Off the Fork: Rooting around to make a classic East End holiday side

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO | The Long Island turnip served mashed with a whole roasted fish and caramelized onions.

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO | The Long Island turnip served mashed with a whole roasted fish and caramelized onions.

When 91-year-old Wanda Wittmeier passed away in May of 2014, she went out at the top of her game. The Modern Snack Bar, a diner she founded in 1950 in Aquebogue, managed by her sons John and Otto, had just been named one of the country’s 10 best, and her lemon meringue pie garnered similar honors.

Of all the dishes served by the Wittmeier family at their venerable restaurant on the Main Road, the old-school take on mashed turnips connects most directly to the food and the culture of Long Island. Turnips are eaten with enthusiasm everywhere except America. The popularity of turnips on the East End, especially the very large and sweet ones grown during our long, mild fall, speaks to an old world, Eastern European immigrant experience of the 20th century that celebrated a life of prosperity and plenty.

Sweeter than mashed potatoes, turnips are a creamy, fluffy side dish that pairs well with the glorious North Fork fish and poultry on a holiday table.

The only trouble is, the Modern Snack Bar closes for the season this weekend, so if you want mashed turnips for the holidays you can either buy now and freeze, or make your own.

This year’s impressive turnip crop inspired me to mash my own. Careful not to buy mislabeled rutabagas (they lack the lovely purple top of a turnip, and are less sweet) I chose the biggest turnips I could find. Large root vegetables retain their moisture better than smaller ones, so the local turnips I buy today will get me through the holidays and beyond.

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO | The Long Island turnip.

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO | The Long Island turnip.

I am not privy to the secret of the Wittmeier’s mashed turnips, if a secret there is. But if you don’t want to waste a perfectly good turnip season waiting for the Modern Snack Bar to reopen in March, try this.

Mashed turnips
in the manner of the Modern Snack Bar

Serves 6

Long Island turnips, peeled and cut into 3 inch chunks to make 2 pounds

2 teaspoons of salt

2 tablespoons of butter

¼ cup cream

1. Place the cubed turnips in a sauce pan, barely covered with water, add salt and cook over medium heat until the turnips are soft and slide off the fork, about 20 minutes.

2. Put the hot turnips in a food processor with the butter and process until smooth.

3. Add the cream and process until blended.

4. Serve the mashed turnips garnished with caramelized onions or make a mattress of mashed turnip on each plate and tuck a roasted filet into it.

Fish roasted whole
with caramelized onions

Serves 2

2 tablespoons olive oil

One coarsely chopped onion

A small, meaty, white-fleshed fish, such as sea bream, or porgy, scaled, gutted, fins trimmed, and head on. Pick one that is about two inches thick and will barely fit inside a 10-inch pan.

2 teaspoons salt

5 cherry tomatoes

1 sprig of thyme

1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

2. On the stovetop, stir the olive oil and the chopped onion over medium heat in an iron skillet or an ovenproof pan just large enough to hold the fish, until the onions quietly sizzle and start to soften.

3. Meanwhile make four or five vertical cuts on each side of the fish and rub the salt into the slashes and all over the fish, inside and out.

4. Halve the cherry tomatoes and put them and the thyme sprig inside the fish cavity.

5. Rub one tablespoon of the olive oil into the fish, and set it aside until the onions get soft.

6. Place the prepared fish on top of the onions, and put the dish in the hot oven for about 15 minutes, until the onions near the sides of the skillet get brown. Use a spoon to remove the browned onions to garnish the mashed turnips, and leave the rest of the onions under the fish to continue cooking. The fish will likely need another 5 minutes, but keep an eye on it; it should be soft and flaky, not dry.

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