Or Swedish turnips

February 22, 2010

When you pull a rutabaga out of the ground, it looks a bit like the fabled Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, all gnarly, feathery roots and floppy leaves. Topped and trimmed, however, it’s just a plump root vegetable, cream-colored at the bottom and a blushing purple on the shoulders.

At the store, it can be tricky to distinguish rutabagas from all the other bland-looking winter root vegetables — the turnips, parsnips, daikons, golden beets, and the like. And as a chat thread on Chowhound notes, rutabagas can have different regional names throughout North America and the Commonwealth.

Spot the purple, though, and grab a few, because rutabagas have an unexpected flavor combination of sweet, delicate starch with an occasional bitter edge. (Note, however, that not all rutabagas have the purple half, and some turnips are purplish, too. Confusing!)

Young rutabagas, fresh from the garden, are less plump than the mature versions sold in stores.

Rutabagas are also known as swedes (from “Swedish turnip”) or as yellow turnips; in Scotland, they’re called neeps. They’re not true turnips, however, as they’re a cross between a cabbage and a turnip.

Incidentally, the rutabaga was also a death word in my third-grade spelling bee, since none of us had ever heard of them. Now we know better; we even know that you can cook the rutabaga leaves, too, should you be lucky enough to find a market that sells them that way.

Peel rutabagas before cooking, as the skins can be more bitter than the flesh, and some rutabagas sold in stores are waxed. (Bitterness turns up more often, too, in rutabagas exposed to too much sunlight or warmth while growing — another reason why they’re tastier in winter.)

Roast your swedes with other root veggies, such as carrots and golden beets, for a root bake. Want something softer? Peel, chop, steam, and mash them as you would ordinary potatoes, for a sunnier-looking swirl of starch. Or take a page from Mitchell Davis’ Kitchen Sense and combine multiple flavors with mashing, for a mixed-vegetable mash.

Deborah Madison uses the same multi-veg idea for her Winter Vegetable Chowder. Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton, the ladies behind Canal House Cooking, note in Volume 2 of their cookbooks that they often add a starchy potato to a rutabaga mash, as rutabagas can be “quite watery.” And Emily Franklin notes in Too Many Cooks that rutabagas are traditional filler in Cornish Pasties.

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1. by vesperlight on Feb 28, 2010 at 7:46 AM PST

Rutabagas are also a traditional ingredient in Cornish pasties....this was the first (ok, still the only) time I have ever cooked with them. They added a wonderful sweet delicate flavor to the pastie (a hand-held pie with beef, potatoes, rutabaga, carrot and onion inside).

2. by Caroline Cummins on Mar 1, 2010 at 8:43 PM PST

Yup, we noted that -- check out the mention above of Emily Franklin’s recipe for Cornish pasties.

3. by baltimoregon on Mar 2, 2010 at 3:32 PM PST

I love rutabaga. I put some in a curiously sweet Nip-Nip Soup I recently made. Your purple ones look more like turnips, though. The local rutabagas I’ve bought were more orangey-beige. Also, I hear saying “rutabaga-rutabaga-rutabaga, etc.” is a good tongue-twister used to warm up public radio voices!

4. by Caroline Cummins on Mar 3, 2010 at 7:28 PM PST

Yeah, the weird thing about rutabagas and turnips is that you can get half-colored versions of both, and beigey versions of both. The rutabagas in the photo were very young; apparently they’re less colorful as they age.

5. by judy on Mar 25, 2010 at 11:17 PM PDT

Hello, from west va here, and growing up my grear aunt and numerous other country cooks called a rutabaga a “hanover”. Don’t know why, just was a regional thing I guess, thanks, Judy

6. by anonymous on Jun 17, 2014 at 6:57 AM PDT

Could it be that you just “handed over” everything you harvested from the garden that day to be cooked?

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