What's In Season

Time to Rescue Parsnips From the Underground

By Georgeanne Brennan | December 01, 2012
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Parsnip freshly dug

Parsnips are an often-overlooked vegetable, but they most certainly shouldn’t be. Before the potato, a newcomer from the Americas, was introduced to European tables in the 1700s by the pioneering nutritionist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, parsnips were the staple starch vegetable of Europe.

Parsnips are sweet and dense, with a slightly nutty flavor. A root vegetable, parsnips are creamy white with broad shoulders, tapering down to the narrow root tip. Perfect parsnips range from between five and 10 inches long and are at their peak in winter, when the cold weather has chilled the soil and sweetened the roots by converting some of their starch to sugar.

Personally, I find parsnips inspiring. They can be steamed, boiled, braised, roasted or fried, and are excellent no matter how they are prepared. Think parsnip fries with sea salt and parsley aioli, for example, or parsnip pancakes with fresh applesauce and sausages, or slow-cooked beef shanks with parsnips and chestnuts.

What would a plate of roasted winter root vegetables be without caramelized chunks or batons of parsnips nestled next to their close relatives, carrots? What makes a hearty shepherd’s pie even better? Combining parsnips with the potatoes to make the mashed topping. When I purée parsnips with a little cream and season them with crispy bits of duck skin, I wonder why the parsnip was abandoned in favor of the potato. It couldn’t have been because of taste.

In France, parsnips, called panais, along with Jerusalem artichokes, are vegetables that have long been associated with the food shortages during World War II and the early post-war years. They were cheap vegetables that stored well in the ground and in cellars, and so were easy to keep. Once the economy improved and more varieties of vegetables were available and affordable, the general population eschewed the lowly vegetables that brought with them memories of suffering.

In recent years, however, the parsnip has been spotted once again on the menus of certain fine-dining establishment in France. Parsnips chips have made their way into French supermarkets, right alongside the ever-popular potato chips. It’s good to see these vegetables side by side, perhaps restoring a little equality for the parsnip.

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