There are some vegetables that are just taken for granted, and common root vegetables tend to fit into that category. If I’m honest, swede isn’t something I have given a huge deal of thought to across my cooking career. We mash it with butter and pepper, it goes with haggis, and it’s a key ingredient in a Cornish pasty. That’s about it, isn’t it?
Stood in the pouring rain in a field of swede in Devon, comparing the flavour of a couple of varieties, I came to the conclusion that no, it isn’t. Raw chunks of swede straight out of the ground have sweet, complex flavours. This vegetable is often described as piquant with some bitterness, but the variety I was tasting, Airlie, had all the piquancy but very little bitterness – much like a good breakfast radish.
Grower Richard Clarke is the latest generation of producers Frank Clarke and Sons and he grows swede in Devon alongside parsnips and potatoes. The area’s red soil is renowned for producing one of the earliest crops in the country and the sight of that soil on a swede is virtually a declaration of provenance.
The season is a long one, with the first seed being sown around the first week of March and the harvest running from the middle of June until April the following year. The Clarkes grow numerous varieties and sow successionally to give a crop over a long period. Swede can be kept in cold storage to provide a year-round supply, although Clarke is a firm believer in the superiority of a freshly pulled crop.
Swede, which is actually a cross between a turnip and a cabbage, has many uses and features in dishes across the world. It is called a neep in Scotland, and is frequently called a turnip in Cornwall and a rutabaga in North America. This naming variety meant that when the Cornish pasty was granted Protected Geographical Identification status by the European Commission, the specification noted: “Traditionally, in Cornwall, swede is referred to as turnip, so the two terms are interchangeable, but the actual ingredient is swede.”
Swede is used prolifically in the Nordic countries. In Sweden and Norway it is mashed with potato and sometimes also carrot, turnip, parsnips and parsley root to form a purée called rotmos, an accompaniment to several festive dishes, such as boiled ham hock with rotmos and grain mustard. It is also roasted, baked, boiled and used raw in salads.
At Gidleigh Park, chef Michael Wignall has confit swede on the menu with calf’s sweetbread. He says: “We finely grate the swede and cook it in butter for four hours on a low heat, until golden and soft. We drain the butter and serve a small amount of the swede with the sweetbread. We also compress a thin slice of swede in curry oil then sous vide it at 98°C for four minutes. The butter from the confit swede is made into an emulsion.”
Paul Foster, chef-proprietor at Salt in Stratford-upon-Avon, salt-bakes swede. “We bake the swede in a salt pastry until it reaches 85°C, then leave it to cool in the pastry. We then peel it and cut it into large dice. It is then brought up to room temperature, dressed and seasoned, and served with venison tartare.”
Swede roasted and finished with Parmesan is another popular option, and the vegetable goes well in all kinds of gratins.
Makes 8 medium pasties
660g bread flour
20g Maldon sea salt, finely ground
330g salted butter, chilled
2 large free-range egg yolks
250g cold water
500g beef skirt, diced
500g waxy potato, diced
300g swede, diced
250g onion, diced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste, 2:1 ratio
Beaten egg or milk to glaze
For the flaky pastry (although shortcrust pastry can also be used instead), sift the flour and salt onto the bench. Grate the butter over the flour using a coarse grater. Every now and again, toss the butter through the flour with your fingertips and dust the grater with flour.
Beat the yolk into the water, make a well in the centre of the flour and pour the yolk into it. Gradually bring in the flour with your fingertips to create a dough. Knead well, then wrap in clingfilm and rest in the fridge for an hour.
Roll out the pastry to around 4mm thick and cut out four 25cm circles. Layer on the meat and vegetables (the ingredients above follow the PGI specification for a Cornish pasty), seasoning well. Brush the edges of the pastry with water and fold over to create half moons. Press the edges together and then crimp to give the classic seal on the side of the pasty.
Glaze with milk or a light egg wash and then bake in a preheated oven for 10 minutes at 175°C fan, then turn the oven down to 160°C for a further 40-45 minutes. Of course, you can’t sell them as Cornish pasties unless you have actually made them in Cornwall.
Serves 4 as a starter
1-2 medium swede, peeled and cut into vegetable spaghetti ribbons, to yield 500g
30ml olive oil
100g pancetta lardons
2 large free-range eggs plus 2 yolks
40g pecorino, finely grated
40g Parmesan, finely grated
Maldon sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Place the vegetable spaghetti in a sauté pan with the water and oil, toss together and season with a pinch of salt. Cover, place over a high heat and cook for around two minutes until just tender.
Fry off the pancetta lardons, cooking until golden brown and the fat has rendered. Meanwhile, mix together the eggs, cheese and plenty of black pepper, beating well.
Combine the egg and cheese mixture with the swede, turning to coat the vegetable and cooking through in the residual heat. Add a splash more hot water if necessary. Fold the lardons and their fat through the mix. Check and adjust the seasoning and serve immediately. Finish with a generous drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a few Parmesan shavings.
Buying and storage tips
- Swede should feel heavy for their size and be very firm.
- Freshly dug swede tends to be more tender than stored swede.
- The deep scarring on the top of swede is normal.
- Swede tends to keep better unwashed than washed.
- Unwashed roots are best stored somewhere cool and slightly damp.
- If you are refrigerating washed roots, they must be dry before storage.
Expect to pay around 50p-60p a kilo for swede. The first roots come through in late June and run right through the winter.