Rutabaga is a very popular vegetable in Ireland, but the name is never used by the Irish to describe this favorite side for a chicken roast, ham or bacon dinner.
The Irish call this root vegetable a turnip. The English call it a swede, and in Scotland it is often called a neep.
The term rutabaga comes from the Swedish word “rotabagge”. It is a bulbous root vegetable with a purple hued outer skin covering a dense inner yellow core.
Practically every time I buy a rutabaga at the grocery store, the check-out guy or gal holds it up with a quizzical expression.
“What’s this called,” comes the inevitable question.
I think very few Americans buy rutabagas, probably because they simply don’t know how to cook them. Today I will solve that problem with a short tutorial on how to peel and cut a rutabaga before boiling it – the tried and trusted cooking method of most Irish cooks.
My thoughts turn to rutabagas with Thanksgiving approaching. I know it is not a traditional vegetable for Americans to serve, but a turnip tale links it to this holiday for me.
When I was close to seven months pregnant with my triplets, my aunt visited for Thanksgiving. She was born in Ireland, but has lived in America for over fifty years. She suggested we have Irish mashed turnips with our turkey that year, since serving rutabaga at Thanksgiving had become a personal tradition for her over the years.
Despite resembling a moving mountain at this point in my pregnancy, I dutifully waddled to the grocery store, plonked my colossal self into a motorized cart, and sped through the vegetable aisles, never dreaming there might be a shortage of rutabagas. Lo and behold there wasn’t a single rutabaga to be had.
“We always run out of rutabagas at Thanksgiving,” the produce manager explained. “It’s the one time of year they are in demand.”
I returned home shocked and empty-handed.
But never fear!
Irish American Dad fancied a scoop of mashed turnip instead of an overly-sweet, sweet potato casserole that year. He rose to the challenge, searching high and low, from grocery store to fresh fruit market, along the turnip trail.
He did not fail us. He found one hiding beneath a head of cabbage in a Meijers store far, far away. And so that year we gave thanks, for one man’s perseverance in his quest to deliver a Thanksgiving rutabaga.
So enough of my waffling, let’s get down to cooking this tough little root.
The most difficult and dangerous part of this process is cutting up the rutabaga. When picking one in the grocery store, I try to find one with a flat bottom end. It makes it much easier to balance to make that first cut through the hard inner core.
Place the root on a cutting board, balanced on its flattest end. Cut through the middle separating it into two equal halves.
Turn each half onto its flat side, then cut it into 1/2 inch thick semi-circles. Throw away the first and last piece which are covered in thicker skin.
Use a paring knife to remove the outer skin. This method is much easier than trying to peel a rutabaga with a potato peeler – really a mission impossible.
Next cut each piece into one inch cubes. Each semi-circle usually yields nine cubes by cutting 3 vertical slices and then three more perpendicular slices.
Add the diced rutabaga to a medium saucepan and cover it with cold water. Some of the pieces will float in the water making it impossible to cover the top by an inch. Season with salt at this point.
Make sure you add plenty of water though. If the pot boils dry the smell of burnt rutabaga is horrible. Believe me – I know from experience.
Bring the water to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 40 to 50 minutes until the rutabaga is fork tender. It takes quite a long time to boil this tough little vegetable.
Drain the boiling water once the rutabaga is cooked. Return it to the pot. Use a potato masher to break it up. Add 2 or 3 tablespoons of butter. Season with salt and pepper. I use white pepper since I don’t like black flecks through my turnip. Mash it well together to make sure the melted butter is thoroughly mixed through.
Sour cream can be used instead of butter. Its flavor compliments the sweet yet tangy taste of the rutabagas. Some people like puree the rutabaga in a food processor, but I prefer to leave a little bit of texture by using a potato masher.
Served hot, as a side for roast turkey dinner, mashed rutabagas are simply delicious.
I love two nice, big mounds of rutabaga mash on my plate. Once I dined at a fancy restaurant in New Jersey. I grew excited when I saw a pork dish on the menu with a side of rutabaga puree. Oh how disappointed I was when all I got was a yellow squiggle of rutabaga on my plate. It didn’t fill a hole in my tooth.
So heap those rutabagas onto your plate. Not only do they taste great, they’re good for you too.
Happy Thanksgiving cooking to all.
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Irish American Mom