Sunday, November 30, 2014

Papa's Mashed Turnips with Molly

A family favorite for well over half a century!

I'll readily admit - and have been honest with you guys in the past! - that I'm not a very enthusiastic eater of vegetables. I'll eat them, but they're never something I really go out of my way to try, and I do often fall prey to assuming I won't like a vegetable without having tried it.

Take turnips, for example. Turnips have been a staple at my family's Thanksgiving table pretty much as long as I can remember thanks to my grandfather (who we call Papa, thus the title), but I'm pretty sure I'd never actually tried turnips before starting this blog and they wound up as an ingredient in a soup I did. Until then, my experience with this particular root vegetable was my mom promising I'd like them if I gave them a chance and the scene in Meet Molly where she complains that the turnips she's being forced to eat from their Victory Garden taste like old socks until her mother adds some butter and sugar to them for her. Needless to say, I was never that enthusiastic about giving them a shot, but now that I've discovered they aren't anything close to bad, I knew what I wanted to feature for Thanksgiving this year.

After all, it's been a family favorite for over seventy years!

Well, let me back up a little bit and explain. These turnips have been on the table at Thanksgiving probably almost every year we've had my mom's father over, and are his personal favorite dish during the holiday season. He makes them himself, and takes the preparation pretty seriously, as I discovered when I went over my grandparents' house to watch him make them. I'd never really asked why these were such a big deal to him until I decided to do this blog post, and he explained that when he was a kid, his mother would make turnips like these on Thanksgiving, but pretty much only on Thanksgiving, even though the whole family liked making them. When he married my grandmother, turnips disappeared from the table because it wasn't a tradition in her family the same way it had been in his. As I've mentioned before, my grandma is Italian American and my grandfather is mostly Irish American, so my grandma's family had very different food traditions for the holidays.

As nice as that was, my grandfather missed his turnips and one year decided to take matters into his own hands. My grandma warned him to only use one turnip to make the dish, because she assumed he would be the only one who wanted to eat it. Much to both of their surprise, he actually didn't get any of the mashed turnip because everyone else gobbled it right up! Learning from their mistake, my grandfather now uses three large turnips to make this dish, and it's still very enthusiastically demolished by most of our family. This year, we were lucky to have some leftovers to enjoy, although I negotiated eating the leftover potatoes if I surrendered the turnips to my sister.

Mmmm, mashed potatoes.

Still, three large turnips doesn't always turn out to be exactly as much as it looks like it's going to be when you buy them at the store. The first time I prepared turnips on my own, I didn't know all that much about them beyond the fact that they're a root vegetable, and had to look up whether you eat the skin or not. As it turns out, you can in theory, but it tastes bitter and isn't fun to eat. Additionally, turnips are usually covered in paraffin wax, so you want to cut the skin off anyway to make sure you're not eating any of that, because as my grandfather said "no one likes eating paraffin wax."

(Also, as per my instructions, don't bother buying pre sliced turnips, it's not too hard to just do this yourself.)

Technically, the tops and bottoms of the turnips come pre sliced, but turnips can be pretty woody and hard even after the tougher parts have been chopped off. Because of this, the best way to cut a turnip is to slice an inch and a half or so off the top and bottom of the turnip, slice it down the middle, and then start slicing the skin off. Anything that seems too woody or too green should get cut off, and if your turnip is starting to turn brown? It's okay, but really overripe/on their way to rotting turnips get mushy and won't give you what you're looking for.

While doing this, please remember the basics of knife safety: cutting away from you is generally the better way to go. I say generally, because when my grandfather was in high school, his shop teacher passed along the same advice while they were doing a woodworking project. My grandfather thought "well, okay, easy enough" and went to cut away from himself... and wound up stabbing himself in the thigh.

So, be careful when playing with sharp things!

After you're finished peeling, you're left with what looks like a decent amount of turnips, but as I discovered, the amount of stuff you have to slice off to get this is pretty crazy. My grandfather passed me the trash bag just to show me how heavy all the discarded skin was, and I kid you not, it felt like we had another turnip in there by itself.

Before you move on to the next step, you should wash off your knife and cutting board to make sure any leftover wax isn't clinging to either of them.

These halves get sliced into 1/4 to 1/2 of an inch slices, and are then cut again so the shapes are as uniform as possible. Obviously you're not going to get a perfect cube out of every (or really, any) piece, but you want to get as close to this as possible because it'll help the turnips cook more evenly.

Once they're cut, give them a bath in cold water to remove any extra starches, dump out the water, and then fill the pot with water until the turnips are just covered.

Add about a handful of sugar. This is something my grandmother introduced to the recipe and it's supposed to help bring out the flavor of the turnips.

These guys get cooked on the stove for quite a while, because turnips take a long time to cook through even when you're good about keeping the chunks small.

So, how do you know when they're done?

Like most family recipes passed down for generations, this one doesn't have a specific cook time. Instead, after letting them cook for a while, you fish out one of the bigger sized chunks from the pot and sample it. If it's nice and soft, you're ready to start mashing. If it's still hard, you need to let it sit for a while longer.

Once they're fully cooked, take them off the heat, dump out the water, and start adding the butter. As my grandfather said, butter makes everything better, and I have to say I agree with him. Apparently, Molly does too! He starts with about a whole stick of butter at first, and then decides if he needs more based on taste and consistency as you start to blend. Cut the butter directly into the turnips and use the knife to help mix it in. This helps get the turnips a little mashed up to start off with.

This makes it easier to blend them smoothly, which was definitely a novel concept for me. I usually get impatient and just immediately turn it up to the highest setting when I'm blending stuff like this. I'll definitely be keeping this in mind in the future when I do dishes like this to help avoid turnips flying around everywhere.

You're looking for light, fluffy consistency, but if you're into lumpy turnips, I guess you could go that way, too.

And you're done, really! Make sure you've got them in a microwaveable bowl if you're not planning on serving them immediately, because cold turnips just aren't as satisfying. They make a great addition to any Thanksgiving plate.

Don't worry, I did go back to put something green on my plate later...

I have a confession which I may have shared with you all before: Thanksgiving isn't really my favorite holiday. I don't hate it, but I don't look forward to it as much as I look forward to Halloween or Christmas, and I think part of this is that the awkward sitting around waiting for Thanksgiving dinner doesn't do too much for me. I'd rather be actively doing something with my morning, and I haven't really found my own thing to contribute to the dinner yet and don't love watching the parade, so I usually just sit around twiddling my thumbs and helping my mom get things organized when she needs it. Sometimes, I manage to convince someone to go see a movie with me, but this year, I'm definitely not sorry we didn't find a way to make that happen.

I had a lot of fun spending time with my grandparents and learning the history of this particular family dish, which might not be too complicated to make yourself (if a little time consuming), but still has a strong connection to tradition and family for my grandfather and the rest of us. Hanging out in the kitchen hearing stories I'd never heard before - even though we tend to be a chatty family in that regard - was a great way to spend my morning and afternoon, and I'm really appreciative to have had the opportunity to do so. There are a couple other family recipes I'd like to be able to feature at some point on the blog like this, and hopefully the family members involved won't mind sharing their secrets with you guys!

Hope you all had a happy Thanksgiving!


  1. Thanks for documenting Papa's turnip recipe! I guess I had forgotten some of the history and it was nice to read about it again. And since it is a time to acknowledge gratitude, I am thankful for all the wonderful food and knowledge you have share with us on your blog! Thanks a bunch and keep the stories coming. Love you!

    1. Thank you for always being my sous chef! Your help is always greatly appreciated. :)

  2. Thank you for sharing this! My 11 yr daughter is into American Girl and really liked the Molly movie. She has been begging me to get and make "Molly's turnips" and I have honestly never had them before! So after a half hour search, I find your blog! PERFECT! Thank you so much! They really should have included this in Molly's Cookbook! LOL

    1. You're very welcome! Happy to help and hope you guys enjoy! :D