Ben Hasty holds a rutabaga at the Thistle Pig in South Berwick.  Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

When Frank Thomas and his family first started growing rutabagas in Corinth, Thomas called them turnips so he wouldn’t have to explain what a rutabaga was when he talked to friends and customers.

That was about a decade ago but things haven’t gotten much better. The farmer now calls the bulbous root vegetable by its proper name, but most people still haven’t a clue what he’s talking about when he says he grows 30 to 35 acres of rutabagas. The Thomas farm is one of the largest rutabaga growers on the East Coast, and sells 99 percent of its harvest to Hannaford.

But don’t be too impressed. “The thing about rutabagas,” Thomas joked in a classic Maine accent, “is not that many people like them, so it doesn’t take that many of them” to make his rutabaga harvest one of the biggest.

Rutabagas are the Rodney Dangerfield of the vegetable world. They don’t get a lot of respect. “You either really like them, or you don’t,” Thomas said. Even people who like them, he said, tend to eat them mostly around Thanksgiving, when they usually are mixed with potatoes in some kind of hybrid mash, and St. Patrick’s Day, when the flesh absorbs the flavorful juices of a traditional boiled dinner.

Most of the year the Thomas Farm sells, on average, four pallets a week of rutabagas, Thomas said, “and at Thanksgiving time it will be four trailer truck loads.”

Rutabagas, also known as Swedes or neeps, are in the same family as turnips and look a little similar. They’re popular in Europe, Scotland and eastern Canada, Thomas said, and in the northern U.S., but not so much in southern states, where turnips and turnip greens are more often found on the table. Harvest time in Maine begins in late October.

“To have a really good rutabaga,” Thomas said, “it really needs to frost so it changes starch to sugar. That takes some of the bitterness out of them.” They’re stored as close to 32 degrees as possible for the same reason, he added.

Writer Barbara Ross in her Portland home. “You say rutabagas to people and they look horrified.”  Photo by Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Rutabagas are always on the Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve holiday tables at the Portland home of Maine crime writer Barbara Ross, whose family recipe has roots in Germany and can be traced back several generations on her mother’s side.

“I was skeptical of it as a kid,” Ross recalled. “It was orange and it was mashed. At Thanksgiving there are so many other choices, so I don’t really remember loving it.”

The year before Ross’ grandmother, Ethel McKim, died, she made recipe books for Ross and Ross’ sister-in-law. Ross’ book, now falling apart, is a “fascinating time capsule” that includes recipes for McKim’s Christmas butter cookies and thin hazelnut cookies cut into wreaths with a donut cutter. The collection also has a recipe for her mashed yellow turnips, which is what McKim called rutabagas. The dish always appeared on Thanksgiving, along with German coleslaw and the traditional turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy. It is a mash of rutabagas (cut with “a sharp knife and a strong shoulder,” Ross says), potatoes and onions, seasoned with salt and pepper, sugar and butter.

“You say rutabagas to people and they look horrified,” Ross said. “I always say ‘Well, I can convert you. You may think you hate them but you’ll like this.’ ”

The Thomas family always has rutabagas on the Thanksgiving table, as well. They treat them like mashed potatoes, boiling, then mashing them with butter, salt and pepper. Thomas said his late mother used to fry salt pork to add to them, but that tradition has been lost as health concerns have overtaken appetites.

Barbara Ross’ grandmother used this recipe for yellow turnips – also known as rutabagas – in the recipe book she made for Ross late in life. Photo courtesy of Barbara Ross

Chefs probably like rutabagas more than most and get more creative with them, too. Daron Goldstein, chef/owner of Provender Kitchen + Bar in Ellsworth, dices them to add to the mix when he’s roasting root vegetables, and uses them in winter mirepoix and purees. He’s made a rutabaga and sweet potato puree with cider-poached lady apples, and a rutabaga and apple puree with caramelized onions. He tosses raw, julienned rutabaga into a salad, balancing their mild bitterness with cider-poached raisins or dried cranberries.

“They’re so versatile,” Goldstein said. “You can roast them, bake them, boil them, add them to soups for flavor enhancers. They’re not just a one-trick-pony vegetable.”

That last option would please Thomas, who won’t eat beef stew unless it’s got some rutabaga in it. “To me, it’s like adding salt and pepper,” he said.

Ben Hasty, chef/owner of Thistle Pig restaurant in South Berwick, hated rutabaga as a child. “I thought it was just the nastiest thing in the world,” he said. “Typically I only saw it around Thanksgiving or Christmastime. My grandmother would boil it and mash it, and I was like ‘I don’t understand why people would eat this.’ ”

A “luxurious, delicious” rutabaga bisque he ate at Hugo’s in Portland, when James Beard Award-winning chef Rob Evans owned the restaurant, changed his mind.  It inspired him to create his own rutabaga bisque with cider, brown butter and curry, which was on and off his menu for years.

A vegan version of Hasty’s bisque – with lots of spices but no brown butter – is  the only dish from Thistle Pig that his family has requested he make for special occasions. When Hasty’s uncle died, the chef made the bisque for a family gathering. “Everybody absolutely loved it,” he said. “Everyone was kind of taking comfort and consolation in the soup.”

Ben Hasty’s rutabaga bisque. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer) Buy this Photo

Later, when his grandmother died, the family said, “We’ve got to have that soup again,” Hasty recalled. “Nana loved that soup.”

As a chef, Hasty learned how to tame what he calls that “peppery flavor” of rutabaga — roasting it to add caramelization, adding it to a boiled dinner so it can absorb that meaty flavor — and bring out the best in the vegetable. He includes it in a roasted vegetable mix he uses as a workhorse in a lot of dishes, from omelets to roast chicken, and he once added rutabaga to a root vegetable risotto.

“It’s grabbing onto what a rutabaga can be, instead of being that hard, rough, coarse flavor,” he said. “It can be something sublime.”

Ben Hasty, chef at Thistle Pig restaurant purees rutabaga for his bisque. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

WARM SPICED RUTABAGA BISQUE

Chef Ben Hasty of Thistle Pig says this vegan version of his rutabaga bisque is a family favorite. Serve it with crispy fried vegetables or greens, grilled bread or grilled cheese.
Serves 12

2 large rutabaga, peeled and diced
1 medium onion, peeled and diced
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger root

2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground clove
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
6-8 cups apple cider
1 tablespoon kosher salt

Sweat the rutabaga, onion and ginger in the olive oil for 5 minutes over medium heat in a stainless steel pot or Dutch oven. Add the spices to the pot. Continue to cook over medium heat for another 5-10 minutes until the onion is translucent, stirring occasionally.

Add 6 cups of the cider and the salt to the pot. Bring the mixture to a simmer and cook uncovered for 30-45 minutes until the rutabaga is tender.

Transfer the mixture to a blender and puree until smooth. If more liquid is needed to make the blades spin and produce a smooth texture, add the reserved apple cider.

Taste and adjust seasoning— you might need more salt. Gently reheat if necessary, then serve.

 

Barbara Ross’ yellow turnips – or rutabagas – are a staple on her Thanksgiving table.

BARBARA ROSS’ YELLOW TURNIPS

Rutabagas go by several names, among them yellow turnips, which is what Maine mystery writer Barbara Ross’ grandmother called them. This recipe serves six to eight but will go further on a Thanksgiving table, Ross says. Ross uses 1/4 cup sugar, though her grandmother’s recipe offers only this note for the amount of sugar: “It depends on the turnips.”
Serves 6 to 8

1 turnip, 2-3 pounds, peeled and cut into chunks
1 large potato, peeled and cut into chunks
2 large onions, cut up
1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
3-4 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon flour

Sugar, to taste

Pepper, to taste

Put the vegetables in a pot and cover with water. Add the salt and cook on a low boil for 40 minutes or until soft.

Reserve 1 cup of the turnip water before discarding the rest.

Mash the vegetables using a potato masher. Make sure no chunks remain.

In a small frying pan, melt 3 or 4 tablespoons of the butter. Add 1 tablespoon flour, stirring quickly. Continue stirring and cooking for several minutes to cook out the floury taste. Gradually add enough of the turnip water to make a roux. The roux will be thick and bubbly. If it breaks up, add more water and cook down while stirring.

Thoroughly combine the roux with the turnips.

Add sugar, salt and pepper to taste.

 

RUTABAGA–VANILLA BEAN PUREE

In her cookbook “The Lost Kitchen” (Clarkson Potter 2017), chef Erin French pairs this puree with cod. It can be made ahead and reheated in a double boiler.

1 rutabaga, or 2 or 3 white turnips, 1 ½ to 2 pounds, roughly chopped
Salt and pepper
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and scraped
1/3 cup heavy cream

Put the rutabaga in a medium saucepan with just enough cold water to cover, season with salt and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat so that the water simmers, and cook the rutabaga until fork-tender, 10 to 12 minutes.

Drain the rutabaga and transfer it to a food processor. Add the butter and vanilla bean seeds. While the food processor is running, slowly pour in the cream and continue processing until smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Comments are not available on this story.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.