Rutabagas: A Journey into the Unknown

Rutabagas, swedes, and turnips haven’t played a major role in my kitchen. In fact, they’ve been largely invisible, except for a neighbor who made a rutabaga casserole for Thanksgiving. I admit I never asked for the recipe, content to let rutabagas remain little more than an occasional addition to a hearty broth. But when I saw Judy Landesman's “Rock and Roll Rutabagas,” I decided the time for exploring rutabagas had definitely arrived.

rock 'n roll rutabagas photo by Judy Landesman

rock 'n roll rutabagas
photo by Judy Landesman

To be honest, I always thought turnips and rutabagas were simply two names for the same veggie. But as Alan Davidson explains in “The Oxford Companion to Food” (Oxford University Press, 2006 edition) turnips and rutabagas are closely related rather than identical. It’s “swedes” and “rutabagas” that are identical, and in the United States, the latter terminology prevails.

Rutabagas originated somewhere in Central Europe and enjoyed considerable popularity by the late 18th century, especially in Sweden. “Rutabaga” is actually derived from a Swedish dialect term that’s a reference to the veggie’s bulbous shape.

While I’ve always thought of rutabagas (when I’ve thought of them as all) as a “root vegetable” like carrots and parsnips, the edible part of the top-shaped plant is actually part of the stem. Rutabagas have a stronger flavor than swedes, and the flavor gets even stronger if the rutabagas are left on the vine until maturity.

Rutabagas are harvested in the fall and then-if they’re being stored for use over the winter- dipped in wax. Remove the wax and peel the rutabaga before using it. Turnips are best used shortly after they’re harvested, and if they’re “young,” they don’t have to be peeled.

“The Joy of Cooking” (Scribner, 1997 edition) recommends pairing either veggie in a mash with potatoes. Rutabagas and turnips have an aggressive flavor, and the pairing with potatoes gives them an opportunity to harmonize rather than dominate.

To prepare:
Bring 8 cups of water and 2 teaspoons salt to a rolling boil in a large saucepan. Add 1 pound turnips or rutabagas, peeled and cut into ½ -inch cubes, and cook until tender when pierced with a thin skewer or knife tip. Allow 6 to 8 minutes for turnips, 12 to 14 minutes for rutabagas. Drain.

Mash the cooked rutabagas or turnips with an equal amount of peeled, boiled, and drained white or sweet potatoes. Like potatoes, turnips and rutabagas partner well with cream, butter, bacon and parsley.

Adapted from a recipe in “The All New All Purpose Joy of Cooking” by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer, and Ethan Becker (Scribner, $30)

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