Rutabagas & Turnips

Rutabaga_à_collet_vert_Vilmorin-Andrieux_1883

Growing up in Vermont, I’m no stranger to turnips and their sweeter, yellower counterpart, rutabagas. They could practically be the State Vegetable. They are a great winter storage crop which generations of Vermonters have relied upon to bring them through the long winters. There is an annual festival for the gilfeather turnip, which is a relative of rutabaga, almost a hybrid. People “turn up” by the hundreds in the chilly autumn air…

turnipfestival

Yes, those turnips in the foreground are bigger than the heads of the women in the background.

Rutabagas are a great source of vitamins C & B-6, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and iron. Turnips have slightly smaller amounts of the same nutrients. Earthy and sweet with a distinct radish-like bite, I can understand that it’s an acquired taste. But for me it’s a fondly familiar, comforting presence at fall & winter harvest meals like Thanksgiving.

But for most of the rest of the country, as our great First Lady Michelle Obama once said, “Turnip what?!” After moving south to Virginia, I naively realized that I was not in “Kansas” anymore. Turnips were that bitter vegetable used only as a last resort. People argue that there’s no difference between turnips and rutabagas! Blasphemy! Rutabagas were nere to be found, a rat-tailed shadow of its full body grown up north, a true cold-weather crop. Even in supermarkets, I’ve never been able to find a rutabaga bigger than a softball; almost unrecognizable to someone used to them being football, or even volleyball sized, covered in a thick layer of wax.

The wax is not the only part needing peeling – the tough, woody skin is usually about a millimeter thick. Pare it clean off, watching for any remaining woody bits, and rinse. First attack it in half, for easier handling of the large rocky vegetable.

rutabaga

Mashed Rutabaga with Maple

Cut into strips, then into half-inch cubes. Place in a pot with water to cover, and boil until very tender, about half an hour to an hour. Drain the water, and add pats of butter to melt on the cubes. Mash with a drizzle of real maple syrup, salt, & fresh-cracked black pepper.

Rutabaga fries

Cut into french fry sized strips, toss with oil & salt, bake at 350 until crispy on the outside, and soft on the inside, about 40 minutes.

A few years ago when I used to home-brew wines, I made some rutabaga mead using the cooking water, honey, and champagne yeast. The smell was… pungent. Let’s just say that it could not be kept in the house for more than two days while brewing. It was banished to the basement for a year after the smelly fermentation stage was over. I rediscovered it almost accidentally, having banished the memory of the smell from my brain as well. “Oh no, this,” I thought, having flashbacks to the dreaded stink. But I was pleasantly surprised that the smell had mostly vanished, leaving a more beer-like smell. After racking it for another month, it tasted like a vodka made from rutabagas instead of potatoes (so, weird, but strong). A fun experiment, but not one that I recommend.

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