Parsnips offer fresh flavor of spring

April 8, 2013
Parsnip pancakes offer a blend of sweetness and savory flavor. BY JACK CLEMONS

For this week’s column, I wanted to feature local seasonal produce. Unfortunately, the hints of warmth haven’t been around long enough for spring vegetables to be available quite yet. Of course, you can find asparagus at the supermarket, but it’s been imported from the West Coast or a South American country, not from nearby farmers. Looks like we’ll have to talk about parsnips.

Although not as popular today as the carrot has become, parsnips have also been cultivated since Roman times. They’ve been grown for food in this country as early as the Jamestown settlement; guidance on how best to treat parsnips in your garden comes from an 18th century Williamsburg resident, John Randolph. In his Treatise on Gardening, he correctly advises farmers to harvest parsnips only after a hard frost.

The characteristic sweetness of parsnips emerges when the living root is frozen and some of its starch is converted to sugar. In medieval Europe, before cane sugar or honey were readily available, parsnips were used to make sweet dishes such as puddings. In modern recipes for parsnips, you’ll find them roasted, mashed, added to soups, stews and savory side dishes. And, an online search for “parsnip cake” will yield some clever variations on traditional carrot cake.

If you’re not familiar with this root vegetable, it looks like a cream-colored carrot. Parsnips are typically packaged by the pound in plastic bags and placed in produce shelves near the turnips. Just as in choosing carrots, parsnips should be slender and tapered, about seven or eight inches long. Don’t buy them if they have hairy rootlets starting to emerge through their skin; these are old and have been around too long. Avoid any that are large and thick, as they tend to be woody and tough.

I’ve included a few recipes that showcase the unique flavor of parsnips. For the pancakes in the photo, mashed parsnips and green onion contribute subtle hints of sweet and savory. The couscous dish takes advantage of the brown bits left behind in the roasting pan by the carrots and parsnips, combining earthy sweetness with saffron and cinnamon. Nutmeg in the baked dish may remind you of sweet potato or pumpkin with an interesting twist from shallots and Parmesan cheese.

Not everyone is a fan of parsnips; some find their sweetness cloying or peculiar. The first time I cooked them for Jack, they were chopped to pose as potatoes in beef stew. He didn’t recognize the switch, asking me what type of potatoes they were. Once he knew their name, he declined a serving of roasted parsnips. But, when he tried the parsnip pancakes, he asked for seconds; he’d become a fan.

One of the most puzzling discoveries about parsnips is a 400-year-old English proverb: fair words butter no parsnips. Or, in more modern parlance, actions speak louder than words, and buttering up someone or something won’t be enough. However, when it comes to parsnips, they’re delicious mashed with lots of butter.

Parsnip Pancakes

1/2 lb parsnips
2 T flour
1 egg
2 sliced green onions
2 t chopped parsley
salt & pepper, to taste
1 T butter

Scrub but do not peel the parsnips. Chop into one-inch slices, discarding the root. Place in a saucepan and cover with water. Boil until tender, about 15 minutes. Drain and place parsnips in a mixing bowl. Mash until no large lumps remain. Whisk in remaining ingredients. Melt butter in a skillet over medium low heat. Spoon batter into skillet to form 3-inch round pancakes. Cook until firm and nicely browned. Flip and cook the other side. Serve with butter and garnish with snipped chives.

Roasted Vegetable Couscous

3/4 C diced parsnips
3/4 C diced carrots
1 T olive oil
2 C chicken broth
1 pinch saffron
1/2 t cinnamon
1 t kosher salt
2 C couscous

Preheat oven to 375 F. Toss the parsnips and carrots with the olive oil in an ovenproof casserole dish until coated. der, about 15 minutes. Reduce oven to 300 F. Combine stock, saffron, cinnamon and salt in a saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium high heat. Add the couscous to the roasted vegetables and stir to combine. Pour in hot stock, cover and bake until couscous is tender, about 10 minutes.

Mashed Parsnip Bake

1 lb parsnips
1 T butter
1 egg
1 T half & half
1 T flour
2 T minced shallot
1/4 t nutmeg
salt & pepper, to taste
2 oz grated Parmesan
snipped chives

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Coat the inside of a small casserole dish with nonstick cooking spray; set aside. Scrub but do not peel the parsnips; chop off the root. Cut into 1-inch slices and place in a saucepan. Add water to cover and boil until softened, about 15 minutes. Drain and mash with butter in a mixing bowl. Whisk egg into half & half until blended; stir into parsnips along with flour, shallot, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Pour into prepared baking dish and sprinkle with cheese. Bake for 30 minutes and serve garnished with snipped chives.

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