dish, perfect for breakfast alongside steamed rice, crunchy pickles, and perhaps a piece of grilled fish.
As with all miso soup, this recipe can be almost infinitely adapted to suit whatever vegetables you have on hand. While Japanese restaurants in the States almost always serve the same combination of white miso, wakame seaweed, scallions, and silken tofu, the beauty of miso soup lies in its almost infinite adaptability. For tonjiru — a hearty winter version fortified with thinly sliced pork, carrots, daikon, and onions — a darker, more assertive miso is preferable, while delicate spring produce like new onions and asparagus calls for a mild variety likesaikyō miso. Turnips, it turns out, work well with a mix of two types of miso, one salty and assertive, the other sweet and subtle. Whatever kind you use, though, this soup will almost certainly make you change your mind about these humble, unassuming roots.
Kabu no miso shiru -蕪の味噌汁
(Miso Soup with Turnips)
As always in Japanese cuisine, it’s best to begin with homemade dashi. This is particularly important here, where the quality of each ingredient really matters. (For a basic dashi recipe, check out this post.) However, the dashi packs sold at Japanese markets are a good, quick alternative.
Adapted from Sirogohan.com
1 bunch young Japanese turnips (about 5), with leaves attached
600 ml (about 2 1/2 cups) dashi, preferably homemade
3 tablespoons red miso (such as Shinshū miso)
1 tablespoon white miso
Cut the leaves off the turnips, leaving about 1/4-inch of the stem intact. Cut each turnip into six wedges, and rinse well to remove any grit from the base of the stem. Wash the leaves and cut into bite-size pieces.
Bring the dashi to a simmer and add the turnips. Cook until somewhat translucent and just tender – they should yield somewhat when poked with the tip of a knife.
Meanwhile, bring a small pot of water to a boil. Briefly blanch the turnip greens, then drain and shock in ice water.
Mix together the red and white miso and stir into the soup, being sure not to let it come to a boil. Add the greens and simmer until just warmed through. Serve alongside rice and pickles.