Way back in 2009 a few days before my wedding, my English relatives arrived in Scotland, keen to experience a "Scottish Wedding". They hesitantly asked will Haggis be on the menu for the wedding meal... a nice suggestion I thought, but I replied in finest doric, "Nae this time, but ye canna beat a plate a Haggis Neeps and Tatties". Bewilderment followed, "...what are neeps?" they asked.
I was a little stumped, how did they not know what a neep was? Didn't people in England eat neeps on a weekly basis? They thought I meant turnip but no, a neep is not a turnip.
A neep is a root vegetable
Neep is the Scottish name given to the root vegetable/food in Scotland, also called a swede, rutabaga, yellow turnip, Swedish turnip and Tuwīti tānapu in other parts of the world. It can be called a Swede in Scotland too, but everyone calls them neeps. Neeps are used in a wide variety of Scottish recipes, not just Haggis Neeps and Tatties (potatoes), but many soups too, my favourite being "Mince soup" as we call it in Moray. Other dishes that include neep are rumbledethumps (neeps with kale or cabbage topped with cheese), and clapshot (mashed swede and potato).
Neeps can come in a variety of sizes from as small as a fist to a little smaller than your head. The skin can be a purple colour with hints of green, but when cut into the flesh is more off white / cream / orange coloured depending on the neep.
The flesh of the neep can be extremely tough, and even with a large sharp chefs knife, it can be a challenge to chop.
What is the difference between swedes and turnips?
Swedes are a lot bigger than turnips and have much tougher purple skin, turnips have a thinner more pink/white skin. Swedes have more yellow flesh than turnips white flesh. Swedes are grown much more easily in the colder Scottish climate. Mashed turnip also tastes a lot different to mashed swede or "bashed neeps".
Where do swedes originate?
They were developed in Sweden in the 17th century by hybridizing a cabbage and a turnip. The rutabaga name is derived from the Swedish of "red bag", referring to the purple upper half of the vegetable.
What do neeps taste like?
It's hard to describe the flavour of a neep. Eating a raw neep is quite nice but I think it's better cooked. The secret is to cook the neep for as long as a few hours, the colour changes to a deep orange colour and tastes sweet, deep, earthy and delicious... although it might be an acquired taste for some, everyone in my family likes them.
How do you prepare a neep for cooking?
I'm sure everyone has their own way of preparing their neeps, but my own tried and tested method has served me well over the years.
- Cut a disc from the base of the neep with a sharp knife to give it a steady platform, a lot of the time the base is too small to be stable or it is at an angle.
- Now with the 100% stabilised neep, cut from the top (where the stalk would have been) and remove the skin in verticle strips using a chefs knife. I use a sawing motion as I move down and peel a 2 mm depth from the outer layer.
- Check that there are no green skin sections left as these don't taste very nice, you want a nice clean fleshy surface with no remaining skin.
- Remove the top of the neep where the stalk once grew. You should now have a complete skin free neep!
- From here I cut the entire neep in half down the middle. This can be quite hard depending on how tough a neep you have, watch your fingers with the amount of pressure you have to put on it.
- Put the neep on its new largest flat side.
- From here I cut the neep into lengths and then into cubes about 1-1.5 inches in size.
- It's important not to leave your neep out in the air too long as it will start to spoil, just pop it in a pan of cold water, ready for boiling.
From here you should have a nice pan full of beautifully chopped neep!
Cooking your neeps!
I normally cook my neep for 2-3 hours on high heat in a pan with salted water. I like to use Maldon organic sea salt as it doesn't have all the horrible additives / anti-caking agents you get in table salt.
Because your neeps cook over a long time at a simmer a lot of the water will boil out of the pan as steam. I keep a boiled kettle near and top up the water periodically... if all the water evaporates your neeps might burn, and you do not want burnt neeps smell in your house!
The longer you cook your neeps the softer they will get, the colour will change from the creamy white colour to deep orange.
Take a piece out of the water and if you are happy with the softness, taste and that is cooked all the way through, you can drain your neeps in a colander and leave for a few minutes to steam dry. Cooking neeps takes a while but is well worth it!
Mash those neeps!
Put the neeps back in the pan and begin to mash with a potato masher. When you mash them a lot of water can come out, you can try and drain this by tipping the pan, just be careful not to lose any of those glorious neeps.
I like my mashed neeps / mashed swede plain just as they are, but many people like to add white pepper and nutmeg to them too. Serve alongside mashed tatties and haggis, or just as a healthy side vegetable to have with your meal. Another popular recipe is to combine the mashed neep with mashed carrot, or both mashed but separate. We also have a large dollop of neeps at Christmas dinner too! It would be ideal for a vegetarian looking for something new to try in their recipes.
Now you know how to prepare neeps like a true Scot! Go forth and spread the knowledge.
Burns Night - Haggis Neeps and Tatties for Burns Supper
Neeps are most often consumed as part of the famous dish - haggis neeps and tatties - on Burns night, a celebration of the life and work of poet Robert Burns. Each of the three meal elements is served in equal parts. More recently whisky sauce has been added to put on top of your haggis neeps and tatties, but I am a bit of a purist and just like it plain.
Carving a neep for Halloween
When I was a child we often went to a big Halloween party at the local WRI hall, it was a highlight of the year and I absolutely loved it. We would often spend a great deal of time making our own custom costume (a lost art nowadays), but the most fun part of the night was the judging of the "neepie lanterns".
A neepie lantern is a hollowed-out neep with a lid with a hole in the top. A scary Halloween face is carved into the front, normally just three triangles as it is so savagely difficult to cut through... no fancy designs here! String is added to each side of the neep so it can be held, to finish the lantern.
A candle is placed in the lanterns and lit to give a creepy glow through the face. They kind of look like shrunken severed heads.
The candle also burns the top of the lid inside, that smell of burning neep just epitomises Halloween for me and brings back many fond memories.
You can see my last neepie lantern in the image below at far right.
Americanisation of Haloween
I'm not sure when the more Americanised carving of pumpkins became en vogue in Scotland, I can't even remember seeing a pumpkin 35 years ago in Scotland. It's a shame pumpkins have taken over, neepie lanterns were a much better traditional Scottish pastime. Carving a pumpkin is so much easier though, and you can make much nicer designs.
Carving a neep for Halloween is no mean feat, but why not give it a try this year instead of the pumpkin?
Dooking for apples
Going off-topic - another popular Scottish tradition at Halloween, at least in my area of Moray was "Dooking for apples". This was basically a basin of water with apples floating in it, with your hands behind your back you had to put your head in the basin and try to retrieve an apple. It's harder than you think, at first you try and grab an apple stalk with your teeth, but the best way is to just push the apple to the bottom of the water and just grab the apple with your teeth, you get a bit wet but it's the best way of winning.
Neeps in World War 2
My granny once told me a funny story about neeps in World War 2. She said that bombs would often land in the fields in the local area, and one farmers neep field had been hit by a German bomb. However, the bomb did not explode and just sat in the middle of the field. Unperturbed, the farmer did not report the bomb at first but harvested all his neeps from around the bomb!
Neep - a joking insult word and term of endearment
Neep is also used as a friendly insult word to someone who has been silly, used like:
"Wise up ya neep!".
"Fit ya daein ya neep!".
"I bet ya feel like a right neep noo!".
So with my relatives from England duly educated, they now know the meaning of neeps... and so do you!
Check out the Moray Neep on Facebook for a humorous take on the goings-on in Moray.