Real food, in season: parsnips
With its abundance of produce, eating seasonally in the Pacific Northwest is the chance to align our diets with the seasons and explore food in the process.
This time of year, it’s root vegetable season, and while cooking can easily feel a bit dreary as we wish for the greens and berries that come with the warmer months, root vegetables are at the center of wintry comfort food.
When it comes to root vegetables, the parsnip is often overlooked. Maybe because of its bland looking color, or its knobby shape, parsnips are regularly pushed to the lower rungs of the culinary hierarchy, shoppers passing them over for more exciting root vegetables, like carrots and beets.
But as the winter assortment of seasonal produce dwindles, the sweet and earthy taste of a parsnip is one to embrace, and one to put to use in the kitchen.
Similar in shape and texture to a carrot, parsnips have been cultivated since ancient times. They were present on the Roman table, and until the potato made its way from the New World to Europe with the Spanish explorers, parsnips were the starch of choice in the European kitchen.
In North America, we have been cultivating parsnips since colonial times. They require a longer growing season, and their taste and sweetness get better after exposure to frost.
A member of the umbelliferae family, parsnips are related to dill, fennel and celery, and most people will know them for their nutty, earthy taste if eaten raw. Thanks to the root vegetable’s starchy attributes, when baked and cooked, the parsnip sweetens. In fact, before the arrival of cane sugar in Europe, parsnips were often used as a sweetener in cakes and other baked goods.
Because the parsnip has lost its role as the center stage vegetable, often it’s hard to know what to do with them. Given their starchiness, parsnips can easily replace potatoes in any dish. Chop up carrots and parsnips, toss them in olive oil, salt, pepper and a little rosemary, place them in the oven and you have a colorful batch of roasted vegetables, perfect on their own or as a side dish.
Parsnips are commonly used in soups but they can even be baked as fries, just like what you would do with potatoes. Just like in the medieval European kitchen, parsnips can take on a sweeter role. Try a parsnip pie, or replace the carrots in a carrot cake for a unique twist.
When shopping, opt for parsnips that are smaller in size, as they are sweeter and more tender, and when you are cooking with them, you want that extra taste. You want them to be firm, but not woody.
However you prepare them, let this be the season of the parsnip.
Anna Brones is a writer and cookbook author born and raised on the Key Peninsula. More of her food writing can be found at foodieunderground.com.