If there are two things Charleen Badman does well — there are a lot of things, actually — but if one were to name two, “simple” and “vegetarian” would assuredly be at or near the top of the list. So it stands to reason that among the many outstanding dishes she produces in the tiny kitchen at FnB, an unassuming Gilfeather Rutabaga would be one of the most delightful. Looking like a squashed potato, tasting more like a mild carrot, and treated with a dollop of crème fraîche and a scattering of chives, it isn’t a sexy dish, but it’s delicious and it has a history.
As its almost Dickensian name might suggest, the heart and soul of the dish traces back quite a ways, to 1870 when John Gilfeather’s family bought a farm in Wardsboro, Vermont. It was there that they produced what the locals would come to lovingly refer to as the Gilfeather Turnip, though where it came from and whether it is properly a turnip or a rutabaga or some hybrid thereof still seems to be a matter of some debate. What’s undisputed is that it’s especially sweet and delicious, which is why Gilfeather was known to remove the tops and bottoms before selling them at market in an attempt to keep others from producing them as well. If that stopped anyone, you wouldn’t know it from the ubiquity with which they’re currently farmed in their hometown. If Wardsboro, population 900, sounds like the kind of place that would hold an annual turnip festival, well… yeah, they do. And it would seem that the festival, now entering its 12th year, has helped propel the hearty root to national prominence.
Here’s where Charleen, who has a nose for vegetables, enters the picture. Having read about the rutabaga in New York Magazine, she picked some up at the Green Market while visiting NYC. Naturally, anybody who geeks out on things like obscure heirloom rutabagas from small town Vermont has grower friends, so upon returning home, she asked Bob McClendon of McClendon’s Select Organic Farms if he thought he could grow them. As it turned out, they took quite well to the desert climate, and while they aren’t quite as gargantuan as their Vermont brethren, the flavor is outstanding. McClendon handles the growing, and once he delivers the rutabagas to FnB, some go on sale at FnB’s next door market, Bodega, and the rest go to Charleen.
It’s not a complex dish. As Pavle Milic, co-owner, front of house guru, and Charleen’s partner in crime puts it, the goal was to take an “ugly duckling” of a vegetable and let its inner beauty come out. In fact, depending on the size of the current crop, Charleen sometimes serves it as a playful impostor, sliced open on the top, fluffed with a fork, and looking like a baked potato with a dollop of sour cream and crisp onions. But more often, it’s first roasted like a beet, then lightly smooshed and transferred to a searing hot pan to caramelize the rutabaga’s sugars. After a quick trip in the oven, flipping it over reveals a deep golden crust. A dollop of crème fraîche that’s been mixed with ginger juice and strained goes on top, and a smattering of minced chives finishes the dish.
And it’s lovely — a humble, round-faced lady of a taproot with a creamy texture and a beguiling sweetness. The tender flesh is braced by just a little bit of crisp skin, and those who don’t routinely sample a wide variety of root vegetables might think the flavor positioned somewhere in between a potato and a mild carrot, but for a certain lusciousness and a gentle peppery bite all its own. The crème fraîche is thick and rich, almost like strained yogurt, and the fragrant lilt of ginger and heady pop of minced chives lift the flavor right out of the ground. It’s simple, charming, and comforting all at once — a venerated heirloom vegetable, treated with respect and restraint by a chef who best knows how.
FnB Restaurant is located at 7125 East 5th Avenue, in Scottsdale, Arizona 85251, tucked into a little courtyard just off the street, lounging behind a line of palm trees. Call them at 480-284-4777 if you have trouble finding the place, or if you just want to talk to Pavle, which you do, because he’s hilarious. While you’re there, try tons of vegetables, especially the grilled broccoli, lamb if it’s on the menu, anything potted at lunchtime… heck, anything on the menu, really. It’s all wonderful.