Sunday, 4 November 2012

A turnip for the book

After a week in which the suddenly-darker evenings and the equally sudden cold had conspired to make the thought of hibernation an enticing one, came a weekend of unexpected triumph – and fair old bit of learning.

It started, as all weekends should, on Friday evening. In this case, the penultimate episode of this year’s Gardeners’ World on the BBC was the inspiration.

It was only the second edition I'd caught since getting going on my own little patch, generally imagining that it would have little of interest or use for someone with an urban patio of approximately three metres by nine.

But this one featured presenter Monty Don gathering leaves – and explaining how it’s worth bagging them up to keep for next year when, as leaf mould, they’ll provide little nutrition, but wonderful structure to soil, which is particularly good for bulbs.

There you are. In the last couple of weeks I’ve spent money on buying compost for the bulbs, and here was a suggestion of how to use something that needs getting rid of anyway.

The forecast for the weekend was sun on Saturday and rain for much of Sunday. And sure enough, Saturday dawned bright and sunny and cold.

After the week’s trip to Broadway Market, I set about a number of tasks – starting with the leaves. There were a few in our own little patch, trying to hide beneath and behind pots, but the wind had swept many, many more into insouciant heaps in the carpark at the back.

It was an easy job to fill a garden sack, which then had a couple of small snips made in it to ensure that the leaves don't get waterlogged.

That done, it was on to stripping out the tomato plants, which were looking rather sad, with the few remaining spilt, unrippened fruits and bedraggled leaves. We didn’t do badly from the tomatoes, but like so much else, I'll know more next time.

And then it was out to the back and to my Schleswig-Holstein patch of ground in the carpark itself.

After finding only dolls house-sized carrots in recent weeks – and there should have been edible baby ones in September – plus no hint of turnips or swedes, I had given up any thoughts of a harvest and was set simply to clear that patch.

But then, as work began, I found a human-sized carrot! Okay, it wasn’t ‘big’, but it was as large as anything you’d see in those pricey packets of ‘baby veg’ in the supermarket.

A few more – smaller, but still edible – also emerged. I was nearly skipping around in excitement.

And better was to come. Because while the swedes really had failed to do anything whatsoever at all, there were small turnips popping above ground; an assortment of shapes and sizes, but all of them cream, topped with a rich, dusky purple.

Excitement squared.

What followed, of course, was the question of what to do with this unexpected harvest: not quite enough for a portion of veg each with our main meal, but demanding to be eaten at the first possible opportunity.

In the event, I’d been planning to try my hand at Königsberger Klopsea form of German meatball/dumpling that I’d first tasted in Berlin a few years ago.

Mimi Sheraton’s The German Cookbook (which even has a look of scholarliness) had come down from the shelf in consideration of the weekend’s food and, while contemplating frickadellen – the good burgers of Germany – my eyes had landed on her klopse recipe, memory was triggered and the decision made.

After spotting a rather majestic purple kohlrabi on the market, if’d been considering that as a side dish, but my own root veg were calling.

I’m not used to cooking turnips. To be honest, I’ve eaten them so rarely it’s difficult to recall why I decided to sow some. But sow some I had  and now, at long last, they were ready.

The packet had seemed to suggest that we’d have had baby turnips available by the time we arrived back from France at the beginning of September – a thought that, at the time, had produced mouthwatering ideas of a French dish of roast duck and baby turnips.

But once they were in my hands, inexperience meant I was fretting that, with growth having been so slow, they'd be tough if not downright inedible.

But first it was a matter of preparing the klopse.

First, take some mince. Now personally, I’m afraid I tend to ignore amounts when making meatballs: it’s one of the few dishes I now have enough practice at to know how much I need.

So I know that approximately 300g of mince will be fine for two of us.

In this case, that was half and half pork and beef. Tradition allows that it could be a third each of these two, plus veal, but pork is a must.

Take some breadcrumbs – I suppose about a coffee cup full for that amount of meat (goodness knows that that translates to in weight) and mix with the meat. Add two or three finely-chopped anchovies, a finely chopped shallot or two, some chopped parsley and a little grated lemon.

Then add an egg. I don’t normally add egg to meatballs or patties – you don't need it in order to get the mixture to hold together. But in this case, it made sense: the klopse I remembered from Berlin had a very light texture and would benefit from the egg.

In that went. Everything is mixed thoroughly and then, with moist hands, shaped into balls.

I do love how Sheraton almost screams at her readers at this point, warning them not to taste the mix for seasoning because there’s raw pork involved. Would anyone actually do that?

And this is hardly a new publication, with health and safety panic, but one for a US audience, originally published in 1965.

The next step is to take some beef or veal stock and bring it to boiling point.

Cue the fun of defrosting stock quickly – then finding there wasn’t enough beef stock, so having to rapidly defrost a jar of chicken stock and add that.

Yes, I could have used a cube, but even though I’ve finally traced an acceptable veg stock cube (and one that doesn't involve the farming of palm oil, which is damaging orangutan populations), there is a world of difference between a mass-produced stock and a home-produced one. Whatever Marco Pierre White might claim (for money).

And when you’ve bothered to buy decent ingredients, it seems frankly daft not to use the best stock you can.

Once a large pan of shimmering liquid had been brought to a boil, the klopse went in for 15 minutes.

While that's cooking, chop an onion finely and start to cook it in butter. Once it’s browning, add plain flour and mix to cook through and make a roux.

Now at this point, Sheraton would have you add this mix to the stock to thicken, and then continue cooking the klopse in it for a further 15 minutes.

But it seemed easier to let the klopse continue as they were, simply taking a ladle of stock at a time to thin the sauce.

Five minutes from the end, add some capers. And if you want, at the end, pour in some sour cream – a Bavarian addition.

On the side, straightforward boiled spuds – and then the veg, grown by my own fair hands.

I washed off soil carefully, and topped and tailed everything. Then it all simply went into a small pan to boil until tender, with a few peas added to bulk it out.

The klopse were light and satisfying – Sheraton’s tome will not be gathering as much dust in the coming weeks and months.

Unexpected as anchovy and lemon are as ingredients in northern European cookery – they seem its antithesis – they blend well here and don’t dominate.

And so to the turnips: well, they could have done with another two to three minutes – such is my lack of experience in cooking them º but oh my goodness, the taste!

That will be amongst the freshest vegetables I’ve eaten and honestly, there is a difference. There’s a natural sweetness you can barely imagine, together with a complexity and depth of real taste that, in its ability to surprise, is indicative of how much we have become accustomed to blandness on our plates and in our mouths.

The little taste of carrot wasn’t to be sniffed at either.

One thing is certain: my little turnips were an unexpected triumph – and they will most definitely be on the menu again for next year.