When I first heard the lyrics, I thought it was an old folk song, maybe written by Woody Guthrie…
He put gold in the ground;
He turned the water into wine…
But no, it was the voice of Mary Kay Place, best known as appearing as Meg in the movie The Big Chill and for her lively role as Loretta Haggers on the old TV show, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.
To our American ancestors, root vegetables surely did seem like “gold from the ground” in winter. When the weather was fiercely cold, animals too scarce to kill for food, and purchasable supplies running low, a family always could rely on their winter store of root vegetables.
Rutabaga is one of them. I’m surprised at the number of people who have never tasted a rutabaga, think it’s a “large turnip” or think it’s bitter. The yellow flesh has a delicate lightness, reminiscent of artichoke, perhaps a faint hint of turnip. It is a firmer vegetable than many, and requires longer cooking if you want your vegetables spoon-soft. But it can still be fully cooked and have a bit of nice crunch.
This dish contrasts the texture of rutabaga with the softness of sweet potato, and also has a crisp/sweet contrast. I don’t like to heavily flavor good organic vegetables, since they have a natural harmonious taste that need not compete with seasoning.
Here I added chestnuts as an enhancer. I like chestnuts and enjoy serving them because many people have never even eaten them. They mistakenly think they’re hard like other tree nuts; they’re soft. People also think they will have the same nutty taste as peanuts or cashews. They don’t. It’s a subtle nut-like flavor.
Everyone knows the song lyric “chestnuts roasting on an open fire…” but don’t realize that the American chestnut tree was almost extinct by 1950, with only 50-100 trees left. If you can’t find chestnuts at your local store (check the kosher section if you have one), you can order them online at Allen Creek Farm, a family-owned farm in Washington started by city-escapers like so many of the readers here. I don’t recommend you peel chestnuts yourself, unless you have lots of time and patience. I did it once and that’s it.
Rutabaga-Sweet Potato Hash
2 rutabagas, peeled and chopped (about 3 cups)
3 sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped (about 3 cups)
½ teaspoon salt (with boiling water)
½ cup peeled and roasted chestnuts
¼ cup olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano (or 1 tablespoon dried)
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Fill a large saucepan with approximately 3 quarts of water, add ½ teaspoon salt, and bring to a boil. Add rutabagas and return to a boil. Cook 10 minutes. Add sweet potatoes and cook 5 minutes more. Drain rutabagas and sweet potatoes in a colander, rinse with cold water, and let rest for 5 minutes.
In a large bowl, combine rutabagas, sweet potatoes, chestnuts, olive oil, oregano, salt and pepper. Stir until all is coated. Spread in one layer on a large baking sheet and place in center rack of oven for 20 minutes. Remove and serve.