Among the many reasons for admiring Julia Child are her sensible observations about the privacy of the kitchen. From her I learned that the broken cake or tart that refused to slip smoothly out of the pan will look fine and taste great once it is frosted or covered with plenty of whipped cream.
When half of something she was flipping in the skillet ended up on the range top, she simply used a spatula to scrape things back into the pan and observed, “Who’s to know?” It was Julia who taught me that things like crepes have both a public and private side.
Most of all I learned that the cook’s job is to make food that looks inviting and tastes good, not to explain exactly what goes into it. For instance, if the chef told you that the eggplant Parmesan on your plate was made with raw cow’s milk you might think twice about eating it, even though he was assuring you that he used genuine Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese in the recipe.
Perhaps this explains why there are so many secret recipes: We all have prejudices about food that can interfere with our enjoying some wonderful dishes. Take rutabagas as an example.
It is hard for me to understand how people can reach adulthood without learning to love rutabagas. That’s probably because I grew up in northern Wisconsin, prime country for raising rutabagas. Cumberland, Wisconsin, just an hour’s drive north of New Richmond, celebrates the harvest of this vegetable with a Rutabaga Festival each August. You might want to mark your calendar for the weekend of August 21st this year.
My guess is that someone who grew up in Alabama might wonder why I don’t swoon over boiled peanuts. Or why I don’t dream of rattlesnake steaks broiled over Texas mesquite when I am longing for some comfort food like Mom used to make.
My mother hated all snakes and killed them when she could. She had read the Bible and knew that snakes were her enemy. That probably explains why I don’t miss rattlesnake on a menu. The fact that rattlesnakes are not found very far north in Wisconsin might also be a factor, though I remember her shooting a large pine snake that could have fed the family for a day or two.
On the other hand, rutabagas grow like weeds up here. When my father was a boy, my grandfather planted a couple of acres of rutabagas every year. Grandma Rang cooked them for the family and Grandpa chopped them up and fed them to the cows in winter. Dad said the cows really liked them.
My mother put rutabagas in soups, mashed them with potatoes and boiled them like carrots. I don’t remember rutabaga pie, but it’s possible that she simply didn’t tell us what was in that slice on our plates.
Which brings me back to Smoked Sausage Soup and Julia Child’s admonition, “Who’s to know?” because the secret ingredient in this soup is a rutabaga.
1/2 lb. smoked sausage
1 small rutabaga
2 medium carrots
2 medium potatoes
1/2 small onion
4 beef bouillon cubes
4 1/4 cups cold water, divided
2 tsp. cornstarch
1/8 tsp. brown gravy sauce (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
Peel the rutabaga and potatoes and cut them into about a three-quarter inch dice. Clean and chop the carrots into half-inch pieces. Peel and coarsely chop the onion. You should have about one and one-half cups each of rutabaga and potato and one-half to three-quarter cup each of chopped carrot and onion.
Put the vegetables into a three quart saucepan along with a quart of cold water, four beef bouillon cubes and a dash of freshly ground black pepper. Bring the soup to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer partially covered for about twenty minutes. Cut the sausage crosswise into half inch slices and add them to the soup. While the soup is coming back to a simmer, dissolve the cornstarch in a quarter cup of cold water. Add the cornstarch to the soup and cook for three or four minutes.
If the broth looks too pale, add a few drops of brown gravy sauce at this time.
Taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve the soup by itself or with a salad and sandwiches. If you wish, garnish each serving with some chopped parsley.
NOTES: This recipe makes five generous servings, but you can easily increase the recipe. One simple way is to use the whole ring of sausage, an extra cup of water and one more bouillon cube to make eight servings.
When I use thin-skinned potatoes to make this soup, I just scrub them well. If you have someone in your family who you think might object to eating rutabaga, peel the potatoes. That way, if someone asks, “What is this?” you can say, “Maybe a piece of potato?”
Who’s to know?