One of my son’s first tastes of solid food was dirt licked from a freshly dug parsnip. He didn’t yet have the teeth to chew into the ivory taproot itself, but his attempts to do so sure got it clean.
It was wintertime in New Mexico and his first winter anywhere. We were visiting a friend at his farm, and I was helping him dig parsnips that had been planted the previous summer, kept in the ground through the winter under a heavy layer of mulch. He’d also planted carrots, a close relative, and kept them under mulch as well.
As winter wore on, the carrots became woody, but the parsnips stayed tender and grew sweeter until March when we dug the last one. By that time, I had conducted extensive trials. I made oven-roasted parsnip frites and pan-fried parsnip pudding. I mixed them into mirepoix, fried rice and hash browns. I added them to the root mix beneath roasting birds and the soup made from the leftover bones.
If you’re ever at a loss for what to do with a parsnip, a good rule of thumb is to use it however you would a carrot. Boiled and buttered, cooked with peas or chopped in a stew, to name a few. Carrots and parsnips cook well together, too.
Back in the days before the widespread use of sugarcane and sugar beets, parsnips were used to make sweeteners. Winter-harvested parsnips, like the ones we dug, are especially sweet, as some of their starches have broken down into sugar. Eventually, I added baby food to my list of parsnip dishes.
In Medieval times, people survived northern European winters with parsnips. Roman Emperor Tiberius was such a fan that he accepted them as tribute from the region of present-day Germany.
They eventually lost ground to potatoes, brought back to Europe by New World explorers. Potatoes don’t have that nutmeg-like flavor, and they lack the parsnip’s diversity of nutrients, like folic acid, fiber, calcium and carotenoids. But spuds yield more pounds per acre and more calories per pound. When survival is a priority, it pays to grab every calorie you can get.
When you’re not in danger of starving, though, why not diversify your diet for both nutrition and flavor? Adding the occasional parsnip to your menu will add an aromatic dose of earthy sweetness.
While they’re still a niche ingredient in most of the U.S., parsnip culture remains strong in Europe, especially in the U.K. The Guardian once ran a story claiming parsnip wine to be one of the finest wines on the planet, and the Brits also use “parsnip” as slang for shapely men with broad shoulders and narrow waists — the shape my taproot-eating son is growing into. In the comment sections of parsnip-related online content, Brits often take the opportunity to remind the world that the biggest ones are from the U.K.
So, let’s all thank a Brit for keeping the parsnip fire burning through the dark years. Here is an easy, British-style recipe to get you started down the parsnip pathway.
Mashed parsnips and carrots in cinnamon sauce
This sweet, earthy side dish can accompany any meal. For a more-savory version, replace cinnamon with an herb like thyme. You can also omit the carrots and double up on parsnips or replace the carrots with potatoes. For a richer version, add some cream at the very end.
Add the parsnips, carrots and stock or water to a small pot or pan with a tight-fitting lid. Simmer until the liquid is nearly gone.
Meanwhile, in another pan, sauté the onions in the butter or oil until they become translucent.
In the first pan, once the simmering is finished, add a clove of garlic and mash the parsnip and carrots together with a potato masher or the bottom of a cup — whatever technique you might employ to make mashed potatoes.
Add the mashed ingredients to the onions on low heat, then add the cinnamon. Stir together and season with salt and pepper.
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