Recently, a Japanese acquaintance asked me what recipes I was working on. "Oh, I just did a quick and easy thing with Japanese turnips," I told him. He stared at me blankly. That's when I realized, slightly embarrassed at my daftness, that "Japanese turnip" is probably not how they're known in Japan. "What do you call them?" I followed up. "You know, the little white ones that you can eat raw?"
Hakurei turnip, it turns out, is the answer. A delicate, sweet, crisp-tender root vegetable, Hakurei turnips have become a popular item at farmers markets nationwide, even if, at least in the New York area, they're often slapped with the generic "Japanese" moniker. I can't get enough of them—and right now, in late spring, the market stands are full of them.
If you count yourself among the rather sizable population of people who don't like turnips, I implore you to give Hakurei turnips a try. They're tiny things, sometimes called "small" or "baby" turnips, with a much milder flavor than the large winter ones. They hardly have any of that sulfurous funk typical of bigger turnips and many other members of the brassica family. Instead, they're slightly sweet, and surprisingly juicy—so much so that they're fantastic raw. Imagine supremely tender radishes, with none of the peppery bite.
Perhaps the thing I love most about them, though, is that each bunch almost always comes with its leafy green tops. There are a million things you can do with these, but one of my favorites is to serve the two together, the turnip bulbs sautéed until browned and the greens quickly blanched, then chopped and tossed briefly in the pan to combine them.
I take an extremely simple approach to let the vegetables shine as much as possible; not even a clove of garlic sneaks its way into my skillet (not that garlic would be bad, but I just love these turnips so much as they are).
It's an easy one-two punch of blanching and sautéing to make them. I set a medium pot of salted water on the stove and bring it to a boil. (In case you're wondering why I don't bother with a large pot, see my blanching tests here.) While that happens, I prep the turnips, cutting off the greens, discarding any yellow leaves, and washing them well of sand and grit.
Then I peel the turnips, which is an entirely optional step. The OCD part of me loves how clean they look peeled, but the peels are edible, so a good scrubbing is all you really have to do. I also like to leave a small portion of the green stems attached to each turnip, mostly because I like how they look, though they also function as excellent handles if you decide to eat the turnips with your fingers. (The stems are edible, too, though, so don't discard them after nibbling at the turnip.)
Finally, I cut each turnip pole to pole into thin wedges.
At this point, the water should be boiling, so it's time to drop the turnip greens in and give them a quick blanch, just until they're softened, in a minute or so. I pluck them out of the water with tongs or a strainer and drop them into cold water to chill. Then I squeeze them of excess water and chop them up.
Meanwhile, I set a skillet over high heat with olive oil in it. As soon as the first wisps of smoke appear, I drop the turnips into the pan, tossing them just enough to allow them to brown but not burn.
Once they've browned nicely, I drop the chopped greens into the pan and toss it all together just until it's warmed through. You might be wondering why I bother blanching the greens first, instead of just adding them to the pan raw and letting them cook there. Truth is, you could do that, but I like how plump and vibrantly green they are from the blanching—they don't spend any more time in the pan than it takes to heat them up.
I season it all with salt and pepper and give it a good bath in fresh olive oil. That's it, done and done: a phenomenal (and phenomenally simple) side dish for roast chicken or a piece of fish. There's nothing terribly Japanese about it, but then again, what's in a name, anyway?