If you’re like many people, you don’t think much about parsnips. You may hardly ever eat them. Don’t let lack of understanding prevent you from getting to know this sturdy, starchy old staple of a vegetable.
The thought of any vegetable disappearing into oblivion is just plain sad, yet vegetable varieties are slipping away from us at an alarming rate. According to the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, almost 96 percent of the vegetable varieties available to Americans since 1903 have already disappeared. Over time, commercial farming has selected for high yield, moving away from varieties carefully adapted to local conditions.
Paying attention to the quirky, old-fangled vegetables still available to us today is an important way we can each participate in ensuring the diversity of our food supply for future generations. Consider the Irish potato famine for a moment: a tragedy that came about solely because of a country’s primary dependence on a single variety of potato.
The vegetables that are the first to slip away are the under-celebrated, underdog vegetables: those poorly understood oddballs with something of a fading fan base. The ones that prompt farmers market shoppers to comment, “I just don’t know what to do with it.” The ones that our grandmothers knew exactly how to cook. The ones we just don’t understand.
The parsnip is one such quirky old-timer. I confess, I was slow to understand it, too, but I came around. If you’re not already a parsnip lover, I offer some thoughts on inviting parsnips to your table.
Stop expecting parsnips to be carrots.
Parsnips may look like albino carrots, but they’re not. Parsnips, carrots, celery and parsley are all members of the Apiaceae family, one of the largest families of flowering plants around. Parsnips’ and carrots’ similar looks may make them family, but looks don’t tell the whole story.
As in any family, expectations can lead to disappointment, so try meet the parsnip on its own ground. Actually, since the parsnip’s flavor improves by spending a few frosty weeks underground in the fall, next week’s parsnip dinner may be still underground today, getting sweeter as the mercury drops. Commercial growers make that sweetness happen in coolers; your local farmer is more likely to just leave the parsnips in the earth until it’s time to bring them to market.
Parsnips have a rich and colorful history of their own. They were cultivated – way back in Roman times – from wild plants, plenty of which still grow wild today. Roman aristocrats prized them; indeed, they believed parsnips to be an important ingredient of a lively love life. Parsnips graced the tables of Europe, serving as a starchy staple long before the potato was introduced.
Selecting and storing parsnips is easy if you’re already a pro with carrots. Look for firm roots with no soft spots or discoloration. Larger parsnips can tend to be woody on the inside, so pick small ones instead. Store them in the fridge in a perforated plastic bag or just loosely wrapped. They’ll keep for about three weeks.
Appreciate the parsnip’s sweet, nutty personality.
The parsnip has been known to have a strong, dominating personality, even too strong to some people. The flavor is sweet, a bit nutty and somewhat spicy. In texture, the parsnip is light and dry. But like your oddball, eccentric uncle, parsnips may just be the hits of the party, so be sure to welcome them warmly. Butter them up a bit.
Look for flavors and textures that bring out the best in parsnips. Try roasting them with apple and fresh sage, a combination that sets the apple’s sweet mushiness against the parsnip’s more robust flavor and texture. Or try steaming a few, then mashing them with freshly ground nutmeg and good butter. If you’re making soup, include a parsnip or two with your other root vegetables, but balance the flavors; more than a few might overshadow the other veggies in the pot.
Parsnips can be roasted, stir-fried, boiled or steamed, or used in a myriad of more unexpected ways. Think parsnip spice cake, sweetened with maple syrup, for example. Our early American ancestors used parsnips, along with hops, to brew delicious beer and parsnips alone for parsnip wine, as recently as the early 19th century. Raw and chopped, they’re a nutty, nutritious addition to a salad of winter greens.
Have a little compassion.
Parsnips used to be important. Truly important. In 16th-century Europe, the parsnip was a beloved staple. Sadly, it lost its prominent place at Europe’s tables when the potato came to dinner about a hundred years later. The potato – the guest that never left – ended up taking over, pushing the parsnip into the shadows. Even so, parsnip seeds traveled to America with early European settlers, who made room for them among their most prized possessions. Did the parsnip become important again? No, but it made the journey, and it’s still around for our enjoyment today.
Think about it. Do you want your grandchildren to recognize a parsnip and know what to do with it? If you’re a home gardener, planning next year’s garden right now, make sure parsnips are on your list as you pour through winter seed catalogs. If you’re heading out this weekend to a farmers’ market, buy some freshly dug parsnips. And if you don’t see any, ask! Along with purchasing oddball vegetables, asking for them will tell our farmers we care about vegetable diversity.
Eleanor Baron lives, gardens, cooks and writes in Concord and stalks area farmers markets for fresh, in-season produce. Visit her blog at nourishingwords.net for more ideas and inspiration on incorporating healthy habits into your life.