Saturday, 12 December 2009

Turnip Soufflé

What's in a name?  Quite a lot if you're a turnip.  There's no glamour in being a turnip, your name's a byword for idiots and stupidity, at least in England it is for a generation raised on Baldrick's obsession with them.  If you need a quick image to convey "huge moron" to your audience then the turnip is your go-to vegetable, as Graham Taylor will quickly confirm.

I don't think there's much of a culinary reason for this, in Eastern Asian cuisine you find daikon everywhere; it's usually translated as 'radish' and commonly looks more like a parsnip but it tastes more like turnip than anything else. Americans seem quite happy cooking turnips, especially at Thanksgiving, but with an American accent "turnip" doesn't sound quite so much a synonym for imbecile and daikon of course sounds more like a particularly cool Transformer (ninja->ferrari->ninja->ferrari->hiiiYA!->BrrRRMMMmm) but if you're the Sun launching a campaign to oust England's national football team manager, calling him Turnip Head is where you start.

Soufflé raises wide-eyed expectations, it says Michelin star, linen, candles, proper sexy serious cooking.  You wouldn't ever see Baldrick excited about a soufflé in the shape of a thingy or about his thingy being the shape of a soufflé.  This recipe isn't one of those dinky little show-offs rearing up out of its single-seater ramekin looking for 'ooohs' and applause however, it's a big savoury bowlful to be plonked on a table, scooped up and shared out in wobbly spoonfuls.

Winter turnips aren't particularly great for much other than burying in soups and stews, Jane Grigson* refers to them along with swedes as "that grim pair" and how, compared to the French: 
we stick too much to the agricultural view, regarding the turnip as a coarse, cow-sized vegetable, suitable for the over-wintering of herds, schoolchildren, prisoners and lodgers.
Turnips have a soft, sweet pepperiness that goes well with other warm spices like cinnamon, cloves, cardomom and in the spring and summer there are plenty of interesting ways to cook them more simply than the egg-fondling vein-bulging stress of making a soufflé, but getting into winter this is about the only option I know of for doing something delicious with them.  I'm always tempted to experiment more with the spicing in this dish, especially as xmas approaches, some star anise, cloves, a little juniper, I suspect I'd end up with something smelling and tasting very festive and exotic indeed, however I always shy away at the last minute towards something that I know to work.  I think this is the power of the soufflé to intimidate.


turnips - about 5 or 6 of the smaller ones or a couple of big ones.  After peeling and cooking and mashing you'll want about 200g, so aim for 300-350g of unpeeled raw turnips if you're weighing.
butter - 50g
flour - 50g
egg yolks - 4
egg whites - 5 (I know, just chuck the other yolk away, don't try and keep it in the fridge, really)
breadcrumbs - good handful
grated parmesan - good handful
chopped parsley - good handful
milk - 125ml
cinnamon, cayenne pepper - big tsp each

Peel and dice the turnips and boil in a pan of salted water till soft (15-25 mins) drain - keeping about 150ml of the cooking liquid - and mash.  Don't worry about mashing to a fine puree, I prefer the end result to have some texture (lumps) and they can be a bit of a bugger to mash smooth anyway.  Squish the mashed turnip into a sieve to get most of the water out and leave in the sieve to drain a little bit more.

Whilst the turnips are cooking/draining prepare your soufflé bowl and the egg whites: you'll need a soufflé dish about 1-2 litres greased all round with some butter.  By 'soufflé dish' I just mean anything that'll survive in the oven and is a vaguely sensible shape, I've no idea what my 'soufflé dish' was originally intended for, it looks more like a flower pot than anything else, but it's a decent size and seems to cope with oven temperatures so far.  Tip in the breadcrumbs and the parmesan and jiggle and turn the bowl around until the insides are all nice and evenly coated.  Gently shake out any excess and keep it safe to go on the top of the souffle before it goes in the oven.  Whisk the egg whites in a big clean dry bowl until they're getting to the soft peaks stage.

Melt the butter in a pan, once it's foaming stir in the flour and let cook through for a few seconds.  Pour in the milk and the turnip cooking water that you kept back earlier, stir through until smoothly combined then mix in your pureed turnip.  Once this is all looking well and good remove from the heat and stir in the egg yolks, one at a time.  Make sure you give them a thorough, vigorous stir as they land in the pan, you don't want them sitting there cooking.  I usually have the yolks all in one bowl and slowly try and roll them out one at a time.  This doesn't always work, sometimes a couple will plop out together but no matter, you just have to stir twice as vigorously.

Once the yolks are all safely stirred in check the seasoning and stir in the cinnamon, cayenne and parsley.  It should taste pretty strong at this point, probably a bit too strong, adding the egg whites will dilute it.  Finish whisking the egg whites off, another couple of minutes until they're at the stiff peaks stage, then gently fold into the turnip mixture a spoonful at a time.  Again don't worry too much about perfect folding and having little lumps of egg white in the mixture, no-one will know, it's more important to avoid stirring and beating the air out of them.  Pour the mixture out into your soufflé bowl, sprinkle the rest of the parmesan/breadcrumb mixture over the top and put in an oven at 200C/400F/gas 6, ideally on a metal tray that's been heating in the oven to make a hot base for the soufflé dish, for 30 mins or until the top looks like this:

* Jane Grigson's Vegetable Book.  This recipe is based on her jerusalem artichoke soufflé recipe in that book.

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