The rutabaga is one of the many vegetables my generation, the baby boomers, never really knew. Perhaps parsnips, turnips, cabbage, bulgur wheat, barley, and lima beans (to name but a few) reminded our parents too much of the Depression or the rationing that followed with WWII. Inexpensive and easy to store, such crops were the backbone of many a meal where protein was served as a side, if at all.
I grew up eating carrots, corn, green beans, peas, potatoes, spinach, and squash. I never served these “lost” foods to my family because, frankly, I did not know what they were.
The food movement has piqued interest in these forgotten crops. Once common but now exotic items are piled high on the tables of the farmer’s markets — kohlrabi and turnips, golden beets, and celeriac — all waiting to become the next kale. I’ve been coaxed into trying many a new thing and have enjoyed them all—even stinging nettles.
This week’s experiment came directly from the produce aisle — the rutabaga, or the “Swede.” With Swedes on my husband’s side and Canadians and Yankees on my mother’s, it’s rather remarkable that I was, until today, so unacquainted with this vegetable.
I’ll be honest, for years I mistakenly thought the rutabaga was a large variety of turnip. In fact, rutabaga (Brassica napus L.; Napobrassica group), a member of the Cruciferae family, is a natural cross between the cabbage and the turnip.
Cultivated in Sweden since the 17th century, it was later introduced in Britain. The English colonists are the ones who brought the rutabaga to the new world. Cultivated for both animal fodder (the greens and the roots) and human consumption, the rutabaga was an extremely popular crop in the US prior to the Civil War. According to the University of South Carolina’s American Heritage Vegetables site, one acre of land could yield 1 thousand bushels of rutabagas!
The rutabaga is a cool weather vegetable, best in the fall, sweeter if harvested after a frost. It is an important crop in Canada, where it is grown for both domestic use and export.
The rutabaga is not much to look at, with its pitted lunar surface, not quite round shape, and irregular bands of color. Because its top is trimmed at harvest, it is normally dipped in wax before shipping to prevent moisture loss.
While they may not be pretty, I discovered that rutabagas are very tasty — sweet and savory at the same time. They are often diced and added to soups or stew or served mashed as a side dish, alone or with another vegetable. Carrots mashed with the rutabaga is popular in Sweden; the British like to mash rutabaga with potatoes.
Renowned chef James Beard was fond of the rutabaga. In his masterpiece, American Cookery, Beard called the vegetable’s “stronger flavor” “most delightful.” He prepared it simply:
- Peel the rutabaga.
- Cut into small pieces and cook covered in boiling, salted water over medium heat until just tender.
- Mash well.
- Add 4-6 tablespoons of melted butter and plenty of pepper.
Note: One large rutabaga serves 4.
I opted to do pretty much the same.
- I chose to add 1 low-salt vegetable bouillon cube to the water instead of salt.
- I saved the stock for soup when I drained the rutabaga.
- I also read that the flavor would be better if the lid was raised a few times during the cooking. I did this.
The rutabaga did not mash quite as smoothly as potatoes do, but it was very tasty and colorful. I will definitely try it again.
Low in calories and fat free, rutabagas are an excellent source of vitamin C, and a good source of potassium, fiber and vitamin A.
As fresh produce goes, the rutabaga is a bargain. It also stores very well — a week at room temperature, two weeks or more when refrigerated in a plastic bag.
For more information on the rutabaga and some great recipe ideas, check out the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare site.
Thanksgiving is coming. Consider the rutabaga this year.
Have a great week. Eat well.
I often blog on food, food issues, or gardening on Monday in support of Meatless Monday, one of several programs developed in the Healthy Monday project, founded in 2003 in association with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. Meatless Monday’s goal is “to help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal health and the health of our planet.”