Celebrating a deceptively delicious and versatile winter root
PHOTOGRAPHY BY CAMILLA M. MANN
Parsnips are one of my favorite root vegetables as their flavor is sweet yet complex and complements so many winter dishes. I’ve enjoyed them roasted with other roots for as long as I can remember, but my very first time cooking a rabbit is when I really fell for them. I wrapped the rabbit in bacon and roasted it in a pan filled with chunks of parsnips, butternut squash and purple sweet potatoes that I had covered in coconut milk seasoned with nutmeg and cardamom. There was no going back—I was in love with the deep earthy flavor and buttery sweetness that the parsnip deployed and the way the coconut milk turned the roots into a rich dessert-like side dish.
Parsnips are also especially appreciated by some of our local chefs. “I love their sweetness and their nutty quality, and they pair well with so many things, especially as we head into the colder season,” says Kendra Baker, who is the co-founder of Assembly Restaurant, The Picnic Basket and The Penny Ice Creamery in Santa Cruz and provided the recipes for a parsnip ice cream and a parsnip gratin that accompany this story. “They have a texture unto themselves that’s alluring— a real creaminess and real velvety texture, and also a counter texture akin to a pear.”
“Parsnips are super underutilized; they have a high sugar content which makes them great in both savory and sweet preparations,” says Kyle Odell, previously chef at Carmel Belle who now applies his culinary creativity to cocktails at Cultura in Carmel. “My favorite and the most unique parsnip dish is one I made while working at a restaurant in a luxury resort in San Francisco—quail ragu on top of a parsnip custard. Basically you slice and peel the parsnips and cook them in milk, then buzz them up with a little olive oil. Use a basic custard recipe— 6 egg yolks, 1 whole egg, 1 pint of milk, 1 pint of cream and add 1 pint of the parsnip purée.”
But even though parsnips’ flavor is quite delicious and versatile, one doesn’t often find parsnips for sale at the farmers’ market, and I only find a few limp specimens on grocery store shelves now and then. So where did parsnips come from and why aren’t they more popular?
Parsnips (Pastinaca sativa) are closely related to parsley and carrots but contain more starch, which converts to the sugars they are known for when they are left in the ground in cold weather and when they are cooked. Parsnips also have a nutty flavor that is unique to them, and they are good for you: they are high in potassium, various B vitamins, antioxidants and fiber, and they may help fight cancer and inflammation.
Historically, parsnips were used as a sweetener in Europe before cane sugar was imported and the quick-growing sugar beet replaced them. Introduced to the United States in the 1900s, parsnips were once a staple in the American diet. But being slow growers (they take 120 days to mature—nearly twice as long as carrots), parsnips were gradually replaced by other roots that performed better and took less time to grow, like beets, potatoes, sweet potatoes and of course carrots. And they also are not the most attractive vegetable around, looking somewhat like anemic carrots!
Local farms that do go to the trouble to grow this delicious root include Route 1 Farms in Santa Cruz, Pinnacle in Hollister and Live Earth Farm in Watsonville.
Taylor Poudrier, Live Earth’s sales and marketing manager, says the farm never seems to be able to grow enough parsnips; they always sell out quickly. Live Earth harvests through the winter as needed, giving the roots that remain in the ground a chance to get sweeter as the winter progresses.
GROWING, SELECTING AND STORING PARSNIPS
Like most root crops, parsnips prefer a deep, well-worked sandy loam soil with no big rocks that can deform the roots while they are trying to grow.
Parsnips are planted in the spring and direct seeded ½-inch deep and 18 inches apart. Parsnip seeds take up to three weeks to germinate which is much slower than weed seeds’ germination time, so effort must be taken to ensure that the parsnip seedlings don’t get choked out by the interlopers. Plants should be thinned to 2–3 inches apart and watered enough to keep them moist, but not too much because doing so can increase wireworm and carrot or celery maggot populations.
When selecting parsnips at the market or grocery store, look for blemish-free, firm, small-to-medium roots as those that are very large may have a tough, woody center. But if all you can find are large specimens, you can remove the woody center with a knife and use the flesh surrounding it instead. Avoid parsnips that have micro roots coming off the main taproot—this means they were searching for water and are probably dry and not as delicious.
If you can find some with their greens attached, snatch them up; this is a sure sign they are fresh. However, do be careful handling the greens, as the sap—the parsnip’s natural defense against herbivores like rabbits and deer—is toxic and can cause a chemical burn on the skin similar to poison oak in people sensitive to it.
Parsnips can last several weeks, if not months, in cold storage and are best stored unwashed and dry in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. When you want to cook them, scrub well but try to resist the urge to peel them—unless they are not organic—as the skins have lots of flavor as well as fiber, which lowers blood cholesterol levels.
BRING BACK THE PARSNIPS!
Parsnips can be eaten raw—think very thinly sliced with chunks of citrus like blood oranges or pink grapefruit, a good feta and fresh herbs for a tasty seasonal salad—but the flavor is not as complex or sweet as compared to a roasted or baked one.
Steam, sweat, boil, roast, mash, stir-fry or purée—any preparation style will yield satisfying and delicious parsnips as cooking brings out their sweetness.
Chop parsnips and include in stews, gratins or casseroles; make a cream of parsnip soup; bake parsnip chips; and remember herb and garlic play well with the parsnip as do warm spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom and cloves.
Kids will love parsnips, especially since they gravitate towards white foods. Try them puréed or roasted with butter and add a dash of cinnamon and sea salt.
SOME OF MY FAVORITE WAYS TO ENJOY PARSNIPS:
- Cut parsnips in chunks and cover halfway with coconut milk, add salt, nutmeg and cardamom and some chopped sweet onions, kale and chard and, if desired, chicken breasts or legs. Roast uncovered at 350° F for about an hour or until the chicken is done. Let the coconut milk cook down and become gravy like and serve with brown rice.
- Cut parsnips into strips, toss with olive oil and sea salt and spread single layer on a pan. Roast for 10 minutes at 375°, turn them over and bake another 10 minutes, remove and toss them with some pomegranate molasses.
- Coat parsnips and sliced Granny Smith apples with olive oil (or even better, walnut oil) and sea salt. Roast and then blend with chicken stock, fresh Italian parsley and a sweet onion or shallot roux for a sweet winter soup. Add cream or crème fraîche and a bit of nutmeg before serving.
- Do a 50/50 parsnip and potato mash, blending in roasted garlic and rosemary.
- Try using parsnips instead of carrots in a carrot cake for a rooty twist.
- Toss chunks of parsnips and Brussels sprouts in oil and salt and roast at 375° for 15 minutes, turn and roast for another 15 minutes. Put in a bowl; add orange zest, black pepper, sliced almonds and a splash of white wine vinegar. The sweetness of the parsnip pairs well with the bitterness of the Brussels.
- Add parsnips to soup stock to thicken and add depth of flavor. Parsnips can be removed before serving if desired.
Jamie Collins is owner of Serendipity Farms, which grows organic row crops in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties and distributes them through a CSA, u-picks and farmers’ markets.
LOCAL FOODS IN SEASON
December, January and February
Fruits: Apples • Asian Pears • Avocados • Grapefruits Grapes • Guavas • Kiwis • Kumquats • Lemons • Limes Mandarins • Oranges • Parsnips • Pears • Persimmons Pomegranates* • Pomelos
Vegetables: Artichokes* • Arugula • Asparagus** • Beets • Bok Choy • Broccoli • Broccoli Raab • Brussels Sprouts • Burdock Cabbage • Cardoons • Carrots • Cauliflower • Celeriac • Celery Chard • Chicory • Collards • Cress • Dandelion • Endive • Fava Greens • Fennel • Garlic • Horseradish • Kale • Kohlrabi • Leeks Mushrooms • Mustard Greens • Nettles • Onions • Orach Parsnips • Potatoes • Radishes • Rutabagas • Salsify* • Shallots Spinach • Sprouts • Winter Squash • Sunchokes • Sweet Potatoes • Turnips
Fish: Abalone • Anchovies • Cazebon • Crab, Dungeness Crab, Rock • Flounder, Starry • Grenadier, Pacific • Herring Lingcod • Rock Cod, aka Rockfish • Sablefish, aka Black Cod Sanddabs, Pacific • Sole, Dover, Petrale and Rex • Spot Prawns
* December only
** February only
All fish listed are rated “Best Choice” or “Good Alternative” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. See montereybayaquarium.org/cr/seafoodwatch.aspx for more information. Research assistance from Real Good Fish and Serendipity Farms.