Vermilion Roots is turning one in a few days and I wanted to make a cake to celebrate the milestone. I know what you are thinking: a cake made with turnips? Well, yes. There are a few things you should know about this cake. Firstly, it's a savory cake that goes really well with hoisin and sriracha sauce. The so-called icing on the cake are sprinkles of chopped spring onions and red chilis. It's based on a traditional Chinese dish known as "lo bak go" commonly served at dim sum restaurants and a staple in some parts of China during the Lunar New Year.
So yes, it's a celebratory cake but no, it's not your typical birthday cake. Secondly, while its name is typically translated as "turnip cake" in English, the recipe actually calls for daikon radish, which sometimes also goes by the name Chinese turnip, probably the reason for the misnomer.
The recipe I'm sharing here honors its "turnip cake" title by actually using TURNIPS! The reason for that is simple: I am curious. This Spring, I am on a mission to discover produce new to me, and have in the last few weeks been cooking with wonderful vegetables like radish, leek and beetroot under the Spring Discovery project. In an effort to eat seasonally, I subscribed to a CSA share, and have been incorporating local produce into my favorite Southeast Asian recipes. As it turns out, turnips work beautifully in this Chinese savory cake recipe.
I have Lise Metzger of the blog Grounded Women to thank for bringing my attention to turnips. She told me that most people dislike turnips and wonders if it's because they just haven't found a recipe that hits the spot. "When I first started hosting a CSA, there were many vegetables I didn’t care for, until I found a recipe that helped me appreciate the vegetable," she said.
I was determined to give turnips a go, and responded to what she said by including them in this savory cake that I've always been very fond of. It involves grating turnips (always a good way to sneak vegetables into a dish) into a rice flour-based batter that also has grated carrots and sliced shiitake mushrooms, and letting the ingredients really come together by steaming it and then pan-frying slices of it to enhance the flavor. The result is truly delicious and I'm personally really glad to have given turnips a chance.
In addition to discovering new vegetables, the benefits of CSA are numerous, and I wanted to find out how being a CSA host has influenced the way Lise eats and cooks. "Thanks to some digestive disorders, I have been mindful of what I eat and where it comes from for many, many years. Five years ago I signed on to be a site host for a CSA, knowing that I’d have a constant source of fresh, organic vegetables. What I didn’t anticipate was the transformation that hosting the CSA would provide in my life. I became so much more creative and resourceful in my approach to food. I had a huge box of vegetables each week that I had to eat my way through, so I had to learn to cook a lot of unfamiliar or disliked vegetables. I became an even cleaner eater, and I learned to preserve food through canning and fermentation," she explained.
"Each Saturday when we received our boxes of fresh, organic vegetables was like Christmas. The vegetables were so fresh and so beautiful. I’m a photographer and very visual, so sometimes I wanted to just admire the vegetables and not eat them. But cook and eat them I did. Finding recipes and new ways to cook each veggie became a favorite pastime. And, honestly, a necessity. You’ve got to find some variety when you get the same vegetable week after week."
A few years ago, Lise began a project of photographing a woman farmer. "It was a personal project that brought me a lot of pleasure and a complete change of scenery. I’m a single mom and at that time was deep into the business of raising a teenager. So being on a farm for a day and hearing about someone else’s life was like a slice of Peaceful Heaven for me. About two years into the project I began to photograph other women farmers as well, when time allowed," she said.
"I care where my food comes from and I’m a pretty decent cook, but I am absolutely not a farmer. I can grow kale without killing it, but gardening doesn’t appeal to me too much when I have the CSA delivery each week. So hanging out with all these farmers has been quite a learning experience. I’m in awe of the depth of their knowledge and their dedication to growing good food in a sustainable way. When I started the project I kind of wondered who would ever take on the hard work of actually being a farmer, but now I totally appreciate what one of the farmers said to me about farming being the most honest job she could think of."
Early this year, Lise launched the project as a blog called Grounded Women: Stories of Women Who Farm. "I’m interested in how each woman came to find her calling in farming, how she runs the business of her farm, and how she feels about the food she grows or raises. I have chosen to focus on farmers who grow organically and use sustainable practices. Each woman is passionate about the quality and purity of the product she produces. What a joy it is to spend time with people who feel so strongly about what they do," she said.
Lise's photos effectively convey the stories of these farmers and her blog has really inspired me. For the first anniversary of Vermilion Roots, I am dedicating this post to the people who grow our food, and to those who champion the cause of sustainable food. To Michelle of One Acre Farm for the opportunity to learn about farming and all my friends who are helping me on my Spring Discovery project, a big THANK YOU for showing me how I can eat and cook mindfully and responsibly. It's truly been a great year of wholesome deliciousness. Now, let's have some cake, shall we?
Getting to Know Turnips with Lise Metzger of Grounded Women
Turnips in a nutshell: What is a turnip, exactly? The bane of a CSA experience? Animal feed? A basically yucky-tasting vegetable? Turnips are not winning many popularity contests. As a site host for a CSA, I see what’s left over each pickup day in our Swap Box. And if we’ve had turnips in that day’s delivery, then the Swap Box is overflowing with them. People just don’t like them. I feel bad for these perceived losers of the vegetable world.
I asked my CSA members what, exactly, they didn’t like, and the answers included: the smell when cooking, the taste, the thought that they require a lot of prep work, and mostly the monotony of getting them in our CSA box week after week. One member summed it up best when she said, "A turnip is a barely edible thing from the times of perpetual famine and no potatoes." And yet our farmers keep growing them. Lots of them. They are easy to grow and are a reliable crop to store throughout the winter. Turnips were/are, indeed, grown for livestock feed, but primarily the larger turnip. The smaller, more tender, turnips are grown for human consumption.
Describe the taste: Let’s break down those complaints about turnips, starting with the taste. Well, the taste is the taste, and not everyone will like it. There is actually a genetic reason for this; some people are sensitive to a bitter substance in the turnip and find it doubly bitter. But for those without the genetic predisposition, I often wonder if they just haven’t hit on a recipe they like that changes their mind—a gateway recipe. When fresh, turnips are surprisingly sweet. They can have an assertive flavor, often with a slight peppery bite, but not as sharp as a radish.
How to select and store: Try to get the freshest turnips you can. When selecting them, the root should feel firm and the skin should be smooth. Look for fresh greens that smell a little sweet. I would use the greens as soon as possible, but you can store the root in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 weeks. That said, I’ve found months-old turnips lurking in my crisper drawer and still used them in a roasted medley. Nutritionally, it’s the greens that pack the most nutrients. Turnip greens are high in calcium and antioxidants and known for their detoxing and anti-inflammatory properties. The roots themselves contain a decent amount of vitamin C.
How to prepare: Turnips need to be washed and usually peeled, but that’s all the prep work required.
How to use: Fortunately, turnips are a versatile vegetable and can be eaten any number of ways, much like a potato. You can boil and mash them and serve with salt and pepper and butter. You can roast them alongside all your other root vegetables. You can either add them to or feature them in a soup. I love to add grated raw turnip to my morning miso soup and cook a short time, so it maintains some crunch. You can add them raw into salads. You can add them, grated, into your potato latke batter or any kind of fried veggie patty. They are great pickled or fermented. You can use them in baking, where they add a nice moistness. Raw, they are great cut into slices and served on a crudité platter as dippers.
This post is part of the Spring Discovery series, where I learn to cook seasonal vegetables new to me with the help of my blogger friends. Don't forget to visit Lise's blog Grounded Women for great photos and stories of women who farm.
Chinese Turnip Cake
This recipe is based on the popular dim sum dish called "lo bak go", which is a savory cake usually made with grated daikon radish. I adapted the recipes from Woks of Life and Serious Eats by replacing daikon radish with turnips, adding carrots for sweetness and omitting meat ingredients to make it vegetarian. This cake is steamed and then usually pan-fried in slices to serve. The usual texture of a cake should not be expected as turnip cake has more of a pudding-like consistency, and the more turnips are used the softer it will be. Makes one 8 x 4-inch loaf.
1 lbs (450g or about 5 medium) turnips, grated
1/2 lbs (225g or about 3 medium) carrots, grated
3 shiitake mushrooms, diced into small pieces
2 stalks spring onions, diced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
1 cup white/ brown rice flour
1 tablespoon coconut sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
Spring onions, chopped
Red chilis, chopped
Shallots, sliced and pan-fried
In a deep set pot over medium heat, cook turnips and carrots in 1/2 cup water, stirring occasionally, until they are soft, about 20 minutes. More water will be released by the turnips, and you'll want to cook the mixture down until it is only slightly wet and not swimming in liquid.
Stir in mushrooms and spring onions, followed by olive oil and light soy sauce. Turn off heat and set aside for a few minutes to cool slightly.
In the meantime, mix together brown rice flour, sugar and salt in a bowl. Add the dry mix to the wet ingredients in the pot and stir well to combine everything until you get a thick, sticky mixture. Let it rest for 10 to 15 minutes, then give it a final stir and transfer to a well-oiled 8 x 4-inch loaf pan.
Place the loaf pan in a steamer and steam over medium-high heat for 1 hour. Remove the pan from the steamer and allow to cool for at least 30 minutes. When ready to serve, turn the pan over a cutting board to let the cake fall onto it. Slice into desired size.
Garnish with chopped spring onions, cilantro, red chilis and fried shallots, and serve with hoisin and Sriracha sauces.
While this is a delicious way to enjoy the cake, I prefer to pan-fry 1/2-inch thick slices until golden and crispy on both sides. And I find that refrigerating the steamed cake in the pan overnight helps it set better, so you can actually make the cake a day in advance and refrigerate until ready to eat. The cake stores for up to a week in the refrigerator. Pan-fry in slices to reheat.