In praise of the homely rutabaga


IN THE SUPERMARKET IT looks like a pale yellow stone, something you might heave as you storm a castle. But on your plate it looks like orange mashed potatoes. And when made with butter, salt and maybe some sugar, it has a winning flavor.

It is rutabaga, a root vegetable with a hard peel and a few hard-core supporters. I am one of them.

I confess that I had pretty much forgotten about it until a recent visit to my mother's house in Kansas City. I grew up in the Midwest, eating rutabaga. I would like to report that in the nation's midland, rutabaga is a widely appreciated winter vegetable. But Mom said that isn't so. She reported that every time she rolls a rutabaga down the supermarket conveyor belt, the cashier gets quizzical. Usually, she said, a question-and answer session follows. It goes something like this:

"What is this," the cashier asks, peering down at the pale yellow lump.

"Rutabaga," Mom replies.

"Whaddya do with it?" the cashier asks.

"Peel it, boil it and make it into a sweet cousin of mashed potatoes," Mom replies.

The exchange ends with the cashier fingering the hard rutabaga and doubting that anything that tough could be transformed into something light and fluffy.

Rutabaga apparently suffers from widespread anonymity. A rutabaga-eating colleague of mine reported that it is difficult to find a good selection of rutabaga in Baltimore-area grocery stores. Here, it seems, few folks appreciate the root vegetable's charms.

This colleague hails from Canada's Ontario province, where, she said, rutabaga is highly regarded and widely referred to as a turnip.

In some other climes, rutabaga is called "Swede," an apparent reference to its heritage. According to Larousse Gastronomique, a well-respected culinary reference work, the vegetable was originally grown in Scandinavia, where it was called "rotabagge."

The Scottish have another name for it. In Scotland, according to Francis Bissell, author of "The Book of Food," a dish of mashed rutabaga and turnips is called "bashed neeps." Bashed neeps is said to be the traditional accompaniment to haggis, a dish that starts with the stomach of a sheep and goes on from there.

In my world, rutabaga usually accompanies roast beef or maybe roast turkey. As part of my reintroduction to rutabaga, I helped Mom make some.

We started by chopping the rutabaga into chunks. This particular rutabaga weighed a little over 1 pound and resembled an old softball. We cut it into 2-inch chunks, pieces about the size of a quartered orange.

Then we removed the yellowish peel from each chunk. (I later learned that peeling techniques vary from cook to cook, but all agree the important thing is to peel all the thick yellow skin, leaving only the pale orange pulp.)

Next, Mom put the rutabaga chunks in a 2-quart pan, covered them with cold water, put a lid on the pan and boiled the chunks for about 20 minutes, or until they could be easily pierced with a fork.

The water was drained, and the rutabaga was allowed to dry off. This was accomplished by letting it sit on very low heat in the warm pan for a few minutes.

Then came the mashing. Mom used an old-fashioned hand-held masher, but said it was probably OK to use an electric mixer for the task. After mashing, she added about a quarter-teaspoon of salt, a quarter-cup of sugar and a tablespoon or two of butter. Using a spoon, she mixed these ingredients through the mashed rutabaga until the dish looked fluffy. Finally, Mom tasted, adding "smidgens" of sugar until the dish had "the right flavor."

My colleague doesn't use sugar in her family's rutabaga. For a while she used orange juice concentrate, about a quarter cup, to sweeten the mashed root. Later, she increased the amount of salt from a dash to about 1 teaspoon per large rutabaga, and found that this made the dish sweet enough. No orange juice was needed. (Salt has a way of pulling the bitterness out of certain foods.)

Perhaps the most amazing quality of rutabaga is that when you fluff and sweeten it, kids will eat it. It is fairly rich in minerals and vitamin A. Just don't call it "bashed neeps," or mention that it is regarded as a friend of a sheep's stomach.

Pub Date: 12/15/96

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