Pity the poor rutabaga. Once a winter staple of our ancestors, it has fallen from culinary favor. But rutabagas, known also as yellow turnips or swedes (so-called by the English because rutabaga comes from a Swedish word), are still around.
Rutabagas today surface as regional cuisine in cold-climate areas and remain part of Thanksgiving traditions in many parts of the United States. And in Canada, which is, of course, a cold-weather country, they remain popular and are grown in every province except Saskatchewan.
One reason rutabagas probably aren't as popular as they were 100 years ago is that they have a distinctive flavor that doesn't always please at first bite. "Woman's Day Encyclopedia of Cookery," for instance, puts it this way: "Rutabagas are admittedly not one of the more delicate vegetables. But . . . they add nourishment and robustness to winter meals."
Never one to damn with such faint praise, James Beard wrote of rutabagas: "they have a strong flavor which I find most delightful."
Carl Sandburg liked rutabagas -- or their name -- well enough to name his 1922 children's book "Rootabaga Stories," along the way taking poetic license with the name, perhaps to emphasize that rutabagas are root vegetables. The series of stories all take place in Rootabaga Country, where "the big village is Liver and Onions, the railroad tracks change from straight to zigzag, and the pigs have bibs on."
Cooks preparing rutabagas for the first time can take a more realistic geographic approach by trying the traditional rutabaga dish called Swedes and Irish, a mixture of half mashed rutabagas (Swedes) and half mashed potatoes (Irish). Both vegetables should be peeled (especially important for the rutabagas, as they are sold now with a paraffin coating), cut in chunks and cooked in separate pans until tender. Mash together with butter and a bit of heavy cream and serve. A final note: If you're not sure you'll like rutabagas, use a higher percentage of potatoes, say in a 3-to-1 proportion, when you try the recipe.
Yves Sarfati, chef of the Canadian Embassy Residence, has an admission -- and some advice -- about rutabagas. "Frankly," he says, "it is not my favorite vegetable. You need to adapt it to like it."
When he was growing up in France, Sarfati never ate rutabagas. In fact, he never even heard of them. Nor did his training in Paris' Ferrandi cooking school prepare him for preparing rutabagas. In France, at least, rutabagas are too homely (or too obscure) to be haute.
But all that changed when Sarfati came to the United States 1 1/2 years ago and landed his present job. At 22, Sarfati is delighted to be chef of his own kitchen, a possibility that wouldn't have been open to him now in his homeland. "You have less possibility in France," he says. "It is a question of age. To be 22 years old is too young in Paris."
While still in France he cooked in the British Embassy in Paris and (during his time in the army) in a French officers' club. He arrived in this country with references in hand, noting that "they the Canadian Embassy took a risk when they took me. All I had was the letters recommending."
Many meals later, the risk has paid off. One reason is that Sarfati makes it a point to use and adapt Canadian foods (Canadians consume more than 70,000 metric tons of rutabagas annually and export another 30,000 metric tons, primarily to the United States) in his menus.
In learning to prepare rutabagas, Sarfati leaned both to the nouvelle cuisine techniques he prefers and adaptations of traditional French recipes for turnips, to which rutabagas are similar.
Here then are some of Sarfati's successful rutabaga adaptations (translations courtesy of his friend Patricia Singer). TERRINE OF RUTABAGAS WITH RED PEPPER AND PISTACHIOS (4 servings) 2 large rutabagas 1 cup milk 1/2 teaspoon salt, plus extra for seasoning 4 tablespoons shelled pistachios (natural color) 4 egg whites White pepper to taste 5 egg yolks 4 tablespoons finely chopped, roasted sweet red pepper Butter for greasing
Peel and cube rutabagas. Bring milk to a boil, add rutabagas and salt. Boil for 10 minutes. Remove from heat, drain, and let cool.
While the rutabagas are cooling, boil the shelled pistachios for 5 minutes, then peel off the skins, and chop finely.
Pure'e the rutabagas in a food processor or blender with the egg whites and salt and white pepper to taste. Put mixture in a bowl, mix in egg yolks. Then mix in red pepper and pistachios. Put mixture in two 4-by-3-inch buttered containers. (Two large ovenproof soup bowls or small souffle' dishes are fine; the containers should have enough room for the mixture to rise while it cooks. Be sure to leave at least 1 inch for the terrine to rise.)
Bake 25 to 30 minutes in a 350-degree oven. Remove from oven, unmold, and serve hot. JULIENNED RUTABAGA SALAD (4 servings)
A colorful winter salad with two shades of orange and a delicate sweet-and-sour sauce made with maple syrup. 3 tablespoons maple syrup 1 tablespoon vinegar 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice 2 large rutabagas, peeled and julienned 2 large carrots, peeled and julienned 2 large ribs of celery, strings removed and julienned Grated lime peel
Simmer maple syrup and vinegar together several minutes until thickened and sticky. Remove from heat; add lemon juice.
Mix julienned vegetables together and cover with the maple syrup dressing. Garnish each serving with grated lime peel. RUTABAGAS IN HARD CIDER (4 servings)
This is an adaptation of a traditional French recipe for turnips. 3 large rutabagas, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch slices 2 cups hard cider (available in liquor stores and some specialty shops) Salt to taste White pepper to taste 2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon (parsley can be substituted if necessary)
Pack rutabagas slices tightly into a 3-quart saucepan with enough hard cider to cover. Add salt and white pepper to taste.
Bring to a boil and continue boiling until almost no cider remains. Remove from heat. Serve garnished with fresh tarragon. RUTABAGA CHIPS (4 servings) 2 pounds rutabagas, peeled and sliced lengthwise in slices 1/4-inch thick Peanut oil for deep frying Salt to taste White pepper to taste
Wash and dry the rutabaga slices. In a deep-fat fryer, heat the oil to 350 degrees. Cook until rutabaga slices are golden brown. Drain on a paper towel. Salt and pepper to taste and serve.