Don't Underplay Those Parsnips

By Stephanie Witt Sedgwick
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 5, 2007

If any vegetable could have a split personality, it would surely be the parsnip. The root vegetable brought to America in the 17th century looks like a pale carrot and gets such varied reactions from those who try it. Is it loved or loathed? Familiar or obscure?

"I don't have a chef who doesn't want them," says Tony Ricci, sales manager at Tuscarora Organic Growers Cooperative in Pennsylvania, which supplies fruits and vegetables to Washington area restaurants.

"I love them," says Barton Seaver, chef at Hook in Georgetown. "The texture, the flavor, the aroma, the look." Christophe Poteaux, one of the chef-owners of Bastille in Alexandria, covets the parsnip as well. "The sweetness of it and the texture you can play with. . . . I find it so versatile," he says.

But at the checkout counter of an area supermarket known for its abundant produce, the cashier stopped recently when she got to my bag. "Turnips?" she asked.

Polling my friends who love to cook elicited equally uninformed reactions. No one was sure how to prepare parsnips. "I've seen them," said Vienna resident Dorothy Atherton, who stops at roadside stands to find the perfect melon and can wax eloquent about roasted vegetable bruschetta. "But I have no idea what they taste like."

Parsnips, available year-round but especially plentiful in stores now, were once a staple, as common as the potato. They were "the main root crop in Europe before the introduction of the potato," Ricci says. They were used exactly as we use the potato now. Mashed, roasted, boiled, fried: Almost anything that can be done with a potato was done with the parsnip.

The introduction of the potato pushed the parsnip aside. Though emigrant groups from Europe brought the parsnip with them to America and kept cultivating and eating it, the vegetable was slowly eclipsed. "It became less and less of a mainstay," Ricci says, "and by the mid-19th century, it fell out of vogue."

Parsnips retain one characteristic that no potato can replicate: flavor. The taste is sweet and distinct, and the aroma further fuels the ardor that parsnips inspire among the culinary elite. Caramelized and then pulverized, parsnips make a wonderful soup. Roasted, they are a perfect accompaniment to beef and pork. Sliced and fried into chips, they become a crisp and unexpected topping for mashed potatoes. Pureed, they can elevate a serving of duck or lamb. Cut into chunks, they bring extra flavor to stews.

There's no mystery in handling and storing them: Treat parsnips the same as carrots. Peel before using, and cut as you please. Parsnips with really fat root ends tend to be too starchy. Either avoid the chubby ones or simply quarter each parsnip and cut away its starchy center.

For the uninitiated, I recommend roasting as a good place to start. Toss parsnip pieces with some oil, salt and pepper and place in a hot oven; roast until tender and browned. If you're into quick cooking, try glazing them on the stovetop (see sidebar below). Their earthiness makes them a good match with other root vegetables and with mushrooms and asparagus; their sweetness complements roasted salmon and other fish.

Stephanie Witt Sedgwick, a former Food section recipe editor, can be reached column appears the first Wednesday of every month.

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