Produce of the Week - Parsnip
sponsored by Coleman Farms
Despite its unassuming appearance, the Parsnip (Pastinaca sativa) is surprizingly interesting, and vice versa. For example, it's russian name pasternak is shared with the Russian poet and novelist. Closer to home, there's a bit of a botanical puzzle, in that while important distinctions are made between the 'wild' and the cultivated parsnip, they're taxonomically the same, both sativa, that is, 'cultivated'. Indeed, the wild one is P. sativa var. sylvestris, i.e. Parsnip, cultivated, wild variety. This is apparently down to the parsnips we eat being the result of only a little 'development', having genomes that in principle could be found in the wild gene pool. There's also mention that 'Native Americans' used the wild parsnip for it's medical properties. This even though the parsnip, wild or otherwise, is not a native American plant, so either there's a mistake here, or indigenous Americans were quite willing to forsake tradition, in times past. Even earlier, the Romans apparently considered the root to have aphrodisiac properties. I can only think that either Roman parsnips, or Roman physiology, was different from our own.
The earlier articles on root vegetables often refer to their sweetness. The parsnip is probably the sweetest of the lot, sweet enough, in fact, to be useful as a sweetening agent in bread or cake, or for making 'beer', and subsequently distilling to spirits. Its high sugar content and rich flavor, which peaks after a good frost, or a series of frosts (that is, ready about now), together with its caloric content and nutritional value, made it popular in earlier times for Lenten fare, which was bereft of ordinary sweets, and of the flavor of meat, for those who could afford them.
Sweetness and fairly bold, nutty flavor, together with a consistency similar to sweet potato, make parsnips appropriate in a number of dishes, from a simple, or not quite so simple, puree, as a side, steamed or boiled, on its own or with other root vegetables, and in soups and stews and curries, where the parsnips can be left in chunks, or partly or entirely mashed and left to thicken the broth. Parsnips are also good roasted. They can be roasted whole, or sliced or diced. In the latter cases, the juices will caramelize to some extent, concentrating sweetness and flavor. Another way to achieve this is to slowly braise the vegetable, sliced lengthwise. They can be cooked thus on their own, of course, but they are particularly nice cooked together with carrots. The two roots are similar, but pairing them sets off their colors and the particularlities of their flavor nicely. If you're a bit more adventurous, consider cooking these two together with some fennel. Slow braising can be a bit of a fag, since it requires a lot of turning. Roasting the vegetables in a dish largely or entirely avoids this , but is likely to result in less caramelization. Cooking them en papillote (wrapped in foil, say) would be different still, with little or no caramelization, but greater melding of flavors. One of the less obvious ways of preparing parsnips is 'chipping', slicing them very thin and quickly cooking in deep fat. This will result in something best suited for a snack, but parsnips could also be 'chipped' in the British style, that is, julienned and cooked in deep fat, similar to French fries, if you're keen to cook this way.
The mention above of Fennel provides an opportunity to remark that the late stage stalks and foliage of the (wild) parsnip are quite similar to those of fennel in appearance, but not in flavor: the parsnip will have no taste of anise whatsoever. This is important to remember if you're foraging for wild fennel, which can be used in cooking, though it doesn't develop much of a bulb, so you'll have to be content with using the tops, which may be very strong-flavored. It would be all right, if disappointing, to use wild parsnip instead, except that there's a third plant out there that looks much the same, does not taste of anise, and is somewhat toxic. So if you're foraging for fennel, make sure that what you pick smells and tastes like anise or liquorice.
This week's photo courtesy of Government of New South Wales