Another Fine Use for Parsnips

Danita’s story about parsnips in her Grandma’s stew made me curious: What about parsnips would turn off a child? Danita remembered the parsnips as bitter. Did the cooking method make them this way, or did it bring out a bitterness that other preparations would mask?

So I boiled a couple of my gigantic parsnips, without salt or any other flavoring, put them through a food mill, and tasted the purée. Danita was right: The stuff was bitter. With some of the natural sugar lost to the cooking water, and without added salt or fat, the parsnips were indeed distasteful.

No matter, though, because I have no qualms about adding salt or fat to my vegetables. I couldn’t think of any way I might use the purée, in fact, without adding both salt and fat. And I decided to try—

parsnip gnocchiParsnip Gnocchi, for Two 

To purée big parsnips, peel them, slice them crosswise into two or more pieces, and cut each piece into four or eight wedges. Stand each piece on the wider cut end, and slice out the core. Gently boil the cored pieces in a little water, as you would potatoes, until the pieces are tender. Then press them through the medium screen of a food mill.

1 cup parsnip purée
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ cup all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons butter
Ground black pepper
Grated nutmeg
A sprig or two of rosemary, dried and crumbled or fresh and chopped
Several cloves of garlic, minced
Large bunch of beet, chard, or kale leaves
½ cup grated parmesan cheese 

Put the parsnip purée into a bowl, add the salt, and lightly stir in ½ cup of the flour. Sprinkle a little of the remaining flour over the mass and the rest across a cutting board. Form the mass into a long snake about ¾ inch thick. Cut the snake into ½-inch pieces. Separate the pieces, and roll them lightly in the flour on the board. 

Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil. In a large frying pan, melt the butter, and add the black pepper, nutmeg, and rosemary. Turn off the heat under the frying pan. 

In the saucepan, gently boil the gnocchi in batches of about a dozen for about a minute, until the gnocchi rise to the top. Remove them with a slotted pan to the frying pan, and turn the heat to low. When all the gnocchi have been added, toss in the garlic. Turn the gnocchi gently as the garlic begins to release its scent. Turn off the heat. 

Steam the greens. (I put them fresh-rinsed and still damp into a wide pan, cover the pan, and cook them just until they are limp.) 

Put the greens into a wide, shallow bowl, and top them with the gnocchi and seasoned butter. Sprinkle half of the cheese over the dish, and put the rest into a small bowl to serve along with the gnocchi. Enjoy!

As I’d hoped, the tender white gnocchi tasted deliciously of parsnips. To me, at least, no bitterness was detectable in this dish—except in the beet greens. And the garlicky butter tamed even that bitterness—enough for the typical grownup, at least. A typical kid might turn down the greens but happily gobble up the gnocchi.

I’m glad to say I have more parsnip purée in the fridge. I could try Graeme’s parsnip pie. Or, how about parsnip ravioli?

Still Eating Parsnips, and Planning for More

parsnips
The longest root here ended up in the compost; it had dipped below the water table and so was rotting. The others broke off at about a foot below the soil surface, as usually happens with my parsnips.

At last week’s book club meeting, in the midst of a discussion of race and gender in nineteenth-century America and the founding of the U.S. Geological Survey, somebody asked the inevitable sort of question: How do you grow parsnips?

Our husbands think we talk about them at these meetings. We do, sometimes. But more often the talk turns to gardening.

I felt an immediate surge of affection for the new member who asked about parsnips. Parsnip lovers are rarities, it seems. Why is this? Who can dislike that carroty flavor combined with extra sweetness? Is the parsnip just too blandly white next to its sunny cousin the carrot? Or is the parsnip so pricey in the market that most people never even try it?

Why such a humble root should cost so much is puzzling in itself, but at least I could take a stab at the new member’s question. For my big parsnip crops of the past couple of years I must thank my friend Lisa, who told me to toss the seeds onto bare soil in February. This works because parsnip seeds require constant moisture for about two weeks while they think about sprouting. Here in the Willamette Valley, we generally have that constant moisture in February. Our frosts continue until mid-May, but that matters not at all to the hardy parsnip.

This year February was so strangely dry that I wonder whether Lisa’s parsnip seeds have germinated. As for me, I’ve held off planting. As I dig the last of last year’s crop, with roots averaging 8 inches across and 1½ feet long, I’m thinking I’d like this year’s parsnips to be a little smaller.

Most gardeners know that you’re supposed to leave your parsnips in the ground until after the first frost to sweeten them up. This is what I’ve done, though I don’t know that I wouldn’t like a less-sweet parsnip. Usually I leave most of my roots in the ground for much longer still. A virtue of parsnips is that you can store them right where they have grown all through the winter—unless the water table rises into their root zone, which causes them to rot, or unless the weather is so brutally cold that a mound of mulch won’t keep them from freezing.

But when you plant parsnips in February for digging in late fall and winter you’re at least doubling the usual four-month growing period. And when parsnips grow for that long they develop two problems: They get so big they become hard to dig, and they develop a hard core that gets bigger and tougher over time. By mid-winter the parsnips may have as much core as tender flesh, which makes for much effort in the kitchen and a big pile of trimmings. And then in late winter the plants sprout new top growth, because, like their carrot cousins, they are biennial. As parsnips prepare to produce seeds, their roots become entirely tough and inedible. So last week I dug the last of the parsnips that we’ll eat this winter. The rest I’ll till under or let go to seed.

We didn’t talk at book club about parsnip varieties. It may be that the variety I’ve been growing, All-American, is more prone to tough cores than others I might try, such as Tender and True, which is described as “almost coreless,” and Harris Early Model, which is said to have no core at all. Considering the high water tables here in winter, maybe the short- and thick-rooted German varieties would be an even better alternative. (Readers, if you’ve had success with particular varieties I hope you’ll share your comments.)

Regardless of the variety, the best course may be to plant parsnips later, dig them promptly after the first frost, and store them out of the ground. So, here’s how I tentatively recommend growing parsnips: Plant them late spring, around the time of the last frost. Use fresh seeds; old ones won’t sprout. Keep the seeds moist for two to three weeks, until they germinate (Next time I may try covering them with a board, as I do carrot seeds, or I even try germinating them on damp paper towels). Don’t give parsnips too much nitrogen-rich fertilizer; it’s said to make their roots hairy. Let them grow for 105 to 130 days, depending on the variety, to maturity. Start digging them as soon thereafter as you like. If you have time to devise some out-of-ground storage system, such as a clamp or box of sand, dig them all soon after the first autumn frost.

Preparing parsnips for the table is easy when you have no big, tough cores to cut out. Betty Fussel recommends boiling the roots, dousing them in cold water, and then slipping off their skins, but parsnips have no more in the way of skins than carrots, which I rarely peel at all. Just to make sure my parsnips are fully clean, though, I peel them with a swivel peeler. Then I use them in most of the ways you might use carrots. They are especially good roasted, on their own or along with carrots or chunks of squash or wedges of sweet potato, or pureed in soup flavored with nutmeg, as in my recipe here.

Sweet Milk and Sweet Parsnips

I first made parsnip soup many years ago, after listening with my then-small eldest child to Peggy Seeger sing, “What Did You Have for Your Supper?” on the record American Folk Songs for Children.* I didn’t read the song’s title in the record notes, though, and I heard the words as “What’ll you have for your supper?”

parsnip soup croppedWhat’ll you have for your supper,
Jimmy Randall, my son?
What’ll you have for your supper,
My own little one?
Sweet milk and sweet parsnips;
Mother make my bed soon,
Because I’m tired at the heart
And I want to lie down.

With each sweet Peggy’s voice soared to the top of the octave; Jimmy was pleading for sweet white comfort food that Mother and no other could provide. Or so I thought.

Little did I know that I was hearing a surviving fragment of “Lord Randall,” an Anglo-Scottish ballad about a man who may actually have lived, in the thirteenth century or thereabouts, until he was poisoned—by his sweetheart at dinner, according to most versions of the song. Typical versions say that she also poisons Randall’s dogs, who “swell up.” Feeling poorly after the meal, Randall goes home to his mother. The story is told through conversation between mother and son as poor Randall heads for his deathbed. Fuller versions don’t mention milk or parsnips; usually he has eaten eels or other fish. And Mother is always less curious about the tainted food than she is about the distribution of Randall’s worldly goods.

The parsnip has been popular since Roman times, though it was probably thin and woody and suitable only for flavoring until about the time Lord Randall was getting sick on eels. Then gardeners developed it into a fleshy, aromatic root that at its best cooks up quite tender. The parsnip is still a trial for the gardener; with seeds slower to sprout even than those of most other umbellales, the plant take months to grow to size while the gardener repeatedly weeds around the root. Then it must stay in the ground even longer, well mulched, until it is sweetened by frost. Finally it can be stored in a cellar or left in the ground, depending on your climate, until some cold night in winter or early spring when you’re craving something sweet, starchy, and soothing.

The modern English name parsnip may have been influenced by parsley, for a white-rooted cousin, and turnip, for an unrelated and fleshier root vegetable. The parsnip is even more like the carrot than like either of these, but sweeter and starchier, with no bitterness. People who describe the parsnip’s flavor as “nutty” are probably thinking of chestnuts.

Parsnips are good roasted, fried, pureed with apples or carrots or potatoes, diced in chicken pot pie, and flavored with curry powder or ginger. But when I heard Peggy’s song I knew just what I wanted to make with parsnips, and it’s what I most like to make with them today:

Parsnip Soup

Saute some diced onion in butter. Add diced parsnips (don’t bother to peel them first). Add chicken stock, and cook the parsnips in the stock until they are tender. Add milk, cream, or half-and-half. Season with salt, white pepper, and grated nutmeg. Puree the soup in a blender, and reheat it if needed.

I don’t believe Jimmy Randall ever got sick on sweet milk and parsnips. It was his mother who fed him the soup, I’m sure, and he woke up the next morning feeling fit and lively. Even his dogs survived. At least that’s how I like to sing the song.

*Rounder Records 8001/8002/8003. Sung and played by Peggy and her brother, Mike Seeger, the 94 songs on this album are from the book American Folk Songs for Children, by their mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger. The book is still in print, and the album is now available on CD.