"So many people confuse rutabagas with turnips. They're not alike at all. Rutabagas have a pleasant yellow-orange color, large friendly-looking leaves, and a smooth dense texture. Turnips are fish-belly white and purple on top like a bad bruise and have hairy leaves and taste brackish, like swamp water. Rutabagas are the root crop that any sensible person would prefer."
---Garrison Keillor in "Prairie Home Companion" Radio Program
Wow! That's a whole lotta love for a common root vegetable. I bet not too many of you have ever felt such adoration for a rutabaga. Oh, I expect you've eaten your share of mashed rutabagas at any number of Thanksgiving dinners, but to most people the roast turkey is the star of the show whereas mashed rutabagas (even spruced up with melted butter, salt and pepper) remains an insignificant side dish.
But not to me! I have always loved rutabagas and was always excited to eat them at holiday dinners, even before I became vegetarian. I haven't eaten turkey for over 40 years now (although that figure is hard for me to believe!), but I have continued to relish the humble rutabaga.
The rutabaga is a cruciferous vegetable, believed to have evolved from a cross between a wild cabbage and a turnip. We know they existed in the 1600s in southern Europe, but because they grow so well in colder climates, they became extremely popular in Scandinavia - particularly in Sweden. This is why one of the early names for this vegetable was "swede'. They are called "neeps" in Scotland and I can remember my Granny telling us about one of her favourite dishes - "neeps and tatties" which was simply rutabagas and potatoes cooked and mashed together with butter, salt and pepper. They have often been called "turnips" as well, but (as we have learned) that is an egregious error.
It pains me to mention this (after reading the above quotation), but in our family we always called rutabagas 'turnips'. I didn't know any different. And even after I grew up and was in charge of my own grocery shopping, I continued to call them turnips even though the sign was clearly marked 'rutabagas'. I'm sure this piece of information wouldn't bother most of you at all. But it would no doubt seriously provoke the members of ARSI - The Advanced Rutabaga Studies Institute.
The ARSI is located in Forest Grove, Oregon, a town which has considered itself "The Rutabaga Capital of the World" since 1951. This will be an especially exciting year for the ARSI members as 2010 has been declared "The International Year of the Rutabaga." The good news is that it is only early March and we all have time to plan some appropriate activities to celebrate (as our friend, Garrison Keillor says) "America's most under-appreciated vegetable."
As I mentioned earlier, rutabagas were never under-appreciated by me. I tend to enjoy sharper tasting foods so was easily drawn to loving them. In fact, I preferred a dish of mashed rutabagas over the mashed potatoes! All my life I associated rutabagas with festive occasions and fun holidays because we never ate them at any other time.
I had an impression that their great expense was the reason they were reserved for only the most special dinners. Can you imagine my shock and surprise when, on my first grocery shopping trip, I saw a large bin of waxy rutabagas along with a sign saying, "15 cents each"? What??? How could this be?? It was clear that anyone could afford to eat rutabagas - every day if they liked. And I smiled to myself with the notion that I might do just that.
This notion lasted until, oh, when the time came to cook the rutabaga. I wasn't prepared for such a difficult task. I was a young and inexperienced cook, didn't have proper knives, and had no technique. I spent a good bit of time trying to chop away at the poor vegetable - hacking and sawing away like mad. After I got the thick waxy skin off and had sawed it into slices, it still had to be cut into cubes and boiled for a long time before mashing. Whew! It was then that I decided to forgive my mother for serving rutabagas only at festive meals.
Some of you will remember the sudden emergence of microwave ovens in the mid-eighties and all of the surrounding hoopla about how they were going to revolutionize cooking and baking and make our regular ovens obsolete. Well, quite clearly this did not happen and microwave oven cookery has been largely underwhelming. But when it comes to rutabaga preparation, the microwave is a brilliant device.
I was so excited when I learned this technique and I think it will make your rutabaga-eating life much easier. Simply hold your rutabaga firmly and stab it thoroughly on all sides with a fork. Then, wrap it up with several layers of paper towel - be generous. Put it on a plate, then pop it into the microwave for about 5 minutes, depending on the size of the vegetable and the power of your oven. It will be done when a sharp knife can pierce through the flesh with little resistance. Let it cool for a bit, then carefully peel off the paper towel. Now, it will be so easy to slide the thick skin off, to slice it, and chop it into cubes. Plus, it won't take as long to boil in a pot of salted water.
So there you are. You can enjoy delicious, nutritious (and inexpensive) rutabagas whenever you want and however you want. Here are some ideas from today's aficionado - Garrison Keillor: "Rutabaga - it's suitable for any occasion. Rutabagas' firm yet impetuous flavor goes well with Bordeaux, Chablis, or even Champagne. Use julienned rutabagas to clear the palate before dessert. Stir-fried rutabagas can bulk up any Chinese dish. Or how about rutabaga ratatouille? And instead of an olive in your Martini, why not try a rutabaga wedge?"
Well, perhaps some of you more adventurous souls may want to go to a bar and request a rutabaga wedge in your martini, but I expect it would be a small group. And since most of you have made, or at least eaten, plain mashed rutabagas with butter, salt and pepper, to give you such a recipe would be too boring.
And so, I've opted for the middle ground and today's recipe will be using rutabagas in a slightly adventurous, but also very cozy and comforting way. It is a "Rutabaga Spice Cake" and it may resemble the ubiquitous carrot cake in flavour, but it seems much less rich and sweet. And as you nibble on a piece of cake with your coffee or tea, or for dessert, you can tell yourself that you are eating your veggies and you will be able to just relax and enjoy. I hope you do!