During Germany’s infamous Turnip Winter of 1916 to 1917, World War I had left villagers so desperate for food that they would break into cattle barns and steal the turnips meant for cows. For similar historical reasons in countless places, turnips have a reputation for being a famine food.
Hakurei turnips are no exception, having been developed in the 1950s when Japan was desperate to feed its citizens after being destroyed by World War II. They are often called salad turnips — two words you rarely see in the same sentence — because while most turnips must be cooked into edibility, hakurei turnips are delightful when they’re completely raw. Just eat them like extra-juicy apples with no core.
Hakurei translates to “esteemed companion,” a name that’s entirely appropriate. The entire plant is edible, from green tip to root tip. You can do anything you want to a hakurei, including nothing. You don’t even need to peel its delicate skin.
The cool-weather plant grows fast — about a month from sowing to harvest — and can handle light frost and other forms of adversity. This makes it a great fall staple at the farmers market.
These turnips are great in salads for many reasons, including their crisp, juicy texture and the fact that they combine very well with acids. Since they look like scallops, I like to feature them in a ceviche-like presentation with sliced onions and hot peppers, with or without actual fish.
My favorite way to cook our esteemed companion is in miso butter with garlic, white wine and a bit of sugar. The flavors of the hakurei and miso taste like they’re made for each other, and with support from the other ingredients, they create a quick, easy and glorious dish. You can use the same miso sauce as a glaze for baked salmon.
Getting your hands on them can be the hardest part of hakurei cookery, but they’re gaining in popularity. They might be waiting for you at the market, just under your nose. Just look for the lily-white globes.
Hakurei turnips in miso-butter glaze
Salty, meaty, earthy and sweet, it’s almost impossible to eat this gentle dish with your eyes open. However much you prepare, it won’t last long enough to see the inside of your Tupperware.
Makes two servings
Trim the thin, spindly taproot that extends from the bottom of each turnip. Cut the stems about half an inch above the turnip and chop the stems and leaves. Cut the turnips into slices, which cook faster and absorb more glaze, or quarters, which look prettier. No need to peel them.
Boil two quarts of water with a teaspoon of salt for the greens. If you’re making soba noodles to serve it with, you can cook the greens in the leftover soba water. Either way, boil them for five minutes. Drain, plunge into a gallon or so of cold water and drain again.
Add the butter, miso, sugar and a cup of water to a pan. Turn the heat to medium and stir as it heats. When it reaches a simmer, add the vermouth and garlic, then the turnips. Allow the liquid to cook down and thicken for about 10 minutes. Season with salt if necessary — the miso may contribute enough. Flip the pieces and turn the heat down to low so the turnips can brown but not burn. Garnish with sesame seeds and serve with soba noodles or rice.
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