As an 8-year-old schoolgirl in England, it wasn’t unusual to see a fellow pupil at lunchtime having a standoff with a plate of food. You’ll stay there till you’ve finished that, we were told. And so we would. And not infrequently, I’d walk past the dining room at 4 in the afternoon to see another small girl still crying at a slice of corned beef or a bowl of pink, wobbly blancmange.
My own arch nemesis in the school dining room (other than cabbage) was the swede. It was served alongside a ladleful of gristly meat in gravy; a mashed, pale, watery blob that deserved nothing more than to be slid off its plate and into the bin.
It seems that the swede (or neep, or rutabaga, or Steckrübe), a smooth, round, beige and purple root similar to the turnip, isn’t particularly popular with the Germans either. I don’t remember ever having seen it on a menu here in Germany, and when I brought one home from the market a couple of weeks ago, my husband looked utterly dismayed. He told me that the humble swede is widely considered to be “poor people’s food”, generally equated with animal fodder, a reputation that came about during the first world war when trade routes were blocked and, thanks to a particularly harsh winter, the potato crops failed. Both then, and then again after the second world war, swede was pretty much all there was to survive on, so it’s hardly surprising that even today, there’s an association in the collective consciousness of the German people of swede as the survival food of the poor, and a foodstuff not worth bothering with.
With neither my husband nor myself being enthusiastic about eating it, you’d might be wondering how I came about cooking a swede soup – and loving it. Enter Nadia Hassani, a German who emigrated to the US almost 20 years ago and the author of a cookbook, Spoonfuls of Germany, in which she shares her favourite German recipes and explores regional German cuisine. Nadia’s book shares its name with her cooking blog, where she continues to dish up traditional German recipes and talk about their history. In addition to being a passionate cook, Nadia is also an enthusiastic gardener (she blogs about that, too) and grows many of the ingredients she uses in the kitchen.
Another devotee to cooking with fresh, seasonal fruit and vegetables, Nadia wrote to me to suggest that we do a recipe swap, trying out classic German dishes from one another’s websites. Her cream of swede soup (Steckrübecremesuppe) looked both simple and delicious – not to mention just the ticket in this miserable weather – and embracing the opportunity to try something new, I thought it was time to give the humble swede another chance. And I’m very glad I did.
Nadia’s soup is a thick, filling winter’s dish with a slightly nutty, celeriac-like flavour, and it provided some much-needed warmth and sustenance on a cold, grey day. My adaptation of her recipe is below; and Nadia chose to make my pork with wild mushrooms, which she’s shared on her Spoonfuls of Germany blog.
In Germany, swede season runs from around October to February, so if you fancy it (and even if you don’t), now’s the time to give this soup a go. I, for one, am totally sold on eating animal fodder.
Roasted swede soup
Ingredients (serves 4, very generously)
750g swede, trimmed, peeled and chopped into 2.5cm dice
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 tsp chopped fresh thyme leaves (or a third of a teaspoon of dried)
1.5l hot vegetable stock
White wine vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat your oven to 200˚c. Spread the chopped swede in a roasting dish, drizzle with 2 tablespoons of the oil, season liberally with salt and pepper and mix well. Roast for 25 to 30 minutes, turning once or twice, until the swede is soft and start to brown at the edges.
Heat the remaining oil in a large, deep saucepan and add the onion, carrots, celery, garlic and thyme. Cook on a medium heat, stirring from time to time, until they begin to soften, but not colour. Add the swede, give everything a good stir, and then add the stock and bring to the boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover and cook for 25 minutes.
Use a hand blender (or food processor) to purée the vegetables, adding more boiling stock if you find the soup too thick. Add a splash of vinegar, check for seasoning and serve, steaming hot, with warm, crusty bread.
Are you a fan of the humble swede? If so, what do you like to do with it?