Food & Drink

Weekend Gourmet: Rutabagas that will make your sister cry

Fred Thompson shares his recipe for Mama’s Mashed Rutabagas.
Fred Thompson shares his recipe for Mama’s Mashed Rutabagas.

I made my sister cry on Thanksgiving. Yep, brought her to tears. No, it wasn’t one of those family debacles that can arise when you put too many relatives in one room. Her tears were all about our mother and the search to duplicate her mashed rutabagas recipe.

Last Thanksgiving, Robin reminded me of Mom’s rutabagas: “She cut them up and I think cooked them with fatback and then would slice the meat up and put it on top of the rutabagas. They were sooo good, you must remember them. Can’t you make them happen?”

What’s a big brother to do? Of course I took up the challenge.

When I was in culinary school in Hyde Park, N.Y., the first vegetable we worked with was a rutabaga, or as they called them “yellow turnips.” (Now you know what’s in that frozen package called yellow turnips in the grocery store.) I think we started with rutabagas because they are so impossible to work with. We pan-steamed the rutabagas until the water went away, threw in some butter and gave them a quick pan roast, before drizzling them with maple syrup and a handful of chopped chives. They were pretty darn good, but not for my sister.

I love this cross between a turnip and a cabbage with its sweet-bitter essence and a little taste of the dirt it was grown in. Mother only fixed them around the holidays. I never understood why we didn’t have them more often. I do now. It’s called arthritic hands and a hard vegetable that wants to fight back every step of the way.

I’ve learned a hack that makes rutabagas as tame as an apple. While sitting recently in the barber chair, where the discussion is always about food while North Raleigh barber Frank Cutler snips my hair, rutabagas came up.

“I love them, but they are a beast to work with,” Cutler stated. “But wait, I heard about a trick. Diane!” he yelled to an associate in the shop. “What was that microwave trick you were talking about?”

The trick is simple: For an average-sized rutabaga, microwave it on high for four minutes. Cutler texted me that weekend from his river house excited that not only did this make the rutabaga easier to peel, but also to cut. I tried it the next week. It worked like a charm!

Now the rest of the recipe became effortless. Mom used streak-o-lean or side meat to season when not using a ham hock, which was pretty much held for seasoning greens. She would boil the meat in water for about 15 to 20 minutes, sort of making a pot liquor, and then add cubed rutabagas.

So why in December would I give you this recipe? That standing rib roast or whole tenderloin, the goose or the duck that might be your traditional Christmas dinner will be improved with the addition of these rutabagas. And that brisket for Hanukkah desires some Southern sides. Serve them with that corned beef brisket for St. Patrick’s Day too.

My sister’s tears reminded me that it’s important to keep the recipes of the past. Don’t let your family favorites and the ones that give you joy fade away. Thanks for reading this year and Happy Holidays!

Fred Thompson is a Raleigh cookbook author and publisher of Edible Piedmont magazine. His latest cookbook is “The Kamado Grill Cookbook.” Reach him at

Mama’s Mashed Rutabagas

About 1/2 pound side meat

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 average-sized rutabagas

1/2 to 1 teaspoon granulated sugar

4 tablespoons butter

Place the side meat in a pot with enough water to cover the meat. Allow to come to a boil, and boil for about 15 minutes. The water will cook out, so it might be necessary to add more during cooking.

Microwave the rutabagas, one at the time for 4 minutes. Larger ones will take an extra minute or two. Peel rutabagas and cut into chunks. Add the rutabaga to the meat and add more water if needed. Add the sugar, salt and pepper. Cover the pot and cook until tender, about 45 minutes. When done remove some water from the pot and the side meat. Mash, add the butter and season to taste. Slice the side meat and serve with the rutabagas.

Yield: 4-6 servings.