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Roots : So You've Bought a Rutabaga . . .

February 25, 1993|COLMAN ANDREWS

R ootabaga is a funny word--funny in itself, regardless of what it means--which is doubtless at least partly why Carl Sandburg chose to set his 1922 collection of charmingly wacky children's tales in a place called Rootabaga County and to dub the collection "Rootabaga Stories." ("Long ago," starts one of them, "long before the waylacks lost the wonderful stripes of oat straw gold and the spots of timothy hay green in their marvelous curving tail feathers, long before the doo-doo-jangers whistled among the honeysuckle blossoms".)

But "rootabaga" is just another way of spelling "rutabaga," and rutabaga is one of those homey root vegetables (like the turnip and the parsnip) that most folks just don't see the humor in at all.

That's unfortunate, because the rutabaga is actually a delicious creature. Except for its color--which tends to be a muted earthy yellow, sometimes tending toward orange, with a faint halo of veiled light purple at the top--it looks very much like its close cousin, the ordinary white turnip. It has a different scientific moniker, though-- Brassica campestris (or Brassica napobrassica ) as opposed to Brassica rapa --and has a taste of its own, a bit less gassy than the white turnip and slightly sweeter, with a pleasant, faint nutty character. It is also a bit richer in vitamins and minerals than the white guy--especially vitamins A and C and calcium, phosphorus and potassium. It is a darned good little vegetable.

I'm not saying that the rutabaga is bound for culinary fame and fortune, mind you. It is not likely to become the next big trendy flora on creative American menus--next year's fava bean or fennel. It has its limitations. But these are not as grave as the neglect that it suffers would suggest.

American cookbooks tend to ignore the rutabaga, or to recommend that it be eaten mashed or not at all. It is virtually unknown in Italy and France. (It isn't even mentioned in "Larousse Gastronomique" or Escoffier's "Le Guide Culinaire.") The appropriately named Waverly Root, in his quasi-encyclopedic "Food," notes merely that the rutabaga was "more admired a century or two ago than it is now."

If the rutabaga is honored anywhere today, it is in northern Europe, especially in Scandinavia (Norwegians eat rutabagas pureed, with salt-cured mutton chops, for instance; Finns sometimes eat them raw and shredded, in salad) and in England and Scotland. The English call rutabagas "Swedes," in fact--short for Swedish turnips. The word rutabaga derives from the Swedish dialect word rotabagge , from rot (root) and bagge (bag).

Just to confuse matters further, in some parts of Scotland the rutabaga is known as "parsnip" or under such words as navet , nabo and nap , which mean "turnip" in French, Spanish and Catalan, respectively. The traditional accompaniment to Scotland's famous haggis is "tatties 'n' neeps"--i.e., potatoes and rutabagas, mashed together.

The Scottish-born novelist Tobias Smollett, who wrote in the mid-18th Century, praised Scottish rutabagas, noting that they were famous for their anti-scorbutic (scurvy-preventing) quality. And, he added, "They are as much superior in sweetness, delicacy and flavour, to (the white turnips) of England, as a musk-mellon is to the stock of a common cabbage."

Well, I don't know if I'd go that far. But rutabagas certainly can add a pleasant, slightly offbeat flavor to a meal. Here are three ways I use the vegetable myself.


2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Corn or peanut oil

2 leeks, white part only, coarsely chopped

1 onion, coarsely chopped

1 pound rutabagas, peeled and cut in 1/2-inch slices

2 quarts strong chicken or vegetable stock

2 large beets, peeled and thickly sliced

1 quart water


White pepper

1/4 pound Citerio or other good-quality domestic prosciutto, very thinly sliced

Heat butter and 1 to 2 tablespoons oil in large pot over medium heat. Add leeks and onion and saute until tender. Add rutabagas and stock and bring to boil. Cover and simmer about 40 minutes or until vegetables are very tender.

Place beets in separate saucepan and add water. Cover and bring to boil. Remove cover and simmer until tender. Remove beets and reserve for another use. Set beet cooking juice aside.

Cool rutabaga soup to room temperature. Puree in blender or food processor. Season to taste with salt and white pepper.

Cut prosciutto slices into 1 1/2x1/2-inch strips. Heat small amount oil in skillet and saute prosciutto until almost crisp. Drain on paper towels and set aside.

To serve, place 1 to 2 tablespoons beet juice in center of each of 6 flat soup plates. Scatter fried prosciutto around juice. Transfer soup to heat-proof glass or ceramic pitcher, then carefully pour soup into middle of each bowl until bowl is about half full. (This may be done at table, if desired.) Beet juice and prosciutto will rise to top and drift to edges of soup, framing it in color. Makes 6 servings.

Each serving contains about:

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