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The rutabaga is a root vegetable which is often confused with a turnip, because it resembles an over sized turnip. While related, the two vegetables are actually entirely different. Rutabagas are popular in Northern European countries, because they do well in cold weather, leading to their alternate name, the “Swedish turnip.” In nations where turnips are not widely cultivated, the rutabaga is also sometimes called a turnip, which can lead to some confusion.
The root of a rutabaga is bulbous and yellow in color. Both the skin and the flesh are yellow, and the plant also has an array of leafy greens which are fully edible. Rutabaga greens are typically eaten like spinach, although they are sometimes mashed together with boiled rutabaga roots. The tuber is a good source of vitamin C and fiber, and has also historically been used as a food crop for animals. The greens can also be used as a foraging cover crop for animals, since rutabagas can grow year round if they are well cared for.
Numerous preparations are used for the rutabaga. It is generally eaten in a cooked form, although some people add chopped raw rutabaga to salads. One of the most traditional preparations is in a mash with potatoes, butter, and cream, a dish made in both Scotland and Scandinavia. It can also be roasted with other root vegetables, boiled, or baked. Younger rutabagas will be more flavorful and less starchy than older tubers.
When selecting rutabagas from the store, look for firm, evenly colored specimens with crisp greens, if the greens are still attached. They can be stored in a root cellar or under refrigeration for approximately two weeks in a plastic bag. Older specimens should be peeled before cooking, as the peel can sometimes be woody and bitter. Keep rutabagas away from apples and bananas, both of which emit ethylene gas, which can give the rutabagas a bitter flavor.
The hardiness of the rutabaga makes it a good choice for Northern gardens. They take longer to mature than turnips, and can be grown directly from seed in the ground, or from seedlings in very cold environments. In either instance, the rutabaga seedlings or seeds should be planted in moist, loose soil, and then watered periodically. Like many other root vegetables, the rutabaga can grow woody and bitter if exposed to sunlight while it grows, so make sure that your rutabagas are fully covered and well spaced as they grow.