"How do I love thee? Let me count the ways." - Elizabeth Barrett Browning
I'll bet those words have never been said about a rutabaga. Nevertheless, the often-overlooked rutabaga has some endearing qualities.
Rutabagas look similar to a turnip, except turnips are white and rutabagas are yellow to orange. Their flesh is yellow, as well, an indication of their first endearing trait: They are full of beta-carotene, a phytonutrient.
In the body, beta-carotene can be converted into vitamin A - hence it's other name, "provitamin A." Dietary beta-carotene is one of the best ways to ensure you have enough vitamin A, because eating vitamin A directly means eating a lot of eggs and butter - both high in saturated fats. Instead, beta-carotene is found in many low-calorie, zero-fat vegetables, such as rutabagas and carrots, and is easily converted to vitamin A as needed in your intestines.
Beta-carotene is also a powerful antioxidant, believed to reduce the risk of cancer and acting as an anti-aging substance because it reduces the damage from free radicals. As with so many things, it's important to get beta-carotene from natural foods rather than synthetic beta-carotene.
For smokers and people who drink alcohol regularly, synthetic beta-carotene has been associated with a higher risk of colorectal cancer and lung cancer. Studies done with naturally occurring beta-carotene, as you get from eating vegetables, have not demonstrated those risks. Beta-carotene is also important in female reproductive health.
Other nutritional qualities also make rutabagas attractive. They are rich in vitamin C, fiber and potassium. Potassium is an electrolyte that helps keep body functions normal. It also may help prevent high blood pressure.
Though they look most like a turnip, rutabagas are officially classified as a brassica (Brassica napus), putting them in the same category as other cruciferous vegetables, such as cabbage and broccoli. In fact, some people believe rutabagas originally were a cross between cabbages and turnips. Rutabagas taste a little sweeter than either of its nearest relatives.
Rutabagas grow well in cooler northern climates. They also store well for months if kept cold, so they are a popular winter root vegetable.
Be aware, though, that rutabagas in grocery stores are often coated with a clear wax to prevent loss of moisture. It's usually best to peel rutabagas anyway, as the skin can be a little tough.
You can buy locally grown rutabagas when they are being harvested in the fall, or try the exciting new winter Bellingham Farmers Market (second Saturday of each month: see bellinghamfarmers.org for details). Several vendors had beautiful fresh rutabagas available.
And here's another thing to love about rutabagas: They are typically inexpensive. Nutritious and a good value are always welcome characteristics of food on our family table.
Finally, I feel a fondness for rutabagas because they can be prepared so easily and in so many ways. In the U.S., rutabagas are often prepared like potatoes, that is, roasted or mashed. In fact, a common recipe is to mash equal amounts of potatoes and rutabagas together.
Rutabagas are quite versatile, though, and can also be prepared many other ways. For example, they can be eaten raw in salads and they make a flavorful addition to cole slaw. Rutabagas also add a delicate, sweet flavor in soups, stews and stir fries, and can be steamed or boiled to serve as a side dish. As with turnips, you can eat rutabaga greens, too.
Since rutabagas are often used like potatoes and I like potato bread, the recipe below resulted from an experiment to see what would happen if the flavor of rutabaga was added into bread. My family was delighted with the results, and I hope you will be, too. Your friends and family will never guess where the light but distinctive flavor comes from.
1 large rutabaga (about 4-inch diameter) (Spring Frog Farm at Holistic Homestead)
1/4 cup hazelnut oil
1/3 cup apple cider syrup (split)
11/2 tablespoon (2 packages) active dry yeast
1 cup water from cooking rutabagas
2 teaspoons salt (split)
6-7 cups all-purpose unbleached flour
Peel and dice rutabaga into half-inch cubes, removing top and long root. Add enough boiling water to cover completely, then cover pot and return to a boil. Reduce heat to medium, and boil for about 30-35 minutes, until soft enough to pierce easily with a fork.
Drain cooking water into a large measuring cup. Add additional water, if needed, to have two cups total. Add 1/2 cup back into the rutabagas, and reserve another 11/2 cups for later.
Mash rutabagas with 1 teaspoon salt until smooth. An immersion blender can help.
When the 11/2 cups of reserved cooking water cools to lukewarm, dissolve 1 tablespoon of apple cider syrup in it. Stir in the yeast and set aside until foam develops on top.
In a bowl, mix 11/2 cups mashed rutabaga, oil, egg, 1 teaspoon salt, and remainder of apple cider syrup. Add yeast mixture.
Stir in 2 cups of flour, then add a half-cup at a time until dough reaches the right consistency. Knead dough on a floured board until smooth, about 5 minutes. The dough will be a lot stickier than wheat bread dough, but should spring back when you push the surface with your finger.
Place dough in a clean, oiled bowl, cover with a damp cloth, and set in a warm place to rise until dough has doubled in bulk, about an hour.
Punch down dough, and divide in half. Form each half into a loaf and put into 9-by-5-inch oiled loaf pans. You may want to line the pans with waxed paper. Cover again with a damp cloth and set in a warm place to rise until top of dough is about an inch above the top of the pans, about half an hour.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake loaves for 30-40 minutes, until nicely browned and loaves have a hollow sound when you knock on the top with your knuckles.
Makes 2 large loaves.
You'll find Whatcom County foods at these stores and farms. Many outlets have seasonal hours. We recommend you call or check websites for current hours.
Acme Farms + Kitchen
Appel Farms Cheese Shoppe, 6605 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4996; appel-farms.com
Artisan Wine Gallery, 2072 Granger Way, Lummi Island; 360-758-2959; artisanwineclub.com
Bellingham Farmers Market, Railroad at Chestnut; 360-647-2060; bellinghamfarmers.org
Boxx Berry Farm Store and u-pick, 6211 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-380-2699; boxxberryfarm.com
Cloud Mountain Farm Nursery, 6906 Goodwin Road, Everson; 360-966-5859; cloudmountainfarm.com
Community Food Cooperative, 1220 N. Forest St. and 315 Westerly Road, Bellingham; 360-734-8158; communityfood.coop
Everybody's Store, 5465 Potter Road, Deming; 360-592-2297; everybodys.com
Ferndale Public Market, Centennial Riverwalk, Ferndale; 360-410-7747; ferndalepublicmarket.org
Grace Harbor Farms, 2347 Birch Bay Lynden Road, Custer; 360-366-4151; graceharborfarms.com
Green Barn, 8858 Guide Meridian, Lynden; 360-354-1008
Hopewell Farm, 3072 Massey Road, Everson; 360-927-8433
Lynden Farmers Market, 514 Liberty St., Lynden, fiveloavesfarm.blogspot.com
Pleasant Valley Dairy, 6804 Kickerville Road, Ferndale; 360-366-5398; facebook.com/pages/Pleasant-Valley-Dairy/161872142667
Red Barn Lavender Farm (egg CSA), 3106 Thornton Road, Ferndale; 360-393-7057
Small's Gardens, 6451 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4637
The Islander, 2106 S. Nugent Road, Lummi Island; 360-758-2190; islandergrocery.com
The Markets LLC, 3125 Old Fairhaven Parkway and 1030 Lakeway, Bellingham; 8135 Birch Bay Square St., Blaine; 360-714-9797; themarketsllc.com
Terra Organica, 1530 Cornwall Ave., Bellingham; 360-715-8020; terra-organica.com
Bellingham Country Gardens (u-pick vegetables), 2838 East Kelly Road, Bellingham; bellinghamcountrygardens.com
Reach Whatcom Locavore columnist Nancy Ging at 360-758-2529 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To follow her day- to-day locavore activities, go to Whatcom Locavore on Facebook or @whatcomlocavore on Twitter. For locavore menus, recipes and more resources, go to whatcomlocavore.com.