I had found it hard to be a fan of parsnips for a long, long time. I’m still not a big lover of this vegetable indigenous to the Mediterranean region, but it does have a haunting sweetness that has its place in some good recipes.
Parsnips (Pastinaca sativa) are a root vegetable of the Umbelliferae family. They look a little like white carrots—not clear white, but more like ivory in color. The wild parsnip was eaten by both Greeks and Romans but they never cultivated them. The Roman Emperor Tiberius liked them so much he had them imported from Germany. There they grew along the Rhine river, probably wild. It is said they were cultivated in Europe since "ancient times."
They reached this continent in the 1600s, brought by Europeans to Canada. However, they never really caught on. They prosper today in Northwestern Minnesota and many locales in Canada. Like many things, they are what one might call “an acquired taste." After the first frost of the year or near freezing conditions for two to four weeks, this cold converts the parsnip’s starch to sugar and gives it a sweetness that is relatively pleasant and unique.
When you buy them, look for a small to medium root with no to little pitting—kind of short and fat. Avoid those that are old, limp and have no sprouting on top. If you wrap them in damp paper towels and put in a plastic bag, they should keep for a couple of weeks in the fridge. They can also be "woody" if too old or too large, so cut out the core if it is woody, and chop up to put in soups or stews. You can also cut them in long, thin slices to get rid of the core.
Sliced and sautéed in a little butter, they are quite good. I have boiled them and mashed them with potatoes and other root vegetables, which is quite unique as a side dish. Parsnips are an interesting addition to a stew, especially one with it’s friend, carrots. They also add interest to a vegetable soup. I also recommend you slice them, sauté lightly in butter and add a pinch of brown sugar. Roasted parsnips are really good. The root vegetable is less and less available commercially, so if you try them and like them you might want to consider putting them in your garden. They can be planted in early April or May in deep, heavily fertilized soil. Seeds are available from Seeds of Diversity in Toronto or Prairie Garden Seeds in Saskatchewan.
1 pound parsnips, peeled and cut in 2-inch lengths
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup chicken broth
½ stick butter, softened
1 teaspoon brown sugar
1 small garlic clove
1 tablespoon horseradish
1 teaspoon dried parsley
1 teaspoon cried minced chive
Preheat oven to 400 degrees
Using a large roasting pan, put the cut up parsnips in with olive oil and toss to coat the pieces. Pour broth in the pan and cover with foil and roast for about 40 minutes, check for tenderness.
Put the softened butter, brown sugar, horseradish, chive and garlic in a large bowl. Toss the roasted parsnips in this mixture, plus a little fresh ground black pepper. Serve hot or warm.
Creamed Parsnips & Pinenuts
1 pound peeled and cut up parsnips
1 large or 2 small white potatoes, peeled and cut up
2 tablespoons butter
½ cup milk
3 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
Cook the potato and parsnips in gently boiling salted water until tender. Drain. Add the butter and milk and mash until smooth. Sprinkle with toasted pine nuts and serve immediately, or keep the dish warm in the oven on low for up to 30 minutes.
Note: You can use carrots interchangeably with parsnips in recipes.
Dale Carson, Abenaki, is the author of three books: New Native American Cooking, Native New England Cooking and A Dreamcatcher Book. She has written about and demonstrated Native cooking techniques for more than 30 years. Dale has four grown children and lives with her husband in Madison, Connecticut.