A sweet tender treat awaits your taste buds whenever parsnips are on the menu. They are one of those vegetables that people are hesitant to try or have no experience eating. Perhaps it is because I was exposed to them as a young child, that they are high on my list of favorite vegetables.
My father planted parsnips in the garden each year, but he didn't harvest them until the spring of the following year. They were a rite of spring, and when the snow had melted and the ground thawed sufficiently, he dug the parsnips. My whole family loved this vegetable.
My mother would wash and scrub the roots, put them in a small amount of water, and boil until just tender in a cast-iron skillet. She seemed to know exactly how much water to add (not much) and how long to cook them. Once cooked, she removed the cover, made sure the water was gone, and then added a little butter and quickly cooked them a few minutes longer to lightly caramelize the natural sugar present in the parsnips. What a treat!
Luckily today I don't have to wait until spring to enjoy them. Late fall through the winter is the season for parsnips, which definitely improve in flavor and sweetness if they are not harvested until after a hard frost in the fall.
Cold temperatures convert the starch to sugar giving this often overlooked root vegetable its delectably sweet, nutty flavor. They can be stored in a root cellar or in the refrigerator for several weeks.
Thought to have originated in the eastern Mediterranean and Caucasus area, parsnips spread throughout Europe by the Celts. The Romans believed that this vegetable had medicinal, as well as nutritional value. According to folklore, Roman royalty even imported parsnips that grew along the Rhine River. The Romans enjoyed them for dessert when they were served with honey and fruit or made into little cakes.
By the early 1500s the parsnip had become a common food of poor people in Europe. During the Renaissance, it was used in stews, soups, puddings, and bread. Its popularity eventually came into competition with the potato, but the potato won. Early English colonists brought the parsnip to America where historical records date its appearance in Virginia and Massachusetts back to the early 1600s.
This root vegetable has a good nutritional profile. A one-half cup cooked portion has 63 calories, 15 grams (g) carbohydrate, 3 g dietary fiber, 1 g protein, negligible fat, no cholesterol, and 8 milligrams sodium. The fiber in parsnips is high in pectin, a soluble fiber that can help to lower LDL ("bad") cholesterol. Parsnips also contain vitamin C, potassium, folate, iron, thiamine, vitamin E, and magnesium. So what's not to like?
Parsnips are a member of the Umbelliferae (parsley family), which also includes carrots, celery, chervil, fennel, and parsley. It resembles a carrot but is pale yellow to off-white in color. Although parsnips can grow up to 20 inches long, they are most tender when they are about eight inches long. Very large parsnips are likely to have a tough, woody core. At the market choose specimens with firm and fairly smooth skin that taper to a slender tip.
Don't select parsnips that have a lot of hair-like rootlets growing off the sides of the root. Avoid purchasing any with moist or browned spots. If sold with the tops attached, be sure the greens look fresh and colorful. If sold in pre-packed bags, examine the individual parsnips closely as the bags often have white lines printed on them to enhance the appearance of the produce. Parsnips can be stored in the refrigerator crisper drawer in a perforated plastic bag for three to four weeks.
Because they are fibrous, they usually are eaten cooked. If you buy small, tender parsnips, you can eat them raw grated into a salad, added to a slaw, or cut into sticks and added to a crudit s plate. Peeled parsnips turn brown quickly so cook right away or hold in a bowl of water with a little lemon juice until ready to cook or eat.
They can be peeled before or after cooking depending on how you plan to use them. If you peel before cooking, use a paring knife or vegetable peeler to remove a very thin peel and then cut in crosswise slices or chunks, julienne strips, or dice.
If you plan to puree after cooking, you can peel them after they are cooked. This helps to preserve color, flavor, and nutrients. Make a lengthwise cut through the skin down the side, and peel the skin off with your fingers.
Be careful not to overcook them. Their flavor is sweetest when just tender. Brief cooking also helps to preserve nutrients. Just before cooking, cut off the root and leaf ends, and trim any major rootlets or knobs.
Traditional cooking methods include the following:
Baking: Place whole or cut-up parsnips in a baking dish with a cover. Cooking time: 20 to 30 minutes in a 350 degree F oven.
Roasting: Toss whole or cut-up chunks of parsnips with a little olive oil, herbs of your choice, salt, and pepper, and place on a lightly oiled shallow pan and roast in a 400 degree F oven until just tender. Mix with other vegetables such as carrots, beets, potatoes, sweet potatoes, or turnips for a medley of roasted vegetables.
Boiling: Drop whole or cut-up parsnips into a pan of boiling water and simmer until tender. Cooking time: five to 15 minutes.
Microwaving: Cut parsnips into large chunks, and place them in a microwavable dish with two tablespoons of liquid. Cover with a lid or vented plastic wrap. Cooking time: four to six minutes.
Steaming: This method is by far the best way to cook parsnips as it brings out their sweetness without them getting mushy. Place trimmed, well-scrubbed parsnips in a steamer, and cook over boiling water. Cooking time: For whole parsnips, 20 to 30 minutes; for cut-up pieces, five to 15 minutes.
Here are some other serving suggestions for using parsnips:
--Use grated parsnips in place of carrots in bread, cake, or muffins.
--Cook parsnips with potatoes, and mash the two together.
--Steam sliced parsnips and toss, while still hot, with olive oil, lemon juice, and minced fresh mint and parsley. Serve warm or chilled as a salad.
--Add diced parsnips to vegetable soups and stews.
For a sweet treat for dinner, enjoy parsnips as a vegetable. Parsnips are a treasure unfamiliar to many, so help to spread the word about this unappreciated vegetable!
Eat Fresh! Eat Local! Eat Well!