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Sunday, January 25, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 28.0° F  Overcast
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Rooting for rutabagas
When winter hits, break out the unsung vegetable

If, when you hear the word rutabaga, the first thing that comes to mind is canoes, then some introductions are in order. Softball-size and yellow-green in color, with a purple band at the top, rutabagas are tubers that are often thought of, if they are thought of at all, as yellow turnips. Turnips they are not, however.

Rutabagas resulted from the hybridization of turnips and cabbages, and therefore contain chromosomes of each. Scientists are unsure whether this cross happened spontaneously in nature or was developed through the experimentation of Swiss botanist Caspar Bauhin. Either way, Bauhin became the first to describe the rutabaga, in 1620.

Rutabagas thrive in colder climates and became popular in Scandinavia, particularly Sweden ' so popular, in fact, that they are also known as 'Swedes.' The word 'rutabaga' itself comes from the Swedish word 'rotbagge,' meaning round or baggy root.

A round, baggy root may not sound appealing, but under the rough skin of this homely tuber lies rich and flavorful flesh the color of gold. Rutabagas have a delicate sweetness and flavor that hint at both cabbage and turnip. They are incredibly adaptable, too, and take well to baking, boiling, steaming or sautÃing. You can also eat them raw.

Before the arrival of pumpkins from the New World, rutabagas were used as jack-o-lanterns in England and Ireland. They are believed to have first landed on American shores with European explorers, who used the vitamin-C rich vegetable to prevent scurvy on long sea voyages. Rutabagas were common on immigrants' tables, too, whether baked into Cornish pasties or mashed with potatoes and plenty of butter for Thanksgiving.

They acquired a bad rap during World War II, however, when their very durability made them a tedious wartime staple in Europe. But the Advanced Rutabaga Study Institute (I'm not joking, and neither are they ' Google it), headquartered in Forest Grove, Ore., has been advocating on behalf of rutabagas since 1954. Their Web site includes all the latest news and information on rutabagas, as well as the, yes, rutacam, which streams video of 'exciting experiments' at their lab.

Supermarket rutabagas are often coated in wax to keep them from losing moisture, so you will need to peel away that, and the skin, to get at the tasty interior. Look for firm, smooth-skinned rutabagas that feel heavy for their size. Rutabagas store well: a month or more in the refrigerator and longer in a root cellar.

This winter, find out what you have been missing. Give rutabagas a chance. That's all we're saying.

Maple Rutabaga With Cranberries

4 pounds rutabagas

2/3 cup maple syrup

1/4 cup butter

1/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper

1/2 cup dried cranberries, coarsely chopped

Optional toppings:

1 cup fresh breadcrumbs

3 tablespoons butter, melted

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Preheat oven to 400 F. Peel rutabagas and cut into cubes. In a large saucepan of boiling salted water, cover and cook rutabagas for 30 to 40 minutes or until tender. Drain and return rutabagas to pot. With potato masher, mash rutabagas with maple syrup, butter, salt and pepper. Stir in cranberries. Spread in an 11' x 7' baking dish. Bake covered for 30 minutes or until hot. Optional: Combine breadcrumbs, butter and parsley; sprinkle over top. Broil for about 2 minutes or until golden.

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