Thursday, April 10, 2008

Rutabaga, Rutabaga, Rutabaga!

I planted rutabaga late last year. They overwintered in the garden but now are beginning to go to seed, which can only mean one thing: Soon, they will be inedible. I am harvesting and cooking rutabaga as fast as I can. Tomorrow, rutabaga souffle. For now, here is something I wrote for The Washington Post once upon a time, but it was never published.

I don’t normally get emotional over vegetables. But something about rutabagas makes me tear up a little.

They look so lonely.

You hardly ever see anyone rush to the produce section to squeeze the rutabagas. Nobody swoons over rutabagas the way they fuss about a perfectly leafy fennel, say, or cute little patty pan squash, or even baby golden beets. You never see signs in the grocery reading, “Just In: Fresh Rutabagas!” Nor can I remember the last time anyone tried to cut in front of me in the checkout line with a cart full of rutabagas.

A gentle giant among root vegetables, the rutabaga is largely misunderstood and even feared as a holiday side dish. Swedish people love to grow and eat it, giving rutabaga its nickname, “Swede.” But the Scandinavians have failed to ignite a trend. In all of the on-line Food Network archives, for instance, there are only two recipes specifically for rutabaga, compared with about a zillion for artichokes. And when I inquired about rutabaga at my local Whole Foods, the produce man nearly burst out laughing.

“We don’t carry rutabagas!” he sniggered.

In a cruel twist, lots of people think rutabagas are more funny than edible.
Obscure rock groups such as “Rutabaga Paradox” play on the rutabaga moniker as a way of advertising their obscurity in a hip, ironic sort of way. Authors call on “rutabaga” when they want to conjure up a completely ridiculous image, as in “Beatnik Rutabagas from Beyond the Stars,” an actual novel about teenagers who encounter aliens that look like—what else?-- rutabagas.

There is even a web site for something called “The Advanced Rutabaga Studies Institute.” Located in Forest Grove, Oregon, the institute purports to test the effects of cold storage on three particularly stoic rutabagas--Arnold, Bertrand and Carlotta--who can be viewed 24/7 through the site’s digital camera, or “rutacam.”

(Michael O’Brien, a lawyer in Forest Grove and faculty member at Pacific University, admits the site is a spoof. It is, O’Brien said, his way of working through years of teasing from friends over his family’s embrace of rutabagas at Thanksgiving and Christmas.)

In my own case, I cannot pass a rutabaga display in the supermarket without a certain wobbly Frank Zappa tune—“Call Any Vegetable”—blaring in my head. One of the song’s refrains is a mind-bending, cowboy-style yodel: Rutabaga, rutabaga, rutabaga, rutabaga, rutabay-y-y—y…

Somehow, it has stuck with me since 1969.

The stubborn rutabaga does little to advance its own cause. A cross between a turnip and a cabbage, brassica napus comes out of the ground the size of a coconut and hard as a baseball, making it nearly always lethal when dropped from tall buildings. Its skin is greenish-purple and usually covered with a scary layer of wax.

Once cracked, however, the rutabaga yields a pleasantly pale, yellowish-orange flesh that is mildly sweet and faintly earthly.

The challenge, as I see it, is to transform the rutabaga into something not only respected, but loved. The course seems obvious: a classic French makeover.
As everyone knows, the French practically invented the art of applying complicated cooking methods to strange foods and calling it haute cuisine. Besides, in the case of rutabaga, I have a head start: I’ve been making rutabaga soufflĂ© for years, before I knew rutabaga wasn’t popular.

In addition to the soufflé, I think my cream of rutabaga soup and my Rouqefort rutabaga gratin may completely change the face of rutabaga as we know it.


Alex said...

It would be nice to list some recipes, but I have never tried a rutabaga to know if I would like it.

Deb said...

I live near the town of Askov, MN which was once the Rutabaga Capitol of Minnesota, or was it the world? They still have their rutabaga festival every August. I grew some rutabagas the summer before last and they did well, although I can't say I learned to appreciate their flavor much. There just aren't a lot of good rutabaga recipes out there!

Thomas said...

I just happen to be having rutabegas with my dinner tonight. I think it is similar to a potato, only better. Great post. Hard to believe that WF did not carry rutabegas! I was in DC on Tues. & Wed. and thought of you with your almost year round farmers' market.

Ed Bruske said...

Alex, try it. You'll like it.

Deb, I'm sure you are near ground zero for the world's rutabaga capitol. People make fun of rutabagas, but only because they aren't from Minnesota and don't know how good they can be. There are some good rutabaga recipes, but you have to look really hard. I'll post my cream of rutabaga soup recipe in the fall. It's killer.

Thomas, I later discovered that Whole Foods did in fact have rutabaga, it was just that one clerk who didn't know what they were. And they are not covered in wax--the rutabaga, I mean.