Rutabagas are often thought of as yellow turnips but actually bear the botanical name Brassica napus and belong to the highly prized family of cruciferous vegetables. The rutabaga, a relatively newcomer in the world of vegetables, is thought to have evolved from a cross between a wild cabbage and a turnip. The earliest records of rutabaga’s existence are from the seventeenth century in Southern Europe where they were first eaten as well as used for animal fodder. It’s curious that throughout history animals were often fed the healthiest foods, foods thought to be inappropriate for human consumption.
Because rutabagas thrive best in colder climates, they became popular in Scandinavia, but especially in Sweden, the country that earned them the name “swedes.” In Europe, rutabagas are still called swedes. In America, rutabagas were first cultivated in the northern parts of the country in the early 1800s. Canada and the northern states are today’s greatest producers of the rutabaga.
The rutabaga is a root vegetable that looks very much like a turnip with yellow-orange flesh and ridges at its neck. Although this beta carotene-rich vegetable has been grown and marketed in our country for nearly 200 years, it remains an uncommon food in American dining. It’s actually a great tasting vegetable with a delicate sweetness and flavor that hints of the light freshness of cabbage and turnip. With its easy preparation and versatility, great nutrition, and excellent flavor, the rutabaga can easily become an endearing family favorite.
Because rutabagas store so well, up to one month in the refrigerator and up to four months in commercial storage at 32 degrees, they are available year round. Planted in May and June, they’re harvested in late summer and early fall when their flavor is at its peak. Ideally, it’s best to shop for fresh rutabagas at farmer’s markets in early autumn.