The Sweet Root
by Sarah West
As much as I love the thrill of rapid-fire freshness, freshness bound to the delicate disposition of beloved summer fruits that seem, at times, to spoil nearly as soon as we get them home, I must admit that winter roots are refreshingly relaxed.
Yes, they lack the juicy sweet acidity of tomatoes or strawberries, but they are endlessly patient with my busy life and forgetful ways, biding their time in some refrigerator drawer until I chance upon them in an attempt to beg dinner from what’s on hand. Desperation draws out an old bag of parsnips, looking little worse for their wear. Scrubbed and waiting on the cutting board, they sit in humble readiness, a root vegetable’s take on freshness. For that, I thank them.
Parsnips look and smell much like a carrot, albeit one the color of faded lace. Eaten as such, their dry, fibrous flesh, woody core, and pungent aroma would stop you at the first bite. These are not roots for nibbling on. Compared to carrots, parsnips are old growth—sown in cool spring soils and left to sweeten through a few rounds of the following winter’s frost, they spend a good nine months underground. In places where the soil freezes, parsnips may be left in it, developing deep, rounded sugars as they sit under the snow.
In our region, now is the time of peak parsnip flavor. Without lingering cold to stunt them, parsnips sown last spring will soon begin their second growth phase. As a biennial, parsnips develop tender roots and thick foliage crowns in their first year, flower shoots and seed heads in their second. As the plants mature into their flower-wearing reproductive phase, the taproots lignify, developing a woody core that is unpleasant to eat. Harvesting before spring kicks in (and spring, in western Oregon, starts mid-February) neatly straddles this cusp—offering roots that had the chance to sweeten in cold ground but have not quite initiated their woody second-year growth.
At market, look for medium-sized roots (one- to two-inches in diameter). Larger parsnips are more likely to have that lignified core, though it is easy enough to spot and remove once the root is quartered. Thin little parsnip wisps are likely to be tender, but if you plan to peel them (as most recipes suggest), you will find yourself with little bulk for lots of effort. Parsnips bruise easily for their density, betraying rough treatment with rust-colored scars. But don’t fret about a few blemishes. Parsnip bruises are not like tomato bruises; remember (and return) their forgiving nature.
Traditional treatment of parsnips goes one of three ways: pureed, roasted, or mashed. I find that their punchy, aromatic fragrance brings rooty brightness to mashes or mélanges of roasted winter vegetables that would otherwise tend toward the cloyingly sweet or bland. Parsnip flavor is full of nuance—caramel and pepper, pungent grass, even nutmeg (with which they share the flavor compound myristicin). Slow roasting brings out their sultry texture—silk with lean muscle—one that was used in wartime Britain to stand in for bananas. This in mind, treating a parsnip with the same technique as a potato or turnip smacks of missed opportunity.
Parsnip’s backbone of a flavor profile can stand up to sturdier seasonings than most of its root cellar kin. It pairs with complex and warming curry blends as deftly as with the pungent cleanness of Mediterranean herbs like rosemary or thyme. Oven-roasted olive oil and rosemary parsnip “fries” dressed in flaky salt are deceptively delicious for how easy they are to make. An introvert of a carrot puree, spread on the plate below something you slice, can become an extravagant sauce when roasted parsnips, saffron, and a pinch of freshly grated ginger are pureed along with it. Parsnips have a pillowy glue about them that, when properly fluffed, makes for buoyant dumplings or tender gnocchi.
But the dessert course is where parsnip transformation reaches the level of enchantment. Grate them into cakes and sweet breads a la carrots, of course, but also consider wilder translations. I came across my first parsnip epiphany in Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Literacy, where she includes a recipe for parsnip-cardamom custard. From there, the gates fly open, imagining parsnips balanced by other warming spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, paired with apples, pears, walnuts, dark chocolate, or dates, sweetened with honey, maple syrup, or molasses. Their silky pulp calls out to pancakes, soufflés, tortes, and streusel-topped coffee cakes, their savory perfume to iced, whipped, or even coconut creams. This spring when the pastry cravings come knocking, consider parsnip your root.