by Chris Ellis, Staff Nutritionist
With the exception of carrots and for some of us beets, root vegetables as a group are often forgotten amongst all the vegetables. Many people rarely get to the root of the vegetable matter—myself included, since until a few years ago and well into adult life I had never consumed any others besides the occasional parsnip. The lonely rutabaga was not part of my repertoire. I love the name of this vegetable but unfortunately when you get to the “root” of the word it doesn’t sound very appealing. Also called a Swedish turnip, “rutabaga” is derived from the Swedish word rotabagge meaning “root bag.” The Swedish deserve credit for the word since they continue to be smart enough to use turnips on a regular basis, one of many root crops that thrive there.
The rutabaga is said to have originated in Scandinavian countries, Russia, and Siberia. From there it was introduced into England in the late 1600s, where it was recorded to be present in the Royal Gardens. It came to North America in the early 19th century with settlers and was one of the first vegetables grown since the large roots helped break up the poor rocky and untilled soil. Hundreds of years ago there was a lot of superstition about root vegetables and some cultures thought that they were grown in the domain of the devil so many would not eat them. Their reputation did not improve in the 1700s and 1800s when they were used frequently for animal food. But during that time of many wars and periods of famine, rutabagas and other root vegetables were easily obtainable and were consumed regularly by humans as well. The wealthier classes looked down upon root vegetables though and regarded them as peasant food.
Rutabagas have a yellowish tinge to them—they’re sometimes called yellow turnips—and are purple at the top. They have a globelike shape and come in small to medium sizes, unlike our native Vermont Gilfeather turnips. They have a fairly neutral taste but are slightly sweeter than the white turnip. They are a good companion when cooked alongside meats and poultry. They also are delicious when roasted alone or with spices and onions and garlic. I made my first batch of oven-roasted rutabagas for my husband not too long ago. He already had a negative opinion about them when I told him what I was making for dinner but he was pleasantly surprised when he tasted the recipe shared below. It just goes to show that you need an open mind about these not so glamorous root veggies!
Rutabagas aren’t a super nutritious vegetable but do have some benefits and should not be ignored. They are a good source of vitamin C, potassium, and fiber. They are a member of the cruciferous family and also have been found to be beneficial in preventing cancer. Roast them alone or with other rooties for a splendid array of flavors, or grate them for use in salads or slaws. They also can be cooked and mashed for use as a vegetable dish, with other root vegetables or by themselves. I cooked them alongside apples and made a surprisingly good custard dessert—these rutabagas sure are versatile! Choose rutabagas that are firm. They can be stored in your refrigerator for about a month. Root vegetables such as turnips will never hold up to the king and princes of vegetables such as broccoli or greens but we need to give them a chance, and what better time than now when they are still readily available locally?