Parsnips: A versatile combination of sugar and spice
WORDS BY ELIZABETH GAWTHROP RIELY
Like the auntie who got into the parsnip wine in Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales, the parsnip seems slightly comical.
But taste, and taste again. Cut a slice off the long white root to eat raw. The flavor at first is bland, but soon reveals itself to be sweet; then an elusive spiciness comes on and, afterward, a little nip. Clearly this vegetable deserves another try.
Let’s look at the name, Pastinaca sativa in botanical binomenclature. The first word derives from the Latin word for a two-tined pitchfork used to dig the root; the second part means cultivated. Through Middle English parsnip became a portmanteau word, the nip borrowed from turnip, or neep in British lingo. This may also allude to that bite at the end of its flavor, but the parsnip is unrelated to the turnip whose family trait is that very nip.
The ancient Romans knew both the parsnip and carrot, according to British food writer Alan Davidson, but didn’t distinguish between them, as they look very similar but for their colors. These first cousins belong to the parsley family, with long tapered taproot and lacy umbrella blossoms like Queen Anne’s lace, another relative. The parsnip has a delicate yellow flower and palest yellow root, more like ivory.
The ancient and medieval worlds valued the parsnip’s sweetness, before sugar was available, and its starchiness too, as the potato hadn’t yet come to the Old World. With the arrival of sugar, the parsnip became less common in southern Europe but thrived in the cold climate of central and northern Europe and western Asia, where it continued to be cultivated. Northern cuisines hold the parsnip in higher regard, not just as animal fodder but with interesting and varied preparations for the table. The Russian word for parsnip, it’s worth noting, is pasternak, like the poet and novelist.
Parsnip plants need a long growing season. Typically they are sown from fresh seed in the spring to be ready for fall harvest after the first frost. But the best season for parsnips is early springtime, when the frozen ground has thawed and they can be dug up with that pitchfork. Winter’s cold develops their sweetness,so with little else but leeks ready in the garden for harvest in early spring, their unique flavor and freshness are welcome.
As for texture, parsnips are similar to celeriac (celery root) and cook faster than carrots, potatoes and other root vegetables and tubers. They are delicious raw as well as cooked. In my extensive recent comparisons and experiments, I’ve found organic parsnips decidedly tastier than non-organic. This is especially apparent for raw parsnips. The cut flesh turns darker with exposure to the air (not so fast as celeriac), so if your parsnips are waiting to be cooked, drop them in water with a little lemon juice, draining them before using, or coat them in a little oil or fat.
Try to buy them in fairly uniform size, medium-large or large, and leave behind the skinny little ones. The upper part of the root may be much thicker than the rest. You can quarter that section and cut out the fibrous core. After a good scrubbing you may not need to peel them at all if they are puréed, for instance. Or steam lengths of parsnips in a wide pan, then cool, slit and slip off the skins with your hands before cutting them into the desired shapes. Parsnips can be cooked in many diverse ways—just not too long.
Parsnips also harmonize well with other root vegetables and tubers such as potatoes, carrots, celeriac, yams and all the onions. Sometimes I like to keep parsnips on their own so their unusual flavor makes counterpoint. They have a natural affinity for cream and cheese and, at the other end of the spectrum, oranges, lemons and limes. Spices such as nutmeg, ginger, cumin, curry, coriander seed and chili pepper in sweet or sour combinations can make parsnips downright exciting. Any kind of pork and ham make natural companions, also shrimp, salmon, game birds and venison. Parsnip pie with shredded apple, honey, lemonand fresh gingerroot is at once old-fashioned and newfangled.
Parsnip wine and beer are country favorites—no doubt tasty, but I have other concoctions to try first.
The parsnip suggestions below are not formal recipes, simply ideas for you to run with:
• Shredded with carrots and dressed in vinaigrette—this comes from Apicius—or rémoulade (mayonnaise jumped up with mustard, capers, chopped pickles...) with shrimp, radishes, etc.
• “Coins” sautéed in light vegetable oil and seasoned with lime juice, ginger, scallions and cilantro
• Boiled or steamed, mashed or puréed, beaten with milk or cream; press through a sieve for a silky refined texture, or simply mash for appealingly lumpy home-style
• Roasted in a pan beside meat with other vegetables; roll them in fat or a little oil for deep flavor
• Gratiné with cream and cheese as for potatoes dauphinoise
• Raw and sliced thin crosswise with a spicy hot salsa
• Shredded and mixed with other vegetables, including onions, shaped into patties and sautéed
• Roasted in butter until amber, turning once, finished with fresh cider and maple syrup glaze; any leftover you can mash
• Thin rounds of parsnips, garnet yams, potatoes, leeks and red onions, all tossed in a mix of olive oil and chicken stock seasoned with garlic and herbs, spread in a gratin dish and baked
Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely's articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. Her cookbook, A Feast of Fruits, was published by Macmillan in 1983. Her dictionary, The Chef's Companion (John Wiley &Sons, 3rd edition), remains in print after 25 years. She was editor of The Culinary Times, published by the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, from 2000 to 2009. Her article on "John James Audubon's Tastes of America" was in the Summer 2011 issue of Gastronomica. Beth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.