When wind bites, it's time to bite into rutabagas

December 14, 2005|By ROB KASPER

As I reached down to grab the bag of vegetables, a sharp wind stung my face, reminding me that it was time to cook the rutabagas.

The rutabagas had been on the back porch for two weeks after I carried them home from the Sunday Baltimore Farmers' Market. Scott Williams, who presides over the Gardener's Gourmet vegetable stand there, had foisted them on me. I had requested a bag of spinach leaves but Scott, who along with his wife, Cinda Sebastian, grows crops on a Carroll County farm, presented me with four rutabagas as well.

"These are good," he said.

I knew enough not to disagree. Buying produce from Scott is part vegetable, part vaudeville. As he stuffs bags full of greens, he often tells me of his latest adventures.

Some are fish stories, tales of his Chesapeake Bay rendezvous with "Capt'n" Buddy Harrison on Tilghman Island. Some are culinary; having once been a restaurant cook, he passes along cooking tips. All his stories are entertaining, like his tale of how one of his fellow farmers once chased down and tackled a miscreant who had tried to run away with the farmer's cash box.

If he doesn't have a vegetable I am looking for, he will tell me where to find it. He is my personal vegetable shopper.

He was operating in that role when he presented me with the rutabagas, big ones, with their green tops still attached. Only tough customers and hearty vegetables make it through the winter, he said, reminding me that while the Sunday-morning market in downtown Baltimore folds up Dec. 18, the Saturday-morning market near 32nd and Barclay streets, keeps going all year, even in the cold.

The day I bought the rutabagas was warm and sunny. As I carried them home, their leafy tops caught the attention of some football fans who had parked their cars near the light rail stop on Mount Royal Avenue. They were waiting to catch a train down to M&T Bank Stadium for the game between the Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers, one of the few the Ravens would win.

"What's that?" a fellow clad in a Ravens jacket asked me, pointing to the greens protruding from my bag. "Rutabaga," I told him. "Right from the ground?" he asked.

"Almost," I replied. "Right from the farmers' market."

There still was a little Carroll County on the rutabagas, specks of soil, when I finally got around to using them two weeks later.

There were two reasons, one logistical, one psychological, for my delay in getting to the rutabagas. I had forgotten I had them. I had stashed them out of the way on the back porch. Out of sight, out of the running for the evening menu. Then, while clearing off the porch in preparation for the first snowfall of the season, I was reunited with rutabaga.

Secondly, whether I was conscious of it or not, I was waiting for the weather to turn colder. Winter, after all, is the season for root vegetables. Even though the official start of winter, Dec. 21, was still a few weeks away, the bite in the wind told me it was rutabaga's moment.

As it grew darker and colder outside, the interior of the house grew more appealing. One of the good things about winter, perhaps the only one, is that it brings out the contrast between a warm, welcoming kitchen and the cold, forbidding outdoors. Before heading inside, I snipped off the now-wilted green tops of the rutabagas, leaving four softball-size roots.

Rutabagas sold in the grocery stores are often covered with wax as a way to prolong the vegetable's shelf life and prevent dehydration. But these rutabagas, covered only with a few clogs of dirt, still felt heavy and moist.

A pot of salted water worked its way toward a boil as I peeled the rutabagas, cutting them into 1-inch cubes. I tasted as I peeled, and the chunks of raw rutabagas reminded me of turnips.

My mother made a nice rutabaga dish, mashing the vegetable by hand and adding a little sugar, salt and butter.

I tried cooking the rutabagas with thyme and cream, an approach I found in Lydie Marshall's new cookbook, Slow-Cooked Comfort. Even though the recipe called for a bold move on my part - sprinkling thyme on rutabagas - I was confident that a Lydie Marshall dish would deliver solid flavor. I was right.

After softening the pieces of rutabagas by boiling them in salted water, I drained them, tossed in the thyme and braised them by cooking them a bit longer in a closed pot with a little water. I was supposed to add 1/4 cup of cream then. I missed that step but recovered later by stirring the cream in a minute or two before serving them.

The result was remarkable: a blend of the distinctive rutabaga flavor and creamy texture, with the thyme providing a slight, pleasing tang.

At dinner that night, I had several helpings. I told myself I was fattening up on comfort foods as a way to weather a cold winter. Sure enough, the next night, it started snowing.

rob.kasper@baltsun.com

Braised rutabaga

Serves 6

3 pounds rutabagas, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes

4 tablespoons butter

1 cup thinly sliced onions

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1/4 cup cream

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