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The good old root vegetables are back in favour

There's an ongoing debate in English about what to call a turnip and what to call a swede. Generally food writers agree that the ones with whitish flesh are turnips and those with yellowish-orange flesh are swedes. In spite of their sweetish, slightly tart and tangy taste, they've long – and quite undeservedly – been absent from our menus and dinner tables. In the past, these flavoursome root vegetable were the staple diet of poorer people across Europe. During World War I there were times when people lived almost exclusively on swedes and turnips, even turning them into jam and coffee substitutes.

Highly versatile vegetables

Thanks to the many ways they can be prepared, turnips and swedes are back in business in today's kitchens. By tradition, this root vegetables are enjoyed in a hearty stew together with potatoes, carrots and smoked meat. But they are equally delicious made into a creamy soup or a puree, or in a casserole and on a tarte flambée. Steamed and spiced with a little grated nutmeg, they make a delicious side dish for meat and fish. For vegetarian cutlets they are sliced, parboiled, sprinkled with breadcrumbs and fried until crisp. They are also marvellous in combination with other winter vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, kohlrabi and celery.

Turnips and swedes need to be thoroughly cleaned, peeled and the stalk cut off. Then prepare them according to the recipe, by cutting them into slices, sticks or cubes, or by grating them. The optimal cooking time – between 30 and 40 minutes – depends on the size and age of the vegetable. At all costs avoid overcooking, which destroys nutrients and results in an unpleasant, cabbage-like taste.

How to buy, what to look for

The swede is a cross between turnip rape (Brassica rapa) and wild cabbage (Brassica oleracea). The ideal swede is round and should weigh approximately 1.5 kg. Choose swedes that are heavy for their size; lighter ones might be woody. The preferred varieties for human consumption have yellow flesh; white varieties are mostly used as cattle fodder. Swedes have a relative high sugar content which accounts for the slightly sweet taste. Other ingredients include valuable proteins, essential oils, potassium, calcium, magnesium and vitamins B1, B2 and C as well as beta carotene.

You’ll find swedes on farmer’s markets, in farm shops and in well-stocked supermarkets. When shopping look for smaller specimen with a smooth skin, because these often have a more delicate and fresher taste. The flesh should not be stringy or have worm holes. Swedes will keep fresh for several days in your refrigerator’s vegetable drawer.

Source: Heike Kreutz, www.aid.de