Eat This

Love Song For A Parsnip

IMG_2189 I was talking a few weeks ago with the editor of a gardening magazine, who asked me what had really excited me in my vegetable garden in 2008.  My answer meandered through turnip greens, tatsoi, and Pineapple tomatoes, before ending on one emphatic note: parsnips!

"Wow," he said carefully, as if handling an undefused bomb that might explode into gibbering insanity at any moment, "I've never really heard anybody get excited about parsnips before."

Fortunately, the great Elizabeth Schneider, author of the delicious and delightful food encyclopedia Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini, rises to defend those of us who march to the beat of a different root.  Her parsnip entry begins:

Herewith another valuable vegetable that is perennially ignored–the more so in our time, when a snappy moniker and flashy looks may get higher scores than usefulness and fine flavor.  The name sounds goofy, but no sillier than pumpkin or zucchini, which are both taken seriously….Then there is parsnip's appearance, frumpy and pallid. But once we get past these superficial matters, there is parsnip's flavor: complicated, intense, sophisticated–a flavor to be proud of!

I'd add just a few more words: sweet, creamy, starchy, but with a punk edge that no winter squash would ever dare attempt.

According to Schneider, parsnip was a staple crop in Europe until it was made obsolete by the arrival of the potato from the New World and the increasing availability of sugar…obsolete for everybody except those few of us who cannot imagine anything more delicious than a food that combines the two effects.

Since then, the parsnip has drifted in and out of obscurity, and most seed companies offer only two or three varieties.

Parsnips are a carrot relative, and grow somewhat similarly, with an even more dramatic transformation from tiny seed and spindly seedling in spring to robust and powerful plant by the end of summer, with leaves that stand two feet high and roots that in my garden grew as big as five inches in diameter.

I planted my first crop very early last year, with the peas, as per instructions.  Though parsnips need a long growing season, I think the seed could conceivably go in a little later, because a lot of my roots grew bigger than is ideal. (While the flavor was still great at five inches across the top, the texture was a little spongy.) I mixed parsnip seed with radish seed, with the idea that the radishes would serve as fast-growing nurse crop to help space them.  This worked well.  When I pulled the radishes, the parsnip plants actually stayed put.

I planted a pretty big bed, probably about 3 feet by 16 feet, and was typically lazy about thinning, my least favorite vegetable garden chore.  Parsnips seem less fussy about this than carrots and turnips, whose roots simply will not bulk up if they are crowded at a certain stage of their growth.  Parsnips, on the other hand, have such muscular shoulders they seem to simply shove each other out a bit to make room.

Here's the thing about parsnips, and the explanation for why the bagged ones in the supermarket don't taste like much: They really need to experience some hard frosts to convert their starch to sugar and their flavor to magical.  I waited until November to harvest mine, and then hacked a bunch more out of the snow in December.  But I left at least half in the ground on the advice of a friend.  Parsnip is the rare vegetable that will hold over in the garden in my part of the world. Spring parsnips–which should be dug early, before this biennial thinks about sending up a stalk and going to seed–are reportedly as sweet as candy.  Since we don't get to harvest anything in upstate New York before mid-May, being able to pry such a tasty vegetable at the peak of its flavor out of the ground in March sounds like a reason for a party.

My fall crop, I've been storing in sawdust, in plastic tubs, in the stairwell between my basement's ill-fitting Victorian-era door and the Bilco doors on my patio. They are not just keeping beautifully there, they are getting sweeter in storage, tasting better every time I roast them.

In her encyclopedia entry, Schneider offers recipes that include "Parsnip-Carrot Soup," and "Parsnip, Potato and Squash Puree with Nutmeg," but my feeling is, why insist that the parsnip tamp down its personality in order to fit in with the rest of the root vegetable crowd?  The suggestions in her "Pros Propose" section, where chefs offer their ideas, sound much more interesting, including chef Robert Bagli's pairing of parsnips and scallops.

At this point, however, I have to make a confession: I am an adventuresome cook, but I have only cooked parsnips one way so far: cut into finger-sized slices, thrown onto a well-oiled pan, drizzled with a little soy sauce and roasted for 15 minutes at 425 degrees.  I'd like to move on to other recipes, but I CAN'T.  Roasted parsnips are so good, I haven't yet had my fill of them.  It's possible that despite my best efforts I never will.

Posted by on February 6, 2009 at 12:41 am, in the category Eat This.
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29 Responses to “Love Song For A Parsnip”

  1. Marte says:

    Wow, who knew? I like the ones I buy at the store and roast them with olive oil and salt. They are delicious, but I may try growing some this year.

  2. jodi says:

    Sounds like a great way to cook parsnips to me. We do a winter veg casserole with carrots, parsnips, sweet pots/yams, sometimes turnip, a red onion or two; mix a little orange juice, maple syrup and dijon or Octoberfest mustard together, pour over veggies, bake at 375. Very popular even with younger fussier veggie-eaters.

  3. Susan Harris says:

    I’m totally inspired and am heading to my neighborhood farmer’s market this weekend to get me some locally grown parsnips. Thanks!

  4. sarahammocks says:

    Inspirational, Michelle! I’m the same as Marte–buy the grocery store ones (some stores have nice big ones not packaged) but am going to try growing them in my new vegetable garden. Another adjective for them: aromatic. I love them simply roasted, too, but they’re great roasted then mashed, roasted then added to soup, roasted with fennel, beets, etc.
    And yes, Elizabeth Schneider is brilliant!

  5. I’ve always heard about parsnips. I’m totally embarrassed to say that I’ve never eaten one. Which is unusual, since I grew up on a farm and we grew our veggies. Perhaps they are popular only in some regions? I’ve just never seen those in our area, but maybe I didn’t know what to look for — thanks for the photo of one.

    Cameron

  6. Chiot's Run says:

    I’ve always wanted to grow parsnips. Perhaps this year I’ll give it a shot.

    I love them roasted with carrots and other root veggies.

  7. ChristyACB says:

    Absolutely! I actually spewed lovey dovey phrases at my parsnips last year but yours are so much better :)

    They are amazing and here is another little tidbit for you that explains whey they were abandoned by colonists.

    In Europe, Parsnips are starvation food. They lasted all winter and in many areas made up the majority of the diet of the poor before spring crops.

    When they got here, no one wanted to look at a parsnip again! Sort of like that automatic revulsion we feel towards Ramen once we graduate college ;)

    But I agree, delicious in every way. They get a big spot in my garden.

  8. Jacqueline says:

    My mom often talked about the amazing Fried Parsnips her mother would make. Fried in butter, I believe, so really, how can you go wrong?

    I have also come across a nice recipe for Parsnip Fries that has worked well in our household. Sounds pretty much like your roasted ‘snips recipe, sans soy sauce.

    Finally, I work in a restaurant where we serve a dish of roasted ‘snips with roasted red onion and Gorgonzola. I think there is also some balsamic vinegar involved and a sprinkling of parsley. It’s A-MAZ-ING, but don’t be a close talker anytime soon after eating; the dish does nothing good for your breath.

    And I’ll add parsnips to my plant list for this year, as well.

  9. Ed Bruske says:

    You got that right. Parsnips are fabulous. We grew a great crop of them this year and we are still pulling them out of the ground when we get the urge. They manage to store themselves in place without any trouble in this part of the world, and just get sweeter in the winter cold.

  10. Elizabeth Stump says:

    Thanks for the informative post. I just planted some parsnip and have one question. Can you harvest them young and tender like a baby carrot and still taste good?

  11. commonweeder says:

    I had my first parsnip 28 years ago when my 85 year old neighbor brought up a bushel basket of parsnips and winter squash as a welcome. I also think she was worried that we were going to starve, unemployed as we were that first winter, and without a garden harvest to sustain us. The parsnips were a revolation – fried in butter.

  12. Nikki Smith says:

    I read an article in the NYT that gardeners are foregoing the fancy hybrid plants this year and opting for the more “tried and true” varieties this season because of the economy. …

    Take care,
    Nikki

    http://www.whgmag.com/560-the-compost-pile-560

  13. Chris Mousseau says:

    Wait a sec – are you saying they can stay in the ground all winter (in the great white north???) without turning to mush??? And the ones you harvest in the fall can be stored in unheated parts of the house, perhaps an unheated, enclosed porch?

    Whoa – no wonder my old university buddy from the prairies liked them so much!

  14. Genevieve says:

    Wow! I’m totally trying some parsnips. I had vaguely remembered not liking them in childhood and forgot all about them, but perhaps if I grow my own and remember their “punk edge” I’ll like them.

    I can’t imagine not liking anything fried in butter, as commonweeder suggests!

  15. jane in edmonton says:

    Cut the parsnips into slices and pan fry them with curry. Yum.

  16. luise h. says:

    I have loved Parsnips for a long time.While I prefer to just peel,slice and sautee in Butter,sometimes,when there is only one left,I slice that last parsnip into a pan of sliced potatoes and roast them together.When they are done,sprinkle with parsley.Heavenly.

  17. Kathy says:

    Fantastic! I tried very hard to grow parsnips with no luck last year. But I did eat many delicious ones grown by my local CSA. Such a great vegetable. I will do my best to grow them this year and will follow your advise with the radish and harvesting times.

  18. jduybusy says:

    Thanks for the lengthy ode to a great vegetable!

    We made a squash soup with parsnips this winter. A little ‘snip goes along way, and it almost overwhelmed the soup, but I’d use them this way again.

  19. Rosella says:

    A devoted parsnip lover here! Grew up eating them roasted around the Sunday joint, but forgot about them for a long time because they were not easy to find in the markets in this country. Last Thanksgiving I roasted some julienned parsnips tossed with olive oil and maple syrup and served them to the usual suspects, all of whom had announced in advance that they didn’t like them and wouldn’t eat them. Yes. Well, someone tried one, and then the dish was empty before it got halfway around the table, and I didn’t get any. By public acclaim, they reappeared on the Christmas menu.

  20. I love Indian cuisine and find that parsnips are a great “unexpected” flavor in aloo gobi (cauliflower and potato with garam masala, onions, and hot peppers).

    I experiment with my vegetables and parsnip adds a nice “sweet” note to my savory dishes.
    shirley

  21. We love parsnips. I’m trying to grow them this year…but this is the south so I doubt that I’ll have any frost-kissed ones.

  22. Michele says:

    Oh, Shirley, now you are going to get me to move on from plain roasted. Thanks to Madhur Jaffrey, I am obsessed with cooking Indian.

  23. You had me at “muscular shoulders”!

  24. Wao superb post……..really its interesting….

  25. Alison says:

    Parsnips are very popular in the UK. For a special treat try parmesan baked parsnips http://www.deliaonline.com/recipes/parmesan-baked-parsnips,808,RC.html

  26. Go for it Michelle!

    Also try grated parsnips and grated zuchinni and carrots with onion, garlic, ginger, a little salt,pepper and cumin. Add egg whites to bind.

    Heat a little grape seed oil, brown your “veggie pattties” on both sides till cooked and top mith mango chutney or tamarind sauce.

    Garnish with cilantro.

    Other than garden design, my other “job” is concocting exotic recipes from my veggie garden!

    Love to eat.
    Shirley

  27. reneesroots says:

    I have never grown parsnips, but after reading your post, I feel I must give them a try.

  28. One of my new favorite gardening books is Parsnips in the Snow: Talks with Midwestern Gardeners by Shaw and Swander. I highly recommend you inter-library loan it, or buy it.

    http://www.amazon.com/Parsnips-Snow-Talks-Midwestern-Gardeners/dp/0877452792

  29. Samme says:

    Are parsnip greens edible? I grow turnips and carrots and eat their greens as well. I googled parsnip greens and didn’t find any useful information. Does anyone here know?

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