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In Defense of Rutabagas

00:00 October 14, 2013
By: Kristal Blue

I feel sorry for rutabagas.Maybe it's because of their unfavorable history as a famine food during food shortages in Germany during World War II.Or, rutabaga's reputation as animal fodder.A close relative (and basically a doppelganger) to the turnip, I personally stayed away from rutabagas because of turnips' tendency toward bitterness—they look so much alike!Most root vegetables tend to be sweet and earthy, especially when roasted, and my gardener instincts tell me that a bitter root vegetable means it grew in unfavorable conditions.Even though my soil in the year after Katrina tested with low levels of toxicity, I threw away the carrots because the experience of eating them was unpleasant: crunchy with a faint aftertaste of paint thinner.I didn't even want to compost that back into the soil, soil test or not, so I bought four cubic yards of compost and topsoil to remedy the situation for the next year.

In the case of rutabagas, my instincts were wrong. Since I always assumed they were turnips, and not the milder, sweeter relative of both turnips and cabbage that they are, I never ate them. Until I went to a lunch buffet in rural Mississippi and piled them on my plate, mistaking them for sweet potatoes.When cooked and mashed, rutabagas have an orange color and the taste is sweet, but less starchy than a potato.

Like other orange vegetables, rutabagas are rich in beta carotene and vitamin C.They can be used in place of potatoes mashed, or roasted, and they have fewer calories, fewer carbs, and more fiber. They're also more versatile than potatoes, both regular and sweet.Rutabaga's relation to cabbage makes them delicious raw in salads and slaws.

Rutabagas are commonly eaten in other countries, and even in other parts of the south, but I've rarely seen them at New Orleans' restaurants and farmers' markets, besides a few times at Holly Grove in the last few years.My solution to a vegetable that seems inconvenient to find, of course, is to try and grow it myself.


Rutabagas thrive in cooler winter temperatures and actually taste sweeter and better after a frost or two, so the time to plant is October for harvests from December to early spring.Planting in a raised bed is helpful for good drainage, but rutabagas can grow in a variety of soils as long as the soil is loosened deeply.They can even grow in containers.Don't get too carried away with fertilizers and compost—rutabagas are not heavy feeders and too much nitrogen and organic matter will make the roots thin and stringy.

Most planting guides recommend planting seeds 2 inches apart, 1/2" deep, in rows 18-24" apart, but what do they know?They also recommend planting in early summer, which would be disastrous for rutabagas in our climate.Any consistent heat over 80 degrees makes the roots woody and bitter.I also have limited land at my disposal, so I don't have 18 - 24" in my garden to waste 'in between rows.'My strategy is for all my plants to brush shoulders with each other, using all the space possibly available to me.This year, I'm allotting a 1' by 3' space in the garden for them, so I scatter the seeds over that block, about two inches apart.In a few months, once the roots grow and start to crowd each other, I harvest-thin.I eat the small rutabagas and make room for the rest to grow bigger.


There are lots of traditional Scandinavian recipes for rutabaga that use them in casseroles, stews and simply mashed as a side for rich meat.Sometimes I cook and mash them with butter, a touch of cream and a little nutmeg—delicious!But most of the time I prefer the earthy, delightfully fresh crunch of using them raw like in this slaw.

Crunchy Asian Slaw with Rutabagas

1/2 head of green cabbage

2 carrots, julienned (matchstick cut)

2 rutabagas, julienned

1 green onion, chopped

1 large handful of cilantro leaves (or parsley)

1.5 tsp olive oil

1.5 tsp sesame oil

1 Tablespoon rice vinegar

1 Tablespoon finely chopped or grated ginger

2 tsp soy sauce

Juice from one lime

1/4 tsp red pepper flakes


Thinly slice the cabbage and shred into a large bowl.Add the rutabagas, carrots, and green onions and toss well to combine.

In a small bowl or measuring cup, whisk together the olive oil, sesame oil, rice vinegar, ginger, soy sauce, lime juice, and red pepper flakes.

Drizzle over coleslaw then add most of the cilantro, reserving just a few for garnish, and toss well to combine.Garnish with the remaining cilantro and enjoy!

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