In Praise of Parsnip

The rangy rosette of a parsnip plant.

A bit like carrots, but sweeter and starchier, parsnips are wonderful winter vegetables.

I’m not certain when I first ate parsnip, but I know I’ve eaten a lot of it. When I was breastfeeding my son, nearly everything I ate gave him colic (It took eight weeks of 24-hour-a-day screaming for me to work this out … longest eight weeks of my life). Parsnips were one of the few safe vegetables, so I ate parsnips. Lots and lots of parsnips. But I never got sick of them. Their comforting, earthy flavour only grew on me the more I ate.

I try to grow parsnips every year, but I’m not always successful. Parsnip seed has a short shelf-life, and germination can be poor, even with seed that isn’t officially past it’s ‘plant by’ date. I buy a new packet of seed every year, whether I’ve used all of the old seeds or not. Even so, I don’t always have luck germinating it, because parsnip doesn’t like to be transplanted, and needs to be seeded directly into the garden beds. In my garden, that means the seeds tend to dry out, in spite of my best efforts. It also leaves tender seedlings at the mercy of birds and slugs, which seem to enjoy parsnip as much as I do.

But this past summer the parsnips did well, like many other crops that appreciated the unusually warm, wet weather. The parsnip I picked for dinner yesterday was 15 cm in diameter at the crown, but still tender and delicious. And there are plenty more out there to harvest.

Parsnips are sweeter after the first frost, so they’re a great autumn and winter food. They store well in the ground, so there’s no need to fill your fridge with them at harvest time. When we lived in Minnesota, I used to use a pickaxe to chip them out of the frozen ground through the winter.

Parsnips make wonderful additions to stews and casseroles. Their flavours meld well with potato, carrot, and celeriac. They compliment beans and pulses. They’re great vehicles for butter and cheese. Back when I was subsisting on little beyond parsnips, we used to mash them (like mashed potatoes), braise them, and roast them, in addition to using them in stew and soup.

It’s no wonder these versatile vegetables have been cultivated since long before Roman times. They’re a great winter staple—a vegetable you can eat again and again and still enjoy.

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