Pan-crisped duck breasts with turnip pickles

Time 45 minutes
Yields Serves 4
Pan-crisped duck breasts with turnip pickles
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
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Even at this time of year, when the produce aisles are not exactly crammed with color and variety, the turnip is easy to overlook. At first glance, it seems so plain it’s easy to hurry past without a second notice. But pause a moment and take a closer look. There’s a hidden side to this root vegetable. Even turnips can be beautiful.

We usually think of them in supporting roles -- cut up with other root vegetables to give sweetness and complexity to winter broths and braises. It seems impossible to contemplate lamb stew or pot-au-feu without them.

But despite its homely appearance, the turnip can take star turns too.

Cook turnips until you can mash them with a fork, then puree them in a food processor with a little cream. (Don’t worry: They don’t have the starch that makes potatoes go gluey.) When they’re gossamer-smooth, beat in a couple tablespoons of butter and maybe a shaving of nutmeg to highlight the combination of sweetness and minerality. How’s that sound with a crusty, well-browned roast pork?

Add broth instead of (or in addition to) the cream and you get a silken vegetable soup. If you want a surprise (and you’re still feeling flush after the holidays), add a grace note of white truffle oil -- just enough to reinforce that earthy perfume.

Or get small turnips, the all-white ones that you find in Japanese or farmers markets. Though they are sometimes labeled “baby” because of their golf-ball size, almost all of these are fully mature members of the Tokyo family of turnips and its offshoots.

Cut those in quarters and briefly braise them with butter and minced shallots until they are just beginning to lose their crispness. Add some nutty sherry vinegar and let that cook down to a glaze. Finish it with chopped walnuts. The vinegar gives a sharpness that balances the turnip’s caramelized sweetness, and the walnuts add a crunch. This is amazing served with broiled rex sole.

Unlike the trimmed turnips you find in most groceries, these Japanese turnips (sometimes labeled kabu) are sold with their greens attached. These leaves give a good indication as to freshness (they will wilt long before the root begins to show any age), and you can chop them and add them to braised turnips.

Or you can save the tops and use them by themselves. They have a somewhat softer texture than most mustard greens and are only slightly pungent. They make a flavorful pot herb to add to soups -- or use them in pastas, sauteed with crumbled Italian sausage or slivered prosciutto.

As with other root vegetables, roasting brings out the caramelized sweetness in turnips. Slice them thickly or quarter them and coat them lightly with butter or oil. Spread them on a baking sheet and roast at 400 degrees until they’re golden and tender, between 40 and 60 minutes. Turn them only a couple of times to brown them best.

You can also bake turnips in cream (if that idea doesn’t make you hungry, perhaps nothing ever will). Slice them or shred them into a buttered gratin dish and bathe them with just enough whipping cream to keep them moist. Add other flavorings if you wish. Maybe some bacon and shallots? How about shredded Gruyere on top? Or simple buttered breadcrumbs?

You can do this same thing combining turnips and potatoes. The two have a natural affinity. Mash a turnip along with potatoes and see how it enlivens the puree. By the same token, you can turn turnips into neat shapes and roast them alongside new potatoes. Keep an eye on them -- turnips are so high in sugar they may scorch.


A crisp alternative

ALL of those dishes show off turnips’ soft side to one degree or another. But they are also good crisp. Grate them raw for a slaw. The texture is like jicama, and so is the flavor, a little sweet but with a mustard backbite that lets you know it is turnip.

Crisp turnip pickles are as standard in the Middle East as dill pickles are in Brooklyn. Called torshi, they are usually cut fairly thick and tinted a blushing purple by the addition of beet juice.

These are good, but you can make them more interesting by cutting them thin and flavoring them with a slightly spicy blend of mustard and coriander seed, black peppercorns, crushed red chile and bay leaf. These quick pickles only need to stand for a couple of hours to be ready to use. Serve them as a crisp, tart counterpoint to meat that is a little fatty, such as medium-rare duck breast or a nice juicy pork chop.

Because turnips are so often overlooked by shoppers, you have to use a little more care in selecting them than with most other vegetables. Turnips and other root vegetables keep for a long time -- months even -- but still they have their limits.

If you can find turnips with tops still attached, these are by all means the best choice. The leaves should be firm and slightly crisp, not at all wilted.

If all you have to choose from is topped turnips, select ones that are not wrinkled or spongy; good turnips will be rock hard.

At the same time, you can often get an idea of just how long a turnip has been sitting around by looking at the stem end. The produce guys at your grocery will “neaten” this by trimming it away whenever it starts to look a little questionable. Sometimes turnips are “neatened” well down into the meat of the root. This is a pretty sure sign that a vegetable has been around a while. By the same token, pass on any turnips that are sprouting new greens from a cut top.

There’s no telling how long they’ve been sitting there, patiently waiting for someone to come along who appreciates their subtle beauty.


Peel the turnips and cut them into quarter-inch by quarter-inch sticks. Place them in a container.


In a small saucepan, bring 1 1/4 cups water, the vinegar, 2 tablespoons salt, the sugar, red pepper, mustard seed, coriander seed, peppercorns and bay leaf to a simmer. Cook 10 minutes, then set aside to cool for 5 minutes.


Strain the hot liquid over the turnip sticks, seal tightly and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.


Cut a shallow cross-hatching on the skin side of the duck breasts, through the skin but not through the fat to the meat. Season the breasts liberally on both sides with salt and pepper, place on a plate, cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate.


When ready to cook, remove the duck from the refrigerator to sit at room temperature for 15 minutes. Heat the oil in a nonstick pan over medium heat. When it is almost smoking, pat dry the skin side of the duck breasts with a paper towel and place the breasts skin-side down in the hot pan. Sear until the skin is a deep golden brown, 7 to 10 minutes. Turn the breasts and cook on the opposite side until they are medium-rare in the center, 3 to 5 minutes more.


Remove the breasts to a carving board; let rest for 10 minutes. Cut on a bias into crosswise slices about a half-inch thick. Divide the slices among the plates and garnish with some well-drained turnip pickles. Serve immediately.

These pickles are a little assertive for eating by themselves, but their piquancy is perfect with duck or pork.