The sweet, slightly fennel and nutty flavor of parsnips that are wintered-over and dug up in the spring, is a sublime treat that comes when almost nothing else is growing in the garden. Once a highly popular vegetable, they have, as foods do, fallen out of favor to all but those savvy vegetable hunters. They rival carrots for holding over the winter and are as versatile as potatoes in cooking.
To grow parsnips simply requires patience and a little bit of diligence to keep their seeds damp while they are germinating in a garden bed. They take three weeks to germinate so, to prevent weed seed from getting a head start on the parsnip seeds, lay down a one-inch layer of seed-starting or potting soil in the bed that will receive the parsnip seeds. Moisten the soil thoroughly and then sprinkle with the seeds. Dust another layer of soil on top of the seeds and moisten it too. Cover the bed with a layer of plastic to keep the moisture from evaporating quickly and secure the corners with rocks or big pieces of wood. If you can, lift the plastic off when it rains to get the benefit of the free watering and then re-cover until the seeds have germinated. After germination, it’s only a matter of keeping the bed weed free.
For parsnips to achieve their maximum goodness, they must have at least a two-week period of 32- to 40-degree temperatures. This can be achieved in a root cellar or in the ground, but either way it’s an easy thing to achieve in our northern clime. If you choose to winter them over in the ground, cover the bed with a 6- to 12-inch layer of straw. To harvest, dig during those times when the snow melts and you can have easier access to the bed. That didn’t happen much this winter, but once spring hit, the parsnips were perfectly ready to be removed from the ground.
While they do require a little bit of prep work to cook, the effort is worth it for this special seasonal treat.
To prepare, first peel as you would carrots and lop off the tops and bottoms. Split length-wise into quarters and then remove the tougher inner core. Fresher and thinner parsnips don’t always require this treatment, but when you cut into them and see a definite color difference in the core and the exterior, removing the darker, woody core is a must. There is a coloration demarcation that indicates where to place your knife. After the core is removed, grate or cut as per the recipe instructions.
Makes about 10 to 12, serves 4 to 6.
4 cups peeled, cored and grated parsnips; about 3 medium parsnips
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
Pinch or two grated nutmeg
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
In a medium bowl, combine all ingredients except the olive oil. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Scoop a rounded tablespoon of the parsnip mixture and shape into a ball. Gently place in the hot pan and press down with a spatula. Repeat 4 or 5 times until the space in the skillet is taken up but the latkes are not touching each other. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes per side and flip when each side becomes golden brown and crispy. Repeat until all the mixture is cooked. These will stay warm on a platter in a 250 degree oven.
Root Vegetable Soup
This soup uses a technique I learned from Judy Rogers of Zuni Cafe in San Francisco. When the restaurant received larger cuts of beef or pork and even their more delicate fish, the chefs salted it before storing it in the refrigerator. I’ve begun doing this occasionally and very much like the effect. The meat is more fully flavored and tender.
This is a recipe that is good for those rainy spring days when you think you should no longer be wearing sweaters, but instead wish you hadn’t put away the scarves and mittens.
The base of this soup is a flavor treat all its own, however, if you have a hankering to get fancy, the addition of one or more of the optional garnishes can be lovely.
Serves 4 to 6
4 pounds of beef soup bones; about 2 beef soup bones or short ribs
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups chopped onion; about 1 large onion
1 cup chopped celery; about 1 stalk
2 cups peeled and chopped parsnips; about 2 parsnips
3 cups peeled and chopped carrots; about 3 carrots
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Several grinds of fresh black pepper
1 cup white wine
6 cup chicken stock
1 cup water
Diced fresh tomatoes
A day or two before you plan to cook the soup, salt two beef soup bones generously and let them sit in the refrigerator. You can also keep them there for up to a week.
When you are ready to make the soup, heat a large stock pot over medium-high heat and add the oil. Add the vegetables, salt and pepper and sauté for at least 10 minutes, reducing the heat to medium if needed. Add the rest of the ingredients including the beef bones and simmer for at least 45 minutes. Simmer longer if you have the time.
Roasted Parsnips and Collard Greens
Collard greens, as this dish proves, are not only cooked for hours over low heat in bacon fat, with bacon strips or cozied up with a large piece of fat back. In fact, they are less bitter and less fibrous than kale and hence have become a new favorite in our household – minus the bacon fat.
Serves 6 to 8
11/2 pounds parsnips, peeled and cored; about 3 pounds prior to prep work
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus a little more for the collard greens
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, plus a little more for the collard greens
Several grinds of fresh black pepper
4 cups lightly packed collard green leaves
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut the parsnips into 2-inch lengths as you would carrot sticks. On a roasting pan, toss with the olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast for 30 minutes or until parsnips begin to brown on the edges and are cooked all the way through.
Meanwhile, toss the collard greens with a little more olive oil, salt and pepper. When the parsnips are cooked, place the collard greens on top of the parsnips and return the pan to the oven. Roast for another 5 minutes or until the collard greens begin to crisp slightly.
Annie Mahle is the chef aboard the Maine windjammer, Schooner J. & E. Riggin. Her latest cookbook is “Sugar and Salt: A Year At Home and At Sea.” She can be reached at: