Of Neeps and Tam o’ Shanter

The two men were down in my basement switching out the underground line between oil tank and furnace for a line that would run overhead. They talked nonstop as they worked with their power tools, the conversation about kids, wives, and work schedules punctuated with the ring of metal on cement as one piece of equipment was dropped and exchanged for another. Every few minutes the dog would bark her head off, making sure I knew there were strangers making strange noises in her house.

This is an old drafty house, and a small one. Voices travel through floors. Noise made at one end can be heard at the other because the two ends just aren’t that far from each other. For three hours man and watchdog did their work; in the three hours of commotion I struggled to complete mine. Eventually I gave up the writing and headed into the kitchen instead.

Luckily I was prepared to do a few hours’ worth of cooking.

January 25 marks the 253rd anniversary of the birth of Scottish poet and lyricist (Auld Lang Syne) Robert Burns, and in the days before and after the 25th Burns revelers celebrate the occasion with speeches, Scotch whisky, bagpipers, whisky, men in tartan kilts making toasts, more whisky, hearty singing and the reciting of Burns’ long narrative poem Tam o’ Shanter, inevitably followed by a little more whisky. The highlight of the celebration is the ceremonial presentation of the haggis “pudding” (a sausage of chopped sheep’s heart, liver, and lungs stuffed into sheep’s stomach casing and simmered) along with its sides of mashed potato and neeps – the Scots name for what we know as rutabaga or yellow turnip.

One January about a baker’s dozen years ago, I had the good fortune to attend a formal Burns Night Supper. This year, I thought it would be fun to do a little homage meal at home minus the haggis (that one taste years ago will last this girl a lifetime), the kilts, the pipers, and the many shots of whisky, and instead highlighting the neeps. And perhaps a poem or two.

Rutabaga is most often served mashed with either a little butter or cream and salt and pepper. The vegetable is delicious this way, and mashed rutabaga is a great alternative to mashed potatoes alongside roast chicken. In the winter I also like to substitute cubes of rutabaga for potatoes in soups, stews, and pot roasts. A member of the brassica family, rutabaga holds the same sharp earthy aroma of fresh horseradish or broccoli, but can be both peppery and sweet when cooked. It’s just much more interesting than potatoes.

Knowing that rutabaga can replace potatoes so nicely, I decided to give it a try in a potatoes Anna-style dish. That classic involves making layers of overlapped thin slices of potatoes, drenching these in lots of butter, and baking the creation to form a crispy edged sort of cake. Saveur magazine featured a version of this using white turnip slices. Using much less butter and adding fresh thyme, I tried mine with the yellow turnip and served it with braised short ribs carbonnade à la flamande (Belgian style, braised in dark beer with onions). Try it, though, as a base for any stew, ragout of mushrooms and greens, or any main course that you like.

A mandoline works well for making thin uniform slices, as does a food processor fitted with a very thin slicing blade.

Rutabaga Galette

  • 1 medium rutabaga (yellow turnip)
  • 2 Tbsp. softened butter
  • 4 sprigs of fresh thyme
  • salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Quarter the rutabaga and peel it.

Cut each quarter into half again. Slice the rutabaga pieces into very thin slices using mandoline or food processor. Set aside.

Prepare two 9-inch glass pie plates. Using 1 1/2 Tbsp. of soft butter, generously butter the inside bottom and sides of one of the dishes. Strip the thyme leaves from two of the sprigs and sprinkle these on top of the butter in the dish.

Layer the slices of rutabaga in the dish, slightly overlapping individual slices in each layer. Continue building up layers in this way until you reach just about to the top of the baking dish.

Sprinkle the top of the cake with the thyme leaves from the remaining two sprigs. Salt and pepper the rutabaga generously.

Using the remaining half tablespoon of butter, butter the outside bottom of the second pie plate. Fit this second dish on top of the first pie plate filled with layers of rutabaga to weight the vegetable layers down. Place the dishes into the preheated oven and bake for 1 1/2 hours. Remove the top pie plate.

Place a serving plate over the top of the baking dish and invert the cake onto the plate.

Cut into wedges when hot and serve as desired.

©2012  Jane A. Ward