The Romans grew and relished parsnips but thought they were a type of carrot. Cooks in the Middle Ages converted them into thick porridge and stews. And home gardeners today are rediscovering parsnips for their homey flavor and adaptability to numerous culinary treatments.
Most parsnips thrive in a variety of soils, from light and sandy to heavy clay. They are easy to grow but must be planted early in spring as soon as the ground thaws. The rule of thumb is to plant parsnips when you plant potatoes. Sow seeds about 1/2 inch deep in rows 2 feet apart, then thin the seedlings over the summer so that the plants are spaced 3 inches apart. When growing parsnips from seed, be sure the seeds are dated and fresh, because parsnip seeds stay viable for only six to eight months after they ripen.
After the first fall frost, the roots should be ready to pull; freezing always improves their flavor, turning the starches in the roots into sugar. For this reason, your parsnips will be sweetest if left in the ground through the winter. Cover the plants with hay and dig them up over the winter as needed. You can also store them in a large plastic foam ice chest in the garage, well buried in damp sand. Make sure to harvest the remainder of last year's planting now, in early spring, just as the ground thaws and before the roots start growing again; if left in the ground to grow, they will become bitter and tough.
I prefer to grow heirloom varieties available from seed companies. 'Hollow Crown' (pre-1830) and 'The Student' (introduced about 1869) originated in England. These large-rooted varieties require deeply tilled soil. Smaller varieties such as 'Guernsey Long' (turnip shaped) are ideal for small gardens and tub culture. Other more common and widely available varieties include 'Lancer' and 'Harris' Model'. Here are three of my favorite recipes that use parsnips in unusual ways.
This low-fat soup has a delicious fruity flavor. Tart rhubarb tempers sweet parsnips, and vice versa. You can also add ham.
Peel parsnips, then cut parsnips and rhubarb into 1-inch chunks. Place in a 2-quart pan with leeks, bay leaves, and chicken stock. Cover and cook over medium heat until parsnips are very soft and rhubarb has completely dissolved, about 30 minutes. Remove bay leaves. In a blender or food processor, puree the mixture until smooth and creamy. Return soup to pan and reheat until hot. Add sugar, and salt to taste. Serve immediately with liberal quantities of chopped dill and sour cream, if desired. Makes 6 servings.
This adaptation of an 1840s Philadelphia recipe is made on the same principle as potato bread. Parsnip breads, with their light texture, were popular in colonial America.
Peel and coarsely chop parsnip. Put it in a small pan with enough water to cover, and boil until very soft, about 25 minutes. Drain and place parsnip in a blender or food processor with milk. Puree until smooth and creamy, then add yeast. Pour mixture into a bowl and let it stand in a warm place until doubled in bulk.
To the parsnip mixture add melted butter or oil, salt, and 4 cups of flour. Work this into a sticky dough, then add the remaining 1/4 cup flour. Knead dough until light and pliant, 5 to 10 minutes; cover with a damp cloth and let rise until doubled in bulk.
Preheat the oven to 375? F. Butter 24 muffin cups (2-1/2-in. size). Knead the dough lightly. Form into 24 equal-sized balls and set them into muffin cups. Cover and let rise in a warm place, about 15 minutes. Bake until golden, about 20 minutes. For a crisp crust, brush muffins with ice water as soon as they come from the oven. Serve warm. Makes 2 dozen muffins.
Old-fashioned lemon curd is made with a great many eggs. This tasty creation uses parsnips instead, and National Gardening editors thought it tasted even better than the traditional recipe. Use it as a spread on parsnip muffins or as a cake filling.
Peel and chop parsnips. Place in a 2-quart pan with enough water to cover, and boil until soft, about 25 minutes. Remove parsnips from the cooking liquid; reserve about 1 cup of the liquid. Puree parsnips in a blender or food processor. If parsnips are too dry, add some of the cooking liquid. The puree should resemble mashed potatoes.
Put puree into a clean pan with sugar, butter, lemon juice, and lemon zest. Cook over medium-high heat, whisking from time to time, until thick and glossy, about 20 minutes. Pour into a clean glass container and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks. For best flavor, serve at room temperature. Makes about 3 cups.
William Woys Weaver raises more than 2,000 varieties of heirloom vegetables at his home in Pennsylvania.
Photography by Andre Baranowski