Real Food Encyclopedia | Parsnips
The stories are true – the parsnip does look an albino carrot, usually a shade of pale yellow, ivory or off-white. Contrary to popular belief, the parsnip is not a genetic mutation of the carrot, but the two are botanically related. The parsnip tends to have a thinner tip and typically is sold without its green tops, which can irritate the skin.
As sweet as the carrot is, the parsnip is even sweeter. In fact, a frost will intensify its sugar content and residual sweetness. Vegetable gardeners claim that the parsnip is one of the few root vegetables that happily stays underground to “winter over,” a nifty tip for those gardeners with limited indoor storage space.
The story is that the wild parsnip probably hails from the southern part of Europe, around the Mediterranean, and most likely cultivated since Roman times. Roman scholar Pliny the Elder refers to pastinaca in his “Naturalis Historia” in first century CE, but many historians claim that he was referring to both the parsnip and its more pigmented cousin, the carrot.
From there the root migrated north and found its way into the medieval gardens of France, Britain and Germany. In his book “Cabbages and Kings,” culinary scholar Jonathan Roberts notes that Charlemagne insisted that parsnips be grown on his 9th century estate. Until the potato arrived from the New World, the parsnip was the apparent root of choice in medieval Europe, providing both humans and their livestock starchy sustenance (parsnips still have a reputation as animal feed) and it was a sweet alternative to honey, which was scarce.
Fun Facts about Parsnips:
- Easily fermented, the parsnip was made into both beer and wine, a practice that continued on the other side of the Atlantic well into the 19th century
- Before the parsnip made its way to colonial America, it stopped off in the West Indies, which was too hot for the cold-loving root. First colonial stop was Virginia, then it migrated further north to Massachusetts and was revered by Native American tribes.
What to Look for When Buying Parsnips
The perfect parsnip sounds like a bit like something out of Goldilocks: Firm but not woody, and definitely not too soft. One should not be able to bend a parsnip.
Sustainability of Parsnips
Because they are not grown on a massive scale, parsnips are excluded from the Environmental Working Group Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.
Depending on where you live, you may find it in your supermarket produce aisle, but more likely at the farmers’ market. The parsnip is a great example of seasonal, local produce that is truly at its peak during the coldest months of the year. Buying parsnips (or anything else) from local farmers presents a great opportunity to ask growers about production methods as well as recipes and favorite ways to prepare. For two-thirds of the country, you’ll see parsnips until the early weeks of spring.
Storing Fresh Parsnips
Remember, this is a hardy vegetable suitable for storage, so long as you keep it dry. Wrap in a towel or perforated bag, and your parsnips should keep for a few weeks. Wash and peel just before cooking.
Cooking with Parsnips
Roasting coaxes the nuttiness out of parsnips, but many cooks do a quick parboil to help soften the starch first. Before coating in fat for roasting (or sautéing), be sure to towel dry the parboiled parsnips or you’ll end up with steamed parsnips instead.
The next time you’re making mashed potatoes, add one or two quartered parsnips to the mix, along with a whole clove of garlic. You’ll end up with a mash that’s a little bit earthier, with a hint of sweetness and a whole bunch more nutrients.
You can add parsnips into any dish that you would add a root or vegetable to. In her new cookbook “Roots,” Diane Morgan suggests adding sautéed diced parsnips to spaghetti carbonara for a twist on an old classic.
Parsnips like warm spices – ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, curry, cardamom, as well as sugar in all forms, from maple syrup to the granulated stuff. For a sweet approach, try this technique for poaching parsnips in coconut milk from “The Organic Cook’s Bible” by Jeff Cox: “Poach quartered roots in barely simmering coconut milk until almost tender, then finish by sautéing them in a little butter with a pinch of salt, and at the end add a splash of coconut milk from the poaching liquid and reduce it until it glazes the roots.”
Morgan also has a recipe for a triple layer parsnip cake, an idea that might seem peculiar on first blush. But as mentioned earlier, parsnips are even sweeter than carrots, which make it into baked goods all the time. Why not parsnips in the bakery case?
Parsnips can do your body good. One cup of raw parsnips contains six grams of fiber, at 100 calories. It’s rich in potassium and a respectable source of calcium, iron, Vitamin C and folate. It is being studied for its cancer-fighting properties, which come from a phytochemical called falcarinol.