Of all the root vegetables, parsnips have the most distinctive flavor and aroma. It mixes the essences of parsley and carrot, but with a sweet note and something musky that’s all its own. Some people are put off by this quality, but it can add something unique to many dishes.
The source of this inimitable flavor is concentrated in the area of the root right under the skin. Organic roots grow in soil that’s not treated with herbicides, fungicides, or pesticides, and so they don’t need peeling. If you do want to peel them to dress them up for crudités, or to dice them for a roasted root vegetable medley, use the peelings along with other vegetable trimmings to make a winter vegetable stock.
The best parsnips are in the markets in December, after hard frosts have sweetened them up. One study showed sugars rising from six percent in September to nine percent in December, an increase of 50 percent. That extra sugar helps them caramelize when roasted, cooked like French fries, or sautéed in butter. You can also boil or braise them, but don’t overcook in liquid or they’ll quickly turn to mush. In soups and stews, or mashed with other root crops like potatoes, turnips, or rutabagas, the texture may not make a difference.
In the garden or truck patch, you can dig them for fresh vegetables over the entire winter if you mulch them deeply with fallen leaves to prevent the ground from freezing. In areas where the ground will freeze, they’ll sail through just fine, but they’ll need to be dug and used as soon as the ground thaws in the spring, because they’re biennials, which means that as soon as new green growth starts, the plants put their energy into seed-making and the roots’ cores turn tough and fibrous, while the outer flesh loses flavor. If you do get a root with a tough core, quarter the root and trim out the core.
Parsnips are nutritious in several ways. They contain a lot of fiber that’s good for digestion and regularity, and provides the all-important intestinal flora what it needs to thrive. It’s just now being discovered how this flora stimulates and prompts the immune system and even regulates mood. Just a half cup of boiled root puts six percent of your daily requirement for magnesium on the plate, plus twelve percent of vitamin C, eleven percent of folic acid, and eight percent of potassium.
When selecting parsnips at the farmers market or store, look for roots that are cream colored with beige striations, with no damage or dark pits. The choicest are between nine and eleven inches long. Avoid runty roots or ones that are super big, or any that show new green growth from their tops in the spring. Loose roots shouldn’t be washed before storing in the fridge. Just wrap them in dry paper towels, put them in a plastic bag, and store them in the vegetable crisper.
Curry powder complements the unique flavor of parsnips. Curried parsnip soup is a classic. I always include a parsnip along with potatoes in a beef stew. Other flavors that marry well with parsnips are parsley, thyme, tarragon, nutmeg, and garlic. Diced and mixed with turnips, celery root, rutabagas, carrots, and potatoes, they are an essential part of a roasted root vegetable medley.
Parsnips have been grown in Europe since Roman times. Its botanical genus name is Pastinaca, from the Latin root pas~, meaning a place of agriculture, like a pasture. The common name’s root syllable, pars~ comes from 2,000 years of mispronouncing pas~. The suffix ~nip comes from the Latin napus, meaning a root crop. Hence turnip and the Scottish word for rutabagas: neep.
Though parsnips dropped out of favor with chefs over the recent decades, they have much to recommend them and are due for rediscovery.