Alas, the poor rutabaga. Of all root crops, it’s the lowest in status, perhaps fit only to accompany the dried whitefish soaked in lye that the Scandinavians call lutefisk.
It sits in its bin at the grocery store, a reddish-brownish-yellow-and-white lump, past hope that someone — anyone — will pick it up, take it home and eat it.
But the rutabaga has gotten a bad rap. It’s a delicious food just waiting to be discovered. This cross between a cabbage and a turnip is, like most members of the cabbage family, at its sweetest and best in winter, when a lot of its starch has turned to sugar, and it’s pulled firm and fresh from the wet winter ground.
If you try it and it tastes bitter, you probably have the gene that makes certain compounds in rutabagas taste bitter. The gene is relatively rare, but that gene may be causing your displeasure.
For the rest of us, a well-prepared rutabaga can be a revelation. It has a smoother and thicker texture than turnips, making it useful to help thicken stews and soups. Its flavor is richer and milder than turnips, and many favorite rutabaga dishes across northern Europe and North America feature rutabagas boiled until soft with potatoes and/or carrots, then mashed with butter, milk and salt.
Rutabagas have the odd quality of deepening in color when cooked, but rutabaga doesn’t always have to be cooked. It’s also excellent served raw. First peel the root, whether it’s waxed or not. Then cut the white flesh into matchsticks and serve on your crudités tray with other raw vegetables. Raw rutabagas taste like a mild radish.
They can also be cut into quarter- or half-inch cubes along with potatoes, celery root, turnips, carrots and parsnips and roasted to make a root vegetable medley, where they actually take a starring role because the roasting brings up their rich, mellow flavor. Surround roast pork, veal or beef with this medley for a winter treat.
Their heritage is European. They originated as chance crosses of turnips and cabbage, probably in Sweden in the Middle Ages, but botanists in the Netherlands in the early 17th century made selections to increase their root size. The improved roots quickly spread across northern Europe — the lands with cold winters, where, before refrigeration, root crops that store well in cold cellars became staple winter foods along with dried and salted meats and fish, pickles, apples, potatoes and dried fruits.
It was this storage quality of rutabagas that made them a food of last resort during the famines that gripped Germany after its defeats in both World Wars of the 20th century. The experience of having to rely on rutabagas for sustenance during these crises left many folks with bad memories of deprivation that gave rutabagas a bad reputation that even crossed the Atlantic and informs many Americans to this day.
But “the starving children of Europe,” a concept that many mothers in the mid- to late-1940s used to guilt trip their children into finishing their dinners, could have done worse than rely on rutabagas for nourishment. A 3-ounce portion of the vegetable carries about a quarter of the daily requirement for vitamin C, 9 grams of energy-packed starches and sugars and good amounts of dietary fiber, B vitamins and many minerals drawn from the earth.
It’s worth noting that the name rutabaga derives from the Swedish and Norwegian terms for “red bags.” So popular is this vegetable in Scandinavia that the English, Aussies and New Zealanders call them “swedes.”
Their botanical name is Brassica napus, and it’s from the Latin species name “napus” so that in Scotland they are known as neeps. Cooked and mashed rutabagas in Glasgow are “bashed neeps,” often served with haggis, a dish on a par with lutefisk for foods to avoid when traveling in countries bordering the North Sea, unless you are a brave culinary adventurer.
A subspecies of rutabaga is grown for its oily seeds that give us canola oil. In addition, rutabaga roots, either chopped or whole, are often fed to farm animals in parts of the world with cold winters. Lucky farm animals.
Shepherd’s Pie with a Rutabaga Crust
Makes 4 to 5 servings
1 rib celery, coarsely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 pounds lamb stew meat, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 medium onions, chopped
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups dry red wine
1 cup beef stock
4 small to medium carrots, cut into 2-inch pieces
— Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
3 pounds rutabagas, peeled and cut into large chunks
2 pounds potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks
½ cup hot milk
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
Place celery and garlic in a bowl and set aside.
Heat a wide, heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat until hot. Melt butter and brown meat in two uncrowded batches, so they brown rather than steam; transfer meat to a bowl using a slotted spoon and set aside.
Add onions to the pan and cook until clear, about 8 minutes. Return meat to pan and sprinkle flour over the meat and onions, cook about 2 minutes, stirring often.
Add wine, and bring to a boil, scraping the bottom of the pan to loosen the brown bits. Add the stock and the celery and garlic, bring to a boil, cover, and reduce heat to low to simmer for one hour. Remove the lid, add the carrots and cook, uncovered on low heat, for 30 more minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Place in a warm oven.
Place rutabagas and potatoes in separate saucepans. Cover with cold, salted water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to simmer, and cook until tender, about 30 to 40 minutes for the rutabagas and 25 minutes for the potatoes. When tender, turn them into a colander and let drain for a few minutes.
Put the rutabagas and potatoes through a food mill fitted with a fine disk, or through a ricer, or mash by hand. Add butter, as desired, and enough hot milk to make a creamy puree. Season with salt and pepper; stir in chopped rosemary.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Transfer the meat stew into a deep 2-quart baking dish. Top with the potato and rutabaga puree. Dot lightly with butter. Bake 1 hour, or until top is brown and crusty. Serve hot.
Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based food and garden writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.