Admired for its earthy flavor and delicate sweetness, the parsnip (Pastinaca sativum) is an ivory-colored taproot from the umxbelliferae family and a close relative of carrots, parsley, fennel, and celery. This Eurasian native once grew wild and was considered a luxury food by the aristocracy of ancient Rome.
In the 16th century, Europeans brought parsnips to the New World. They were commonly used in desserts and jams in lieu of sugar, which was scarce and expensive at the time. Although not quite as starchy as potatoes, they are considered nutritionally superior and have a unique flavor profile. Today, they are mostly consumed in savory dishes, and are not quite as popular with Americans as their cousins, the carrots.
Parsnips are a cool-season crop—planted in early spring and left in the ground until after the first frost. It is the cold temperature that converts their starches into sugar and gives them their characteristic sweetness. Harvested too soon, they will be bland and uninteresting.
These often overlooked autumnal vegetables are an excellent choice for the grow-your-own enthusiast. Easily grown in raised beds and containers, they love sunshine but will tolerate some shade. This manageable approach can be used in small spaces like backyards, balconies and porches. Because of their tolerance for the cold, you can be harvesting parsnips long after when the rest of the garden is hard and bare.
Buying and Storing Parsnips
The key to the best-tasting parsnip is all in the selection process. According to British horticulturist Monty Don, “Once parsnips grow beyond a certain age and size the core of the root becomes woody and unpalatable.” Small or medium-size parsnips tend to be sweeter and less fibrous. Fresh parsnips-with root tips intact-will be firm and feel heavy for their size. Avoid those that are limp, shriveled, or spotted.
Store unwashed parsnips in a cool dark place, just as you would carrots. Wrapped in a damp paper towel and placed in a plastic bag in the vegetable drawer of your refrigerator, they should keep up to 2 weeks, possibly longer. Do not store parsnips with apples or pears; the gases these fruits give off will cause parsnips to become bitter.
Cooked parsnips may be refrigerated and used within 3 days. It is also possible to freeze them if they have been quickly blanched for a few minutes.
Preparing and Cooking Parsnips
Many people prefer to peel parsnips before cooking, but for added nutrition you can boil or steam the clean root and then peel off the skin.
Once you have cleaned and peeled your vegetables, there are multiple ways to prepare them. Small, tender, superbly fresh parsnips may be grated raw into fresh salads for an added hint of sweetness and herbal notes. As with other root vegetables, oven-roasted parsnips have amazing flavor. Place the cut vegetables onto a rimmed baking sheet, toss with olive oil, salt and pepper, and roast at 450°F for 20 minutes or until golden brown. Of course, the classic preparation for these candy-like root vegetables is parsnip puree, similar to mashed potatoes but far more interesting. (See recipe link below.)
Parsnip’s claim to fame is its ability to be the star in both its sweet and savory performances. An amazing example of this diversity shines in Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Literacy, where she includes a recipe for silky parsnip-cardamom custard. (See recipe link below.)
The parsnip embodies luxurious, delicate flavors. Peppery and woody, with a hint of nutmeg. It matches with the diverse flavor profiles of basil, dill, parsley, thyme and tarragon. Although itt pairs well with other root vegetables, it exudes a stronger, more distinct flavor. Nothing has a greater affinity for parsnips than butter. Nutmeg may be a distant second followed by brown sugar and maple syrup. Apples and carrots, as well as garlic, lemon juice, pepper (especially white), sage and thyme, also work well.
The versatile parsnip has many nutritional assets including being high in dietary fiber and anti-oxidants. Its many vitamins include C; B-complex, including folic acid; K and E. It also has a healthy level of minerals, such as iron, calcium and potassium.