Chefs Transform the Unlovable Rutabaga

The rutabaga is known for its relatively rough-skinned, yellow flesh, waxy coating and weight of as much as two pounds.
The rutabaga is known for its relatively rough-skinned, yellow flesh, waxy coating and weight of as much as two pounds. (By Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)
By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Few patrons of Washington's most expensive restaurants are surprised when they find foie gras, truffles and caviar on the menu. They expect Kobe beef or, perhaps, guinea fowl or exquisite fresh Dover sole. What these diners might not expect is that this fall, on the same menus, they might also find rutabaga -- the root vegetable of war and Depression, considered by many to be unlovable and unpalatable.

At the Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Va., a demitasse cup of creamy rutabaga soup laced with maple syrup and seasoned with cayenne pepper is one of the first courses that comes to the table.

"You must erase your childhood memories. Rutabagas are fabulous, with terrific color and a flavor that no one can quite place," says chef and co-owner Patrick O'Connell, who also makes rutabaga gnocchi and rutabaga gratin and pairs rutabaga puree with loin of rabbit. "Buy a 100-pound bag of rutabagas. You'll never regret it," says O'Connell.

For local farmers, it's rutabaga season. Fresh roots of rutabaga, immortalized, to some, in the 1970s Frank Zappa cult classic "Call Any Vegetable," can be found at farmers markets. In supermarkets, the soft ball-size root, yellowish-green in color with a band of purple at the top, is usually coated in wax to help retain moisture.

And regardless of whether you appreciate this believed hybrid of turnip and cabbage, which continues to be the brunt of jokes (try Googling "Advanced Rutabaga Studies Institute"), the rutabaga is having a moment in the spotlight.

At Komi near Dupont Circle, chef Johnny Monis replaces eggplant with rutabaga in a Sicilian caponata salad that calls for yellow raisins, toasted pine nuts and bittersweet chocolate.

"I love rutabaga. They are absolutely delicious in soups and salads," says Monis, who is most taken with this vegetable's "complicated, both sweet and bitter taste."

Then there are the chefs who like the flavor but not the way ru-ta-ba-ga rolls off the tongue.

"You can't put that word on a menu. It sounds like a punishment," says Carole Greenwood, chef and co-owner of Buck's Fishing & Camping in Northwest Washington. On Buck's menu, Greenwood refers to rutabagas as "swedes," as they're called in Europe. This fall, she will be doing a Southern Maryland-inspired, slow-cooked St. Mary's shrimp stew with rutabaga replacing potato.

But a rutabaga trend does not mean that detractors have disappeared.

" 'Rutabagas again?' we would say as children," says Nora Pouillon, owner of Nora restaurant near Dupont Circle. "It was one of the only vegetables we got at home in Austria, after the second World War, and I still don't like them very much."

And at the hot spot Jackie's in Silver Spring, chef Sam Adkins says the root "has its place in the world. But I don't get around to it until I'm desperate." Adkins would prefer, at this time of year, to work with spaghetti squash. "I'm personally very fond of the stuff," he says. He serves it with lobster and freshly hulled black-eyed peas.

Part of the dismissal of rutabagas by the shopping public might be attributed to a failure of identification: Most people would not know a rutabaga if they saw one. In a casual survey of a dozen shoppers at the Whole Foods store on P Street NW, only one in 12 could correctly identify a rutabaga and three checkout clerks did not have a clue. All the while, in the produce section on a lowly perch at knee level next to the turnips, rutabagas, which are an excellent source of potassium and a good source of vitamin C, languished.

Farmer Tim Derstine, a member of the Tuscarora Organic Growers Cooperative, says rutabaga demand has held steady over the past 10 years at his Hares Valley farm in Huntington County, Pa. He rarely eats them himself, preferring turnips. But he has noticed that his customers say the sweetest rutabagas are harvested after the first frost.

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