They’re definitely not a glamorous holiday vegetable, but there they were, a box of 20-some rutabagas sitting on my porch, where the mail carrier dropped them beyond the snow just after Thanksgiving. Lucky me, and I mean it!
They were a gift from Charleen Badman, one of my favorite chefs. Her restaurant is FnB in Scottsdale, Ariz., and it was during a recent visit there that I was introduced at last to the Gilfeather rutabaga — a vegetable I had known about since it was boarded on the Slow Food Ark of Taste years ago but had never seen until then.
I met the farmer who was growing them the Friday before Thanksgiving, and Badman served them at a luncheon she made the next day, adding them to a menu based on recipes from my cookbook “Vegetable Literacy.” It was a week later that the enormous box of rutabagas arrived on my doorstep.
Gilfeather rutabagas a tasty treat no matter how they are prepared
What to do with them? Could they possibly be my holiday vegetable? I lay awake at night wondering, then during the day made a soup, then a ragout. But I kept thinking about what Badman did with her rutabagas, something that yielded a handsome heart-shaped golden slab. Working out my version of her dish, I steamed the roots whole until they could be pierced with a sharp knife, let them cool, then sliced away the skins.
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Unlike the yellow-fleshed rutabagas we are mostly familiar with, Gilfeather rutabagas (also called, though incorrectly, a Gilfeather turnip) are white skinned and fleshed, so what I ended up holding in my hand to peel was a large, pale-skinned tuber. (Unlike turnips, they have a long root and two bands where rootlets appear running down their sides.) I sliced it lengthwise about a half-inch thick, then heated up a grill pan and brushed it with butter mixed with sesame oil.
I cooked the slabs over low heat until they were well marked, then I turned them to make marks in the other direction, flipped them and did the same on the second side. They started to color up due to their sugars caramelizing, and they were tender and surprisingly mild tasting. My husband and I had them for breakfast and found them to be almost sweet except for the blast of horseradish mixed with sour cream I added as a topping, which is truly great here. Indeed these became the appetizer for one holiday meal.
But I was curious — what other seasonings would work with this vegetable? I tried dark sesame oil, ghee, Aleppo pepper, smoked paprika, minced celery leaves, smoked salt, Maldon sea salt, isot pepper flakes from Turkey and dried oregano. They were all good — I’d go with any of them any day and I have. But I have to say that the grilled rutabagas were especially good with the leftover juices from the Christmas short ribs — a slick and shiny dark puddle of sauce under the white and gold heart-shaped vegetables.
I also turned to our more familiar variety of rutabagas, those with the purple tops and yellow flesh. They aren’t all that different — perhaps somewhat less mild than the Gilfeather — but the color is luscious and distinctly appealing.
Gilfeather rutabagas are named for Vermont farmer John Gilfeather, who grew them in the early 1900s. To protect his vegetable/product, to which he gave his name and the odd choice of the word turnip, he trimmed away the long roots and the top matter so no one could possibly propagate them. Eventually, others did figure it out. Today, if you want to grow them, you can look for the seeds at Fedco Seed Company, also in Vermont. If you do grow them and have the chance to leave them in the ground until after a good frost, you’ll be rewarded with extra delicacy and sweetness.
Top photo: A Gilfeather rutabaga before and after being cooked. Credit: Deborah Madison