If you happen to be Trick-or-Treating in Scotland anytime soon, you may be in for a surprise. Though the American advent of Jack-o-Lanterns has caught on in more recent years, many Scots will still display their own traditional vegetable carvings, the Tumshie Head. Being a more common vegetable in the austere northern regions of Britain, Germany, and Scandinavia, the Rutabaga has been displayed in the form of a carved head in order to ward off evil spirits in Scotland on Halloween for centuries. The earthen and drab hues of the over-sized roots lend a more sinister appearance than the bright orange colors of our Yankee pumpkins, and I imagine they do a better job scaring spirits and children alike.
Just because a vegetable is ubiquitous in cuisine doesn’t make it popular, and perhaps it is through disdain for the common rutabaga (or “swede” as it is called in Great Britain and Ireland) that it was deemed appropriate for the task of exorcising neighborhoods and homesteads of all kinds of demonic activities. In Western Europe, there is still a strong connotation of scarcity associated with rutabagas and turnips due to the scarcity of food during the Great War.
All of this begs the question, what is a rutabaga anyway and why is it so prolific in the cuisine of many northern climates? The answer to the first part is at once a bit confusing and yet quite simple. They belong to the grand family of vegetables that includes cabbage, broccoli, turnips, kale, Brussels sprouts, and even horseradish. They begin to show up in the taxonomic record as a subspecies of Brassica rapa (turnips) in the 18th century, most likely due to a hybridization between turnips and Brassica oleracea (cabbage). They now hold their own taxonomic classification as a distinct species, Brassica napobrassica. As for their etymology, the name stems from their Swedish name, rotabagge (literally, “root bag”). They are adapted to colder climates, not necessarily because they grow better their, but because they are a great storage crop. Rutabagas will store for six to eight months in the right conditions, and therefore are much more common in Nordic and Scottish dishes.
When cooking rutabaga, think transitively. They will cook like almost any root vegetable in your repertoire, so either dice them and add them to roasted root medleys, or use them as an addendum to mashed potatoes for an added burst of flavor. Use them in a root vegetable gratin, or try spiralizing them or shaving them to make hashbrowns or latkes. They pair really well with grilled meat, but their powerful sweet and semi-bitter flavor will overpower delicate fish and shellfish. They are great in crock pot beef or lamb stews, and will bolster the chopped vegetables you throw into the pan with your roast chicken. If you want to be really adventurous, try mixing them in with your sauerkraut or kimchi and see what happens. I make a sauerkraut from pure rutabaga, and I think it’s wonderful, strong, and unique.
When storing rutabagas, just keep them in your refrigerator. They will like the temperature, but because regular refrigeration units are so dry, they will not last as long as they would in a root cellar with a higher humidity. They should however, keep for at least a month in your home fridge, and if you have access to a root cellar, you’ll be set for the whole winter!