Why You Should Love Turnips and Rutabagas

Turnips and rutabagas are often overlooked root vegetables. While the turnip boasts a subtle sweetness, the rutabaga, likely a turnip-cabbage hybrid, is larger and even sweeter. Despite its awkward appearance, the rutabaga shines in its own way.

Why You Should Love Turnips and Rutabagas
A pile of freshly harvested turnips, their pale bodies tinged with vibrant purple.

The produce aisle, with its eye-catching colors and textures, can be a stage of hidden intrigue. Underneath the commonplace carrots and demure potatoes lies a world of unacknowledged characters, the supporting cast that rarely gets the limelight. Two such root vegetables hold court amongst these misunderstood stars of the soil: the turnip and its awkward progeny, the rutabaga.

If the turnip is the shy wallflower, a little plain but quietly sweet, the rutabaga is its clumsy cousin—heartier, somewhat sweeter, but alas, possessed of a less than desirable appearance. The rutabaga, some might say, is a Frankensteinian creation; a root vegetable mashed together in the shadowy backrooms of genetic tinkering. Mother Nature, so it seems, was the tinkering scientist.

Let's begin with the elder of the two, the turnip. There's something almost charming about the bulbous turnip with its pale, white body and the slightest flourish of vibrant purple at its crown. It possesses a subtle radish-like bite, tempered by tender flesh and an underlying, almost floral sweetness.

For centuries, this root vegetable was a staple, not an afterthought. Turnips graced the tables of Roman emperors and European peasants alike, a humble yet satisfying offering from the cool, forgiving earth. Its leaves, with their own peppery complexity, were devoured just as eagerly. Yet, somewhere along the line, the turnip started fading from popularity. It wasn't flashy or exotic enough; perhaps in a world bombarded with a cacophony of flavors, its gentle voice was lost.

Then there's the rutabaga. No one can deny it has a face only a mother, or perhaps a curious botanist, could love. This vegetable, a suspected cross between a turnip and a cabbage, boasts a yellowish, somewhat warty exterior that hides a sunshine-hued flesh within. Its size is imposing, often much larger than its turnip ancestor. But what it lacks in looks, it compensates for in versatility and a surprisingly mellow sweetness.

In 1935, Woo Jang-Choon, a Korean-Japanese botanist, theorized about the rutabaga's origin. He proposed that somewhere during the fog-soaked 18th century, a turnip, and a cabbage engaged in an unlikely cross-pollination. This blind date, seemingly orchestrated by the fickle hand of Nature, resulted in what we now know as the rutabaga. It's the red-headed stepchild of vegetables—somewhat improper, yet possessing a unique and intriguing flavor.

A cross-section of a rutabaga, showcasing its yellow interior and textured, yellowish skin.
A halved rutabaga reveals its bright yellow flesh and slightly dimpled skin.

Culinary Underdogs

Turnips and rutabagas are unlikely culinary exemplars. They linger in farmers' markets, often passed over in favor of their more glamorous brethren. Yet, beneath their unassuming exteriors lies a depth of flavor and possibility. Roasted, the rutabaga's flesh transforms into a starchy, melt-in-your-mouth side dish. The turnip crisps beautifully when fried, its subtle bite turning into a tangy sweetness. Both roots make their way into soul-warming stews and soups, grounding flavors and adding a richness born from the earth.

Perhaps it's time for the turnip and rutabaga to make a comeback. To appreciate them is to connect to a culinary lineage that stretches back millennia. It's about favoring the oddball, the unassuming—the beauty hidden in the most unlikely of places. After all, as the adage goes, one should never judge a root vegetable by its cover.

In-text Citation: (Collins, 2012, p. 30)