During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the parsnip was a popular poor man’s vegetable throughout Europe. In fact, it was as ubiquitous then as the potato is today. Unfortunately, parsnips fell out of favor when they arrived in America with the early colonists, and have been widely unappreciated for generations. But lately, the unassuming root has begun to enjoy a bit of its own renaissance — and rightfully so, say chefs and farmers, who love this versatile veggie. Resembling a white carrot — but with a sweeter, nuttier flavor — parsnips contain virtually no fat, and are packed with vitamin C and folic acid. They are also low in calories and affordable. What’s not to like?
“There are several reasons why you are seeing a resurgence with the parsnip,” says Darryl Mosher, an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. “Of course they are grown locally in the northern regions here, and everybody is into local and sustainable. But in addition, they store really well, and they have a great flavor.”
Mosher says that top chefs often use parsnips in their cooking — but he admits that they don’t always advertise them (the menu may say something generic like “medley of roasted root vegetables”). Most often parsnips turn up at fine restaurants during the fall, when many of the other root vegetables are harvested. But some are not dug up until April and May; these tend to be sweeter and stronger in flavor, since the starch in the root converts to sugar when exposed to the cold.
While the parsnip can be substituted for either potatoes or carrots — and they are also tasty when thrown into stews, soups, pot roasts, or wherever you would use potatoes, carrots, or turnips — it is technically closer to a carrot. Along with carrots, celeriac, and parsley, parsnips are part of the apium plant family. (Contrary to popular belief, technically a potato is not a root vegetable, even though it grows underground. It is a tuber.)
One of his favorite ways to prepare parsnips, says Mosher, is to “shred them and put them in a salad; they have a fairly strong, spicy flavor.” He adds that parsnips can, just like a potato, be stewed, steamed, or boiled. “But they can get kind of messy this way,” he adds. “Roasting gives them a nice texture. It’s the best way to cook them. It seems to really intensify the natural succulence.”
Mosher also recommends cutting up parsnips just like French fries; and he notes that parsnip chips (thin rounds fried in vegetable oil) are becoming a popular snack du jour.
What should you look for when buying parsnips? “They should be heavy for their size and really firm,” says Mosher. “The skin should be smooth and the flesh should have a good yellow color. The stores often wax them — it helps to keep the moisture in — so you may need give them a quick hot water bath, say three minutes, to get the wax off. But you really always want to peel your parsnips.”
In the refrigerator, parsnips can last for up to four weeks.
This recipe is from the Culinary Institute of America’s Vegetables cookbook (2007, Lebhar-Friedman), which is available for purchase at local bookstores or online here.
Photograph by Ben Fink/CIA
The hoisin adds a rich flavor and color to this simple vegetable dish. The larger the vegetable cut, the longer the cooking time.
• 2 Tbsp peanut oil
• 2 Tbsp hoisin
• 2 cups thickly sliced carrots
• 2 cups yellow turnip wedges
• 2 cups thickly sliced parsnips
• 1 fennel bulb, wedge cut
• 1 cup pearl onions, peeled (optional)
• Salt and pepper as needed
• ¼ cup water