Retro Recipes: Spareribs and Rutabagas, 1956

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Photo: Stephanie Butler

Welcome to Retro Recipes! Brought to you from the capable kitchen of Eat Me Daily's Stephanie Butler, each week we take a look at preparations from the past that straddles the line between ingenious and absurd. This week, Edward Harris Heth's Spareribs and Rutabagas.

With September nearly gone, those decorative squash with all usefulness bred out of them are back on grocery shelves, and hot apple cider no longer seems like a crazy idea. To celebrate fall, let's highlight once again Edward Harris Heth's forgotten seasonal cooking gem The Wonderful World Of Cooking (buy on Amazon). Stew lovers, rejoice: Heth's spareribs and rutabagas will warm hearts and bellies alike.

But first (since no one can put it as well as he can) let's let Heth take the floor and tell a story about the soup pot. Like the dill crock in summer, the soup pot is a constant in Heth's kitchen, a culinary slight of hand continually making something great out of scraps, ends, and crusts.

A pot is always on active duty at the end of her stove, and into it go many unlikely things. Since her family is large and are sturdy eaters of meat, there are always big bones left from roasts or boiled dinners. Into the pot. Scraps of meat, a leftover potato or turnip, a spoonful of stewed tomatoes. Into the pot. A cupful of leftover sauerkraut, potato water, a chicken or duck carcass divested of every shred of flesh, a bowl of unwanted gravy, a neglected prune, a chunk of celery half chewed by one of the children (she does cut off the tooth marks) – all go into the ever-simmering pot to make a surprisingly flavorful and varied soup.

A Frenchman, Heth explains, "thinks as highly of his soup pot as he does of his wife or mistress," and a good soup pot is invaluable "after several hours of tobogganing or skiing down the icy slopes." I can't vouch for how highly the French think of their mistresses, and recently the luge has overtaken tobogganing as my esoteric winter sport of choice. But reading Heth's glowing praise for this scrappy soup pot makes me think I should start one on the back of my own stove.

The epitome of a Wisconsin fall

If there's one dish that epitomizes everything Heth loves about a crisp Wisconsin fall, it's spareribs and rutabagas. He explains that this combo has been in his family for at least two generations, and Heth cooks it "exactly as my mother used to cook it." It's a fairly straightforward braise, made interesting by the cut of meat (spareribs are more often seen at barbecues than firesides) and the uncommonly seen rutabaga (surefire conversation starter!).

With my spareribs purchased and my rutabaga roots dug, I started work on my stew. I browned the separated ribs in olive oil until a nice crust formed, and then added cubed rutabagas, potatoes, and big chunks of carrot. I covered the whole thing with water and added bay leaf and peppercorns, and then caramelized a red onion and chopped some parsley to top my finished product. After about 45 minutes my vegetables were sufficiently soft to lightly mash right there in the pot. Heth recommends cooking this "on a rainy (or at least blustery) day when the steam will cloud the windows". By this point my windows were steamy, my guests were starving, and my spareribs smelled delicious.

Heth was, once again, delightfully right. I don't know if it was the bluster or the rain, but I can heartily say that spareribs and rutabagas are one of Wisconsin's great gifts to America (along with Gene Wilder and the cheesehead hat). I ask you, what's more comforting than a big pile of mashed root vegetables? Gnawing on pork bones covered in said mashed root veg, that's what. Get thee to a farmer's market and start stocking up on rutabagas, folks. It's going to be a long winter.

Recipe: Spareribs and Rutabagas

From The Wonderful World of Cooking, by Edward Heth
Though the rutabaga is though by many to be the lowliest of the root vegetables, it is one of the most heart-warming if given a chance. Years ago they grew strong and orange (though I loved them even then) but horticulturists today have bred them into delicate, pale-yellow meated globes.

Peel a large rutabaga, cut it into cubes, and let it soak in cold water. Salt and pepper 3 lbs of spareribs, cut into serving size pieces, brown in a little fat in a dutch oven or large kettle, and when they are nicely colored add water just to cover them. Add that trinity of spices – who first conceived this miraculous harmony of allspice, peppercorn, and bay leaf? – Indispensable to most of the stews and roasts that follow. Use about a dozen each of the whole allspice and peppercorns and a large bay leaf. Cook covered until the ribs are nearly done. Add the rutabaga, a sliced onion and 2 large, peeled, sliced potatoes, and add more water if needed so the vegetables will steam well. When all is thoroughly cooked put the ribs on a warm platter. Leave some of the meat juices with the vegetables, mash the vegetables in the remaining liquid until they are light and fluffy. Heap around the ribs.

–Stephanie Butler

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2 Comments

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  1. Moira

    Mmmm, this sounds really good. I love rutabagas, and this looks like a really good way to make them.

  2. Pam

    I collect vintage cookbooks, and I'm fascinated by this one. Just so you know, Amazon doesn't have it any longer, but I did find it elsewhere after a brief Google search. I can't wait to get it! Thanks for telling about it, I know it will become a treasured part of my collection.

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