An underrated winter root veg
Interesting things, swedes. No, really. First of all, they are not turnips, though there’s enough confusion around the topic to start a heated debate after a pint or two. Swedes are larger, have an orangey-yellow hue to the flesh and a milder flavour. They are also closely associated with one of Scotland’s most iconic figures, and far more versatile than people think.
“I would say a swede is a cross between a carrot and a parsnip. It has elements of both, but it has its own distinctive flavour,” explains Borough Market demonstration chef Lesley Holdship. “It has a sort of rooty sweetness to it.”
According to Lesley, a lot of people think swedes are a bit boring and only good for pasties, which is a real shame because with a little bit of care, they can be turned into a really tasty dish. “To this day I make something I learned from my dad: he would boil the swede until it is really soft, drain it thoroughly, then puree or mash it with double cream, black pepper, butter and salt.”
A golden crust
Spoon it into a baking dish, sprinkle it with breadcrumbs and bake it until the top develops a golden crust. “It is lovely with a roast lunch. The crust on the top gives texture and a lovely contrast to the creamy swede inside.”
To give it a little kick, just add ginger—but not too much, Lesley warns, or it will overpower it. For a whole swede, which feeds roughly six to eight people, use about 1cm of fresh ginger. “The flavour really complements the swede and at this cold time of year, having something warming like that is really lovely. If you are not a fan of ginger it is quite nice to mix in some grated parmesan.”
Serve with pork as an evening meal—“something fairly plain, as there is quite a lot of flavour going on.” The chef also bakes swede dauphinoise gratin, and “sweet things like swede and squash can take being spiced up very well.”
Subtlety of flavour
Swede can have a high moisture content, so when served simply boiled and mashed they can seem a bit watery. This, allied with subtlety of flavour, may have something to do with swedes’ absence from many kitchens, often only appearing as something to bulk out soups and stews.
But “baking the swede is a way of counteracting this,” Lesley advises. “Another is to use an old technique that was once popular when cooking potatoes—once the swede is drained, put it into the pan and place on the stove or a warming tray over a very low heat. This drives out some of the moisture, in the form of steam, and concentrates the flavour.”
Swedes also work well in rostis, and even raw when sliced very thinly and added to a salad. But if you do fancy a classic pasty, you can always try this recipe from Lesley. Just remember to drain the swede thoroughly first.
While it’s not seen as one of the sexiest of veg, swede does enjoy one moment in the spotlight. Every year, during the celebration of Scotland’s national poet Robert ‘Rabbie’ Burns, the traditional dish of haggis, swede (confusingly known as ‘neeps’ by the Scots) and mashed potatoes is served on tables across the globe.
“I actually sold out of them in the week leading up to Burns Night,” says Gary from Elsey and Bent, from his new position under Roast. “We generally get ours from opposite ends of the country: either Cornwall or Scotland. But part of the problem is that the weather has not really been the best for them.”
Kath from Ted’s Veg agrees. “It has been a bit too warm and dry,” she says. “The ones we have so far are lovely, but we are not really getting the amount that we should and the season looks like it might end a bit early. But we will definitely have them in for a while.”