GARDEN FRESH : Rutabaga Tales
Rutabagas don’t look very inviting. Unlike ruffly red lettuce or sculptural shoots of asparagus, these rough, baseball-sized, brownish-purple and buff roots don’t beg to be taken home.
But if you never take them home and eat them, you’ll never be tempted to grow them. And home-grown rutabagas are worlds tenderer and tastier than store-bought.
Pretend you don’t know what potatoes taste like. How promising would they look? So buy three or four rutabagas and be prepared to find beneath their rough exterior a heart of gold.
The flesh of rutabagas is a luminous rosy-yellow that turns pale-pumpkin in cooking. Its flavor is sweet--yes, sweet. Imagine a blend of sweet carrots, sweet parsnips and the sweetest turnips of spring. That’s rutabaga.
What do you do with them? One of the tastiest ways is what the Scotch call bashed neeps. The diced and simmered roots are mashed and seasoned with salt, pepper, nutmeg, butter and cream. A Scot has called this “a dish fit for a queen.”
For the shy vegetable eater, the most disarming introduction to this funny vegetable may be a blend of half-mashed neeps and half-mashed potatoes. It was mine, and I nearly ate the plate.
After that, you’ll find yourself thinning the mash with milk and making it a beautiful soup. When you feel adventurous, you can beat eggs into the mash and bake it into a fluffy pudding. James Beard liked to marbleize a buttery paste of sauteed finely chopped mushrooms through mashed rutabagas. In “The New James Beard,” the dean of American cookery calls them “yellow turnips” and says, “You might think the strong peppery taste of the turnips would wipe out the delicate mushroom quality but, oddly enough, they meet on equal ground.” See? This is a vegetable for elevated palates.
You most certainly will see when you grow them and the tall blue-green leaves rustle in the autumn breeze. Rutabagas give good return for their space in the garden. The roots are a healthy source of potassium--close to that of a banana, with more Vitamin C and fewer calories. And something you don’t get with store-bought rutabagas are those beautiful leaves. Cook them as you would turnip greens, adding a dribble of olive oil and vinegar. Great with chops.
Almost any recipe for potatoes, turnips, carrots, winter squash or pumpkin may be applied to rutabagas. Don’t forget to roast some crescent-shaped slices in the dish with your chicken. For maximum nourishment, cook rutabagas unpeeled. Smallish home-grown roots needn’t be peeled at all. But if the root has been preserved with paraffin, remove the coating with a sharp knife, quartering the globe first. If you want to peel rutabagas for company, use a vegetable peeler and remove the thinnest possible layer.
I was reading the other day about corn oysters. Years ago when someone thought to make fritters out of oysters, someone else reasoned that oysters were rare, corn was plentiful, and the silvery taste of corn (with a stretch of the imagination) resembled the flavor of silvery mollusks from the deep. Oysters of corn proved to be downright delicious.
I had rutabagas in the back of my mind as I was reading and I thought, why not oysters of rutabaga too? They’re delectable. The spicy, bite-size puffs of golden shreds are quickly made--a lightly sweet, slightly crunchy accompaniment to hot or cold roast meat. The difference between fritters then and now is that mine cook in little fat. Good thing, because I eat more than my share.
My rutabaga-growing friends are still bringing sweet roots into the kitchen from winter storage. If you have a place that’s just above freezing, with 90% to 95% humidity, your rutabagas will keep on a shelf for six months. If not, sink them in a bucket of moist sand (with drainage holes) and keep as cold as possible. A Yankee neighbor coats his rutabagas with melted paraffin. The roots can even be left in the ground over winter, but usually their quality suffers. It’s best to lift them.
You can also dry thin slices of rutabagas. They’re lovely tossed into a soup or stew, soaking up broth or gravy to swell their cells. The directions are too detailed to give here--your local library should have a book on drying vegetables. If there’s no entry for rutabagas, follow the rule for carrots.
Timing is important when sowing these roots, since they’re a cool-season crop and will turn tough in hot weather. So bear in mind that the roots are ready to be pulled in about three months.
Where summers are coolish, you can sow seeds the middle of June for eating fresh in mid-September. Where summers are hot, sow no sooner than July for harvest in autumn. If you live where there’s frost, the roots will be sweetened by a frost or two, so count a week or two after your first expected frost date, then mark your calendar to sow rutabagas three months before. Rutabagas are very hardy.
For best germination in hot weather, soak the seeds overnight, then after sowing, cover the patch with burlap or cheesecloth and keep it damp until the seeds sprout.
Soil that grows good lettuce and onions will grow good rutabagas. It should be a fine tilth--no rocks--well drained, and rich in potash. It mustn’t be too acid (pH about 6--a soil test kit will tell you about this). And rutabagas want potassium and phosphorus. Especially if you have clay soil, dig in a veil of wood ash or agricultural limestone from the nursery, bone meal and as much thoroughly rotted organic matter as you can afford. But not too much nitrogenous stuff such as manure--that makes root crops hairy and causes them to split. For mildness, keep the soil moist--in dry soil, rutabagas get hot.
The reason rutabagas are more pigmented on the top half is because they grow half out of the earth. They’re rather endearing in the border. Mingle Lemon Yellow marigolds among them--the flowers are edible. Give them about eight hours of sun each day.
Catalogues may tell you the roots will get eight inches wide. Never! Four inches is max. Just grow more of them if you want more to eat.
Rutabagas belong to the brassica or cole family, whose chief members are cabbages. This is an ancient bunch, and probably because it has been on this planet so long, it has its fan club of pests. To avoid trouble, rotate rutabagas through your garden, not returning them to the same place for four years. (Still, rutabagas are less bothered by disease than turnips.)
If you have flea beetles, cover the seedlings with floating row cover (available at large garden supply stores). Keep an eye out for slugs. If your soil is plagued by club root, sow the cultivar Marian. Otherwise, the rutabaga of choice these days seems to be one of the American Purple Tops. There are a number of strains. All have sweet, fine-grained flesh.
In other places, rutabagas are called Swedish turnips, or Swedes for short. That’s because the Swedes grow a lot a rutabagas. Swedes is a less amusing name. But on the other hand, what would we think if a vegetable was called Americans?
Fresh: Look for firm roots, nothing soft nor wrinkled.
Mail order: Seeds of Purple Top Yellow and Lemon Yellow marigolds from Nichols Garden Nursery, 1190 N. Pacific Highway, Albany, Ore. 97321-4598, and Marian from Territorial Seed Co., 20 Palmer Ave., Cottage Grove, Ore. 97424.
1/2 pound rutabagas, trimmed and peeled
2 tablespoons flour
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup finely chopped parsley
8 thin wedges lemon
Warm eggs in shells by placing in bowl with hot water to cover. Shred rutabagas on 3/16-inch blade of grater into mixing bowl to equal 2 1/2 cups, lightly packed.
Separate warmed eggs, adding 2 yolks to rutabagas and reserving 4 whites in medium-size bowl. With fork, mix yolks thoroughly into rutabagas. Sprinkle over flour, nutmeg and pepper. Blend thoroughly.
Add salt to whites and beat just until soft peaks form. Blend thoroughly into rutabagas with fork.
Brush heavy skillet (preferably cast-iron) with oil and set over medium-high heat. Drop batter into hot skillet by tablespoons. Cook until brown, about 2 minutes, then turn and brown other side. Lift onto platter and keep warm in oven.
Repeat, reducing heat if pan gets too hot. Serve sprinkled with parsley and garnished with lemon. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
Each of 6 servings contains about:
92 calories; 148 mg sodium; 142 mg cholesterol; 6 grams fat; 5 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 0.42 gram fiber.