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Groundwork: A case for turnips

At Green Spring Gardens, the calm before the frenzy of spring planting. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

We're going to talk about turnips this week, but before we get to that most maligned of root vegetables (ok, mangel-wurzels might need even better PR), let's talk about spring. In Washington, spring begins meteorologically with the arrival of March. The sun is actually quite high at noon now, and in a normal year, the ground would be warming into the upper 40s. It would be too early to sow lettuce, perhaps, and certainly far too early to start tomato vines, but you could get a jump on the foodie-gardener's craving for a new growing season by putting in peas and potatoes and sowing some arugula. But this is not a normal year: The snow has made the important pre-spring garden cleanup and bed preparation impossible, and the soil is cold and wet and best left alone for a while longer.

Recipe Included

Out in the vegetable garden at Green Spring Gardens in Fairfax County, I take stock of what the snow, and the cold spell before it, has dished up this March.

The fava beans I encouraged Cindy Brown and the gang to plant in the fall for a spring crop were a bust, by the looks. Even though they protected them in a hoop row, the favas took a beating not so much by the snow but the frigid temperatures around New Year. Some will spring back from their roots, but the bed probably needs re-sowing. The carrots and spinach under the same protected growing frame are fine, and will revive once the weather turns. Some of the hoops have been bent by the weight of the snow.

The general growing beds are raised above the paths. This arrangement is important for keeping feet out of growing soil, but the beds' elevation also allows them to drain after the snow melt and thus warm for seed sowing. This soil has been worked and amended over the years and is sound enough that it is not dug now, as you might if you were starting a garden anew. Instead, the seedlings get a good measure of enriched soil when they are planted, and they will grow perfectly well with a regimen of organic feeding.

If you want to do something useful this week in your veggie plot, pull the winter weeds that have been lurking under the snow and are waiting for the slightest warmth this month to erupt into growth, flower and go to seed. If you want to break the cycle of henbit, chickwee and bittercress, tug those babies now.

Turnip seedlings waiting to go in the garden. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

You hear ad nauseam the remark that fresh vegetables taste so much better than those shipped 2,000 miles to your supermarket shelf. In most cases, this is absolutely so. In my experience, there is no bigger gulf in the flavor between store-bought and home-grown vegetable than in the turnip. An old turnip from the supermarket is woody and bitter; a well-grown turnip from the garden is piquant and sweet.

To raise perfect turnips, you need to pay careful attention to soil moisture. Basically, you don't want the turnip to get stressed from drought (or waterlogged). This is achieved with organically enriched soil, a shallow mulch and the gardener's finger, which can tell if the soil is getting too dry or is too wet.

Turnips quickly fade in the heat of June and beyond, so if you want to grow them as a spring crop (fall is always more reliable), you should either sow them as soon after putting in peas as possible, or start some indoors. The gardeners at Green Spring are doing both.

After sowing, the seeds go under lights and plastic film, which keeps the seed mix moist. The lights burn for 14 hours a day, then go off so the baby plants can get some rest. Bedtime stories optional. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

The regimen for turnips is the same as other winter-started seed: Sow them in foam pots in moistened seed starting mix, cover the cups with plastic film under lights, and remove the film once the seed has germinated, typically seven to 10 days. The seedlings then need misting once or twice a day for a couple of weeks, when they can be put individually in small pots. At Green Spring, the potted seedlings are growing in a greenhouse. For the rest of us, the challenge is to find enough real estate under lights to keep them happy until they can go into the garden.

"You have to be selective," said gardener Donna Stecker. "The gardener has to make decisions."

-- Adrian Higgins
(Follow me on Twitter.)

Warm Chickpea Salad With Pickled Turnips
6 servings

This is a warm salad featuring an unusual ingredient: pickled turnips. The dish has all the flavors of a Mediterranean favorite -- a falafel sandwich -- but is served on a platter arranged like a salad Nicoise. Everyone cab help themselves to create the right mix that suits their palates. Chopping all the ingredients takes a bit of time; think of the process like painting a masterpiece of colors and textures.

Pickled turnips can be purchased at Mediterranean grocery stores, as can ground sumac.

Adapted from Cynthia A. Brown, assistant gardener at Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria.

For the vinaigrette
Leaves from 1/2 large bunch flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped (1 cup)
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 large clove garlic
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil

For the salad
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds, crushed
2 medium cloves garlic, minced
14 ounces canned chickpeas, rinsed and drained
3 carrots, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch thick matchsticks
4 to 6 mint leaves, minced (2 tablespoons)
1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds (see NOTE)
3 Roma tomatoes, coarsely chopped
2 cucumbers, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 small red onion, cut into thin slices
1 cup pickled turnips (if not already cut into julienne, cut into 1/4-inch-thick matchsticks; see headnote)
1 cup crumbled feta cheese
4 pieces pita bread, cut into quarters and toasted
1 cup Greek-style plain nonfat yogurt
Juice from 1/2 or 1 lemon (2 tablespoons)
Ground sumac (see headnote)

For the vinaigrette: Combine the parsley, vinegar and garlic in the bowl of a food processor; process until finely chopped, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl. With machine running, gradually add the oil to form an emulsified vinaigrette. Season with salt and pepper to taste. The yield is 1 cup.

For the salad: Have a large platter ready to arrange all the salad ingredients. The chickpea mixture will be plated in the center surrounded by all the other ingredients, except the toasted pita triangles.

Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add the cumin, turmeric, coriander and minced garlic; cook for about 2 minutes, until the garlic and spices release their aroma.

Add the drained chickpeas and stir to combine. Cook for about 4 minutes, until the chickpeas are warmed through. Transfer to the center of the platter.

Add the remaining tablespoon of the oil to the pan, then add the carrots. Cook for about 3 minutes, until tender. Add the mint and mix well. Remove from the heat, then add the toasted sesame seeds. Transfer the carrot mixture to a spot on the platter beside the chickpeas.

Arrange the chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, sliced onions, pickled turnips and crumbled feta cheese in the remaining space around the chickpeas. Drizzle the vegetables with the parsley vinaigrette.

Place the pita triangles in a basket and serve alongside the salad.

Combine the yogurt and lemon juice; sprinkle with the ground sumac to taste and mix well. Serve separately at the table.

NOTE: Toast sesame seeds in a small dry skillet over medium heat for 4 to 6 minutes, shaking them often to keep them from burning, until lightly browned.

By Adrian Higgins  |  March 8, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Recipes  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Cindy Brown, Groundwork  
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Adrian, I spent Sunday cleaning up one large garden bed: giving the soil a little heave, removing weeds and debris left from last fall. turning in compost with the stirrup hoe. The soil was fine. In fact, I dug a long trench for leeks and planted a long row of snap peas. Today I'll be planting fava beans and potatoes. Looks like a perfect day for it.

Posted by: euclidarms | March 8, 2010 9:43 AM | Report abuse

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