Although the words translate exactly, we’ll have to concede that the Italian cime di rapa sounds more appealing than the English ‘turnip tops’. I’m sure that’s one reason why these greens are not on every family’s meal table another closely linked one being our general apathy about the roots from which they sprout.
Whatever the case, it’s a shame. Turnip tops have a hint of mustard in them (worth bearing in mind when deciding what they go with), with little buds and long stems that have similar properties to purple sprouting broccoli, and cook in no time at all. Just dousing them in peppery extra-virgin olive oil and salt is the classic Italian way to season them, though I love the addition here of jammy and slightly bitter charred lemon juices. I can think of few things better than a large plate of these, a whole baked sea bass or turbot and a bottle of something cold and white to wash it all down.
Turnip tops are usually available during winter and spring. Outside those seasons, the burnt lemon and olive oil dressing and the sprinkle of toasted sunflower seeds would work well with pretty much any green vegetable.
- Yield: 4 to 6 Servings
- 1 large or 2 small lemons
- 3 tablespoons peppery extra-virgin olive oil
- 750 g turnip tops on the stem
- 25 g sunflower seeds, toasted (optional)
- Sea salt
- Put a ridged grill pan or heavy-bottomed frying pan on the hottest part of your hob. Cut the lemons in half widthways, then trim the knobbly end off each half, so that the lemon can sit flat on either end.
- Place the lemons flesh-side down on the smoking-hot pan and cook for 4–5 minutes, or until well charred. Turn over and char the other side for the same amount of time. Remove and allow to cool for a few minutes before squeezing their juices through a sieve (to catch the seeds) into a large mixing bowl. Add a good pinch of salt and the olive oil. Whisk with a fork to emulsify the liquids.
- In order that the turnip tops are cooked to their best advantage, you need to divide them into two piles: the leaves and the rest. You can do this in advance of eating, but the cooking should be done at the last minute.
- Cut off the bottom 1–2 cm (the bit that holds the stems together) and discard it, then trim the leaves from the other end and set aside. You will be left with a tangle of long, thin stems and (if you’re lucky) a few sprouting buds, which look similar to purple sprouting broccoli. Trim the buds from the stems, then cut the stems to 4–5 cm lengths and add them to the buds.
- Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Add the turnip-top stems and buds and cook for 60 seconds, then add the leaves and cook for 45–60 seconds more, pushing them under the water at the beginning. Drain thoroughly, then add to the bowl with the lemon and oil dressing. Toss and stir the leaves in the dressing. Check for seasoning, sprinkle with the sunflower seeds (if using) and serve immediately.