Winter turnips are understandably unloved – often overgrown to the size of small balloons (a habit formed from their post war usage to bulk up jams) and a flavour that can come across rather coarse. But as we enter the final leg of winter, the soils remain frigid. Imbolc has just arrived, and with it the feast of (St.) Bri(gi)d – a possibly divine lady with many strings to her bow, among them: maternity, chicken farmers and new growth. The worst may be over but the new growth seems not yet to encompass the sprightly wild flowers, herbs and vegetables of springtime. The new growth is more likely related to the full-belly ewes of the lambing season and the coming of their new milk – oimealc – with which butter and cheese would have been both made around now. My downstairs neighbour tells me the official line for deciding whether or not spring has come depends on the weather on Imbolc itself. If sunny, as it was here in county Dublin, it foretells of a continuation of winter weather to come (generally orchestrated by the hag Cailleach so she can stock up on firewood, while others bask in false optimism). Flashes of springtime then to arouse a lust for its bounty, but we are left for a while longer with the now wearisome winter roots.
Lamb, honey, thyme and turnips
The night before rub some lamb neck with crushed garlic and thyme, lube it up with some rapeseed or olive oil and leave covered over night. An hour or so before you’re ready to eat remove the garlic and thyme and season the lamb well with salt and pepper. Sear in a really hot pan until golden brown all over, when it’s almost done drizzle in some honey and take off the heat giving the pan a shake to cover the lamb in the caramelising honey. Pop the lamb on some fresh thyme and into a low oven – round a hundred degrees. Turn it after half an hour and in another twenty minutes or so it’ll be done (at such a low temperature it’s as good as impossible to overcook it). Leave to rest for ten minutes while you prepare the turnips.
Cut the turnips into wedges and blanch in much boiling salted water until they’ve a soft resistance. Meanwhile fry some crushed almonds in good rapeseed oil until beginning to brown.
Slice the lamb fairly thin at an angle going across the grain of the mussel and sprinkle them with a little salt.
To the almonds add a little more oil and some cider vinegar, season and taste. Serve the steaming turnips alongside the lamb with a little crème fraiche and spoon over the almond dressing liberally.
Turnip leaves, poached chicken and butter
Poach your chicken – whole or joints – below a simmer with a bundle of herbs, bay, peppercorns, garlic and leeks (the leeks will be very good to eat once the poaching is up – maybe with some cream, fresh herbs and a grind of pepper).
Bring some unsalted butter to a simmer with the zest of some lemon, thyme and a few peppercorns. Leave to infuse for at least half an hour. Wash the turnip leaves, though they needn’t be completely dried.
When ready to eat toss the turnip leaves in a hot pan with the strained butter for a minute or two. Serve straight away with the chicken (striped of its skin) in a little of its poaching liquor and some crusty bread.
White turnips, horseradish and salsify salad
It’s a pernickety preparation this one, but it makes for a delicate salad that seems to cheat the season in an honest sort of way.
All three roots need to be peeled, the horseradish and salsify oxidise quickly so need to be chopped and put into cold water with a bit of acid in to keep them sprightly white until ready to be cooked. The turnips are best sliced down their length about as thick as a hole-punch. The salsify sliced across its width a similar girth but at an angle so it doesn’t get lost amongst the turnips. The horseradish can be cut in half lengthwise and then into half moons round the width of a finger nail.
For the salad to work each vegetable needs to have a clear voice and so cooked separately in its own water so to get the texture just right and not too confuse the flavours. Best to have three pots of water on the go if possible.
Each root should be boiled until a little bit under still – that’s to say when the tough fibres have been tamed but it’s still got a good bight on it.
Drain and toss with just a little bit of good rapeseed oil, lemon juice and salt. When they’ve cooled a bit but are still warm (they’ll cook over some during this time but the idea is by the time of eating they’re only just or ideally just not quite tender through) mix them gently together, with some flat parsley leaves or a very small pinch of blue poppy seeds and serve.
Image by Fiona Hallinan