Turnip Gratin

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Someone recently asked me what the difference was between scalloped potatoes and potatoes au gratin. The best answer is that “scalloped” simply means that the potatoes are thinly sliced, as in discs. And “au gratin” means, roughly translated, “with grated things.” No, those grated things don’t have to be pieces of cheese, necessarily. It could be small, grainy crumbs of bread as well. Many French and Italian gratins don’t feature any cheese, but they are baked with crispy stuff atop and served in a “gratin” dish. Given these understandings, this side dish that I made with turnips could be called either “scalloped turnips” or turnip gratin (or “gratinee”). And it’s a great way to prepare vegetables of any kind–you say potato I say turnip.

But turnips especially could use the help of richness and crispy texture. They can be so astringent on the palate that it’s hard to sell them on most people. Turnips are a superfood full of detoxins, and they’re one of those lonely, local winter vegetables looking to be bought at the farmers market during the cold winter months, since they store so well after harvest in the fall.

So have a heart for turnips. Give them a treatment you can’t resist, like a warm, buttery gratin that’s oozing from its cute little dish.

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Baby golden, purple, and bright magenta turnips from the Greenmarket.

If you’re still feeling a little hesitant, scoring some interesting varieties of turnips may help seal the deal. I was able to find golden, green, magenta and purple varieties at Evolutionary Organics’ farm stand at the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket, and even though it was weeks after purchase, they stayed fine in my crisper while I promptly forgot about them.

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Thinly sliced for quicker cooking

That was a surprise to see the vibrant colors once I cut into those turnips. How often do you see color like this from winter produce? Not from potatoes, that’s for sure (unless it’s sweet potatoes, which, yes, could make an excellent and nutrient-rich gratin as well). I used an old, wooden mandoline for this task, but you can easily get a $20 plastic Japanese mandoline or just have a bit of patience and steady hand as you slice through the turnips by hand to create thin discs no thicker than 1/8 inch. You don’t have to make a huge turnip gratin so this task will probably be a fun little exercise in focus if choosing the latter.

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Creamy grass-fed butter for making bechamel sauce

Today’s understandings of gratin often mean that it’s coddled in a creamy sauce, like bechamel. I don’t disagree with these versions, and again, turnips really benefit from the extra fats to tame its bitterness. I recently got a huge tub of some really good butter and was excited to use it soon (if you’re going to use something as regularly as butter why not get the best in your kitchen?). I got this motherlode of Kriemhild grass-fed “meadow butter” from my friends at Good Eggs, which curates an excellent selection of groceries for delivery. This butter has also seemed to generate quite a cult following in the press. In any case, it made me really excited to cook with it, and I think that’s the ultimate benefit of stocking nice pantry goods at home. I had actually won a random raffle prize from Good Eggs, which allowed me to order this butter, but I’m sure getting it again once I’ve run out.

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White sauce is poured over a mixture of turnips and onion

Mixing up a basic bechamel sauce should take no longer than 5 minutes, and involve ingredients you probably have on hand: butter, flour and milk. Once this was done, the thick, creamy white sauce was poured over an assemblage of the sliced turnips, and for a bit more, some yellow onions, too. This is really a turnip and onion gratin then, or a l’oignon as well as gratiné.

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Breadcrumbs flecked with fresh rosemary top the gratin dish

I made the beginner’s mistake of adding the breadcrumbs at the beginning of baking, which produces too-browned crumbs before the vegetables can fully soften. So I’ve revised the recipe below by advising to add the breadcrumbs only halfway through the baking period, to ensure that the turnips are fully cooked at the same time the breadcrumbs are crisped. This was no problem, fortunately, as the breadcrumbs that had been on top were just sort of rearranged while the whole mixture was stirred and topped with another portion of breadcrumbs before baking a bit longer. I added some chopped rosemary to the ends of bread loaves that were crumbled up for this purpose. A bit of salt, pepper and olive oil massaged into those crumbs ensured that they’d be tastier, too. In the end, it was a wonderful dish, certainly a star as a side to a meaty entree or satisfying quick nibble on its own.

Turnip Gratin
(makes 2-3 side dish servings)

4-5 small turnips, any variety, thinly sliced to uniform slivers no thicker than 1/8″
1/2 white onion, thinly sliced to about 1/8″ slivers
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon flour
1 cup whole milk
1/4 cup fresh breadcrumbs
few sprigs fresh rosemary, chopped (optional)
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine the turnip and onion slices with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, and a generous pinch of salt and pepper. In another bowl, combine the breadcrumbs, rosemary, remaining tablespoon of olive oil and another pinch of salt and pepper.

To make the bechamel sauce, heat the butter in a small pot over medium heat and stir in the flour. In a separate pot, heat the milk until warm (but do not bring to a boil). Continue to stir the butter and flour mixture until it’s bubbly and thoroughly combined, stirring out any lumps. Slowly pour in the warm milk while stirring. Continue to stir frequently until the mixture thickens slightly, about 3-4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste and remove from heat.

Arrange the seasoned turnips and onions in a small, oven-safe baking dish. Stir in the bechamel sauce until thoroughly combined. Pat down the top and bake in the oven for 10-15 minutes. Remove and carefully scatter the breadcrumb mixture on top. Bake another 10-15 minutes, or until the breadcrumbs are golden-brown and the turnips are tender with the touch of a fork. Let cool a few moments before serving.

Cost Calculator
(for 2-3 small servings)

4 turnips: $2.00
1/2 onion: $0.20
2 Tb olive oil: $0.25
1 Tb butter: $0.25
1 cup whole milk: $0.50
1/2 cup breadcrumbs: $0.25
1 Tb flour, salt, pepper: $0.10
few sprigs fresh rosemary (from houseplant): $0.10

Total: $3.65

Health Factor

Five brownie points: It’s not the healthiest way to enjoy turnips, but turnips are a very healthy food. With it, you’ll get antioxidants like Vitamin C, potassium, calcium and fiber, and they’re very low in calories. So we added some of the latter in the form of butter, milk and breadcrumbs. But a homemade bechamel sauce with grass-fed butter, naturally high in vitamins, ensures that you’re getting more bang for your caloric buck, though.

Green Factor

Eight brownie points: Turnips are a relatively low-cost crop that stores well throughout the cold months, making them readily available in most climates through the year. This recipe incorporates pantry goods and dairy that can also be found, locally produced, no matter where you are, too. Extra point for using spare bits of bread for the crumb topping, a byproduct of loaves that’s so often gone to waste–and a classic for such dishes as gratins.

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