Sometimes the things that you miss about a place can surprise you. When I left Iowa right out of college, I was surprised to discover that taco pizza is more of a local favorite than a widespread classic. Sure, I grew up on it, but for other people, putting nacho chips on a pizza probably sounded akin to putting potato chips on a casserole.
So when I left the warmth of Glendale, California and its plethora of Armenian grocery stores and restaurants selling bulgur, lavash, sarma (stuffed grape leaves), mutabel (baba ganoush), and pickled vegetables, I didn’t quite realize how good I’d had it until it was gone.
Finding big, flat layers of fresh lavash to stuff with homemade falafel? Not as easy here. But what I missed most of all, surprisingly, were the pickled turnips slid into wraps with black bean & chickpea hummus or added to a plate of bulgur with baba ganoush and salad. The crisp, vinegary crunch added a pungency to the creamy, mellow garlicky chickpeas and grains. While I’m never one to turn away a mezza platter, without the turnip pickles, it was missing something.
So I started searching Middle Eastern grocery stores all over the state, and when I did manage to find turnip pickles, they were made with red dye for their signature pink color. While turnips themselves are white inside, they are usually pickled with slices of beets to add a nearly neon pink color to them. Pink from red dye? No, thanks.
And the search continued until I decided to see how tricky it would be to make my own. I found this recipe from David Lebovitz’s blog. (The recipe is vegan, but his blog is not, by the way.) What I found there was very encouraging. Not only did pickling turnips not involve pickling spices or complicated equipment, the amount of active work was quite small. Just dissolve water and salt in a saucepan with a bay leaf and white vinegar, put french fry-sized peeled turnips, a sliced beet, and slices of garlic into two large jars, and pour the cooled solution over them. Put the covered jars in a cool place for a week and then move them to the refrigerator, where they should be eaten within six weeks. (No problems there!)
The turnips’ initial white color grew pinker and pinker with each passing day, and as they pickled I tasted them for a little hint at what was to come. It didn’t take more than a few days for me to realize that they were going to be good. Obviously since they are sitting in a solution of vinegar and salt, they are quite pungent. At first the vinegary bite is sharp, and it slowly mellows over time. But the best part was the addition of sliced garlic. That wasn’t the norm in the turnip pickles I’d eaten in Glendale, but the only thing that could make vinegary turnip pickles better for this stinking rose enthusiast would be the added bonus of a bite of garlic. Each nibble is a delicious, addictive surprise.
I had worried that the beet flavor (which is not my favorite) might overpower the turnips on its way to coloring them, and so I added only a few small slices to each jar. There was no need to worry. The beets don’t give any flavor at all, and in fact, once they’re jarred, it’s not completely obvious which piece is a turnip and which is a beet. They all taste pretty much the same, except that the beet is ever so slightly darker.
I made the turnip pickles a month ago, and there are only a few remaining in the jar. I even brought them along to Thanksgiving, where they were a surprise hit amongst the high school set. It’s definitely time to go and get more turnips from the grocery store. Now that we’ve been reunited again, I’m not letting these pink beauties get far from my sight.
Update: For best results, use small to medium sized turnips. Turnips are closely related to radishes, and the larger ones hold more of that hot, radish flavor. For a milder turnip that allows the pickle flavor to shine through, opt for a smaller size, which has a more muted tone. I also recommend taking a small taste of each turnip before pickling. If it has too much of a strong, clear-the-nasal-passages bite to it, you may not want to use it since it won’t become milder.