(Editor's Note: this article was originally published on January 22, 2008)
The rutabaga is said to be the result of a lucky cross-pollination between a turnip and a wild cabbage sometime in the 17th century. Its sweet flavor, and ability to grow in the cooler northern European climate, made it a healthful addition to the typical diet. While the leaves are edible, it is usually the large round root that is typically served.
Actually, the livestock reaped the first benefits from the rutabaga. Common vegetables were often fed to the cattle and hogs, being passed over for less nutritious foods that were perceived as more suitable for human consumption.
Northern Europe, Ireland, Scotland, and Scandinavia are the main areas where the rutabaga is commonly used. The rutabaga was embraced by the Scandinavians. It grew well in the less than optimum climate of these countries, and was especially suited to the cooler growing season . In fact, a synonym for rutabaga is swede, or Swedish Turnip.
In Ireland, the rutabaga was the first Jack-O-Lantern, as the roots were hollowed out and carried with glowing coals in All-Hallows' Eve.The more-familiar pumpkin took this title much later.
Rutabagas are rich in beta carotene, and one serving will supply an adult with 30% of the daily requirement of Vitamin A, and 35% of the recommended Vitamin C. It has several significant trace minerals such as potassium and magnesium. It’s low in calories and high in fiber. Preparation is usually simple: It can be roasted, boiled and mashed, or simmered in soups and stews. Its natural sweetness makes it a great addition to roasted beef or pork dishes.
Rutabagas are usually found in the produce aisles during the autumn and winter months. They are generally sold with the foliage trimmed, and a coating of paraffin to prolong their shelf life. Generally about the size of a softball when harvested, but they can grow much larger, and can weigh up to five pounds. The larger roots tend to get tough and woody, so the smaller ones are the best choice when shopping for rutabagas.
A simple recipe to showcase the natural sweetness of the rutabaga is to pan roast them. The best way to peel a rutabaga is to slice the ends off, and then trim each side to create a small rutabaga block. It will then be easy to peel the rest of the rutabaga as you are slicing it up. Cut into small cubes, about 3/4-inches. The chunks should be close to the same size so that they will roast evenly. Toss with a couple tablespoons of olive oil, your favorite herbs and a scant teaspoon of sugar or maple syrup. The sweetener will caramelize while the rutabaga is roasting and brown the edges attractively. Roast uncovered in a 400 degree oven for about 45 minutes, or until the rutabaga is tender. To brown the edges, if they need a bit more, broil for a few minutes, but watch them carefully. Rutabagas can be roasted alone, or in combination with other root vegetables. A variation on this recipe can include cubed carrots, parsnips, onions or turnips. Serve as a side dish for beef or pork along with a green vegetable and a hearty bread, creating a filling, nutritious meal for the dark winter months.
Rutabagas can easily be grown in any well-drained loam. The best pH for growing rutabagas is between 6.0 and 6.8. In northern areas, they can be sown in the late winter for a early summer harvest. Rutabagas need 90 to 100 days to properly mature, so are not good choices for spring sowing where the summers get hot quickly. In warmer parts of the south, sow them in August or September, so that they can use the cooler autumn months for their growing season. Rutabagas tend to have an undesirable texture when grown in the warmer months. They need regular watering of one inch each week, or they will get tough and woody.
Rutabagas can be left in the ground through light frosts, and this even makes them sweeter. Mulch with straw for holding in the ground throughout the lower south, but harvest them if a hard freeze is predicted.
Common pests to be on the lookout for are flea beetles, aphids, root maggots and slugs. Treat light infestations with hand picking, or row covers. To prevent root maggots, rotate your rutabaga crop each year with something other than a root vegetable. Turnips, carrots and onions will also be attractive to root maggots. Crops planted in the fall will have significantly fewer pests than spring crops.
Rutabagas are easy to grow, and their requirements are not labor intensive. All they ask is well drained soil, regular water and cool growing conditions…and, a little respect.