Sometimes shopping at the farmer’s market takes a little creativity—remember Go With the Flow? You have your menu, make your list of ingredients and then you get to the market only to find that something you needed just didn’t come in this week. On the other hand, something you weren’t expecting to see—for instance turnips—suddenly makes a re-appearance.

That’s what happened to me last week, but instead of walking away grumbling, I made a new plan and went home happily with a big bunch of turnips (with their glorious greens!) and some russet potatoes. Several years ago—in 1999 to be exact—I read a story in a Christmas issue of Cooking Light Magazine that changed my whole perspective on what it means to be a good cook. The story was by the amazing writer Gretel Ehrlich and was part of a series of holiday tales called “At My House.”

In Ehrlich’s section, she relates the harrowing tale of a Christmas Eve snowbound on a remote ranch at the base of the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming. Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? And it got better—the power went out on Christmas morning. So did any traditional plans for presents, roast beef or holiday lights. Yet, she claims it was the best Christmas ever and “became the model for Christmases to come.” Because—and this is the line that stuck with me—“The art of living well on a ranch—or anywhere else—is the art of making do.”

With a wood stove she claims belonged to Buffalo Bill Cody, some eggs, still-fresh tomatoes, broken pieces of bacon, potatoes, wild meat, a case of “modest but drinkable red wine,” and votive candles lining the windows, Ehrlich made it work.

And so did I with my surprise turnips. In fact, it turned out to be a great meal. I call this kind of cooking “building a skillet.” I line up all my possible fresh ingredients, figure out what spices and flavorings I have on hand that will work and go at it. Here is my version of Skillet Potatoes and Turnips with Butter and Greens.

  • I started by cutting off and thoroughly washing my turnip greens. Then, I spread them out to dry on clean kitchen towels.
  • I heated up my big chef skillet and simmered some cumin seeds (maybe half a tablespoon) in olive oil on medium heat.
  • Once I could smell the cumin, I added a couple of yellow onions and some salt. Be careful not to add a lot of salt right away because, as we add layers, we add a little salt to keep the flavors bright. I let these sauté for about five minutes.
  • Next I added about two pounds of scrubbed and diced russet potatoes with a little more salt and about a teaspoon fresh cracked black pepper. I also eventually added a bit more oil to the skillet because the potatoes will be in there for a while and tend to stick. Frequent stirring is very necessary at this point.
  • Potatoes and turnips in skillet.

    Keep stirring the skillet so that the potatoes and turnips don’t stick.

    Once the potatoes started to soften, maybe 15 minutes or so, I added about a pound of washed, peeled and diced turnips and a little more salt—just a sprinkle (You can always add more at the end.). Then, I stirred well and put the cover on to really get the potatoes and turnips tender. I turned the heat to low and frequently stirred the skillet.

  • As the vegetables cooked, I rough chopped the bunch of turnip greens.
  • At the point when everything was pretty tender (maybe another 20 minutes), I added a tablespoon of a special green chili powder my friend gets when she travels to New Mexico. It doesn’t contain a lot of heat, just really good green chili flavor. A small can of diced chilies would probably give you a similar effect or maybe a mild green chili powder from your local health food store or gourmet shop.
  • After the green chili powder, I added hot spice. Since I have Harissa on hand, a half teaspoon was what I used. But you could use a few dashes of cayenne or a teaspoon of hot sauce—whatever you have as you “make do.”
  • adding butter to the skillet

    Butter will add incredible richness to the turnip and potato flavors.

    Finally, to give this dish a little silky luxury, I added two tablespoons of butter. Gave everything a really good stir, tossed in the greens, stirred again and shut the lid for about two minutes. As soon as the greens wilted and became tender, I was ready to serve.

greens added to the skillet

Greens cook really fast. Just a couple of minutes with the lid on is all it takes.

Not bad for just “making do.” I rounded out this meal by heating up some of my leftover black beans and adding a fresh sliced tomato.

Have you ever had to “make do?” How’d it go?

completed dish with beans and tomato slices

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