Parsnips have been grown since Roman times. The parsnip is a root vegetable, and along with carrot and parsley, it belongs to the Umbelliferae family.
Parsnips don’t please everyone. There are those who find them too sweet for their taste and the woodsy earthy scent too strong. But then there are people like me, who love them, especially the rich earthy aromas they give off as they simmer in stocks and soups. Combined with carrot, celery and onion, they smell of goodness, of mum’s homemade vegetable soup, and that takes me back to her kitchen.
When I grew up my mother cooked them around a joint of meat for our weekly Sunday roast lunch. They are superb this way, imbued with meat juices, sticky and caramelised around the edges, and make a scrumptious match for roasted beef with Brussels sprouts and good gravy on the side.
It brings to mind one of the most important aspects about parsnips: they love fat. It doesn’t need to be meat fat, which is just as well as most people have cut meat fat (dripping) out of their diets long ago. Butter or oil will do. You can spray parsnips with the merest coating of oil and almost dry-bake them if you will, but you risk them shrivelling and turning soft and rubbery. Too much fat in the dish and you’ll end up with soggy, saturated parsnips. The middle road is best. I recommend rubbing parsnips generously with oil and having just a splash of it in the roasting dish. I use olive oil but you could use a lighter oil or an oil spray, but I love giving my hands a healthy massage with olive oil while I am at it!
Unlike potatoes, parsnips can be puréed in a food processor, making light work of turning them into a glorious mash that is rich and creamy in texture. Cut them into short lengths and cook in gently boiling, salted water until very tender (remove any brown froth that rises up during cooking). Drain well but don’t let them cool. Add to the bowl of a food processor and whip in a good dollop of softish butter and plenty of seasoning – sea salt, freshly grated nutmeg, that sort of thing – then, with machine running, pour in enough hot milk or cream to turn them into a velvety creamy mash. Serve piping hot. Use whole fat milk or regular cream (low-fat milk is too thin and double cream is too thick). It’s important to keep everything hot as you go, so that the purée stays light and aerated. Transfer to a heated dish and serve immediately. No food processor?
Mash to a fluff with a potato masher as best you can and whip in butter, seasonings and as much cream as you dare. It will be more textural but it will still taste delicious.
For a change, fold through a little chopped thyme or parsley, or snipped chives, or sizzle sage leaves in butter and pour on top of the mash. Rosemary, parsley and marjoram also make happy unions, garlic, too, either crushed and added to the parsnips before blending, or sizzled along with the herbs. Another idea is to top the mash with buttery pan-fried walnuts and rosemary – a delicious match with roast beef. The mash also makes a good cushion for dishes with gravy or plenty of juices.
Bake the mash
If you have swede, carrot and parsnip, make a bake. Yep.Mash parsnips and combine with mashed swedes and carrots, plenty of butter and seasonings, some cream and an egg. Spread in a shallow buttered dish, top with crumbs, dot with butter and bake until golden. It goes with anything but it’s great with roasted beef, lamb or chicken, or for an all-vegetable meal, with cavolo nero, Brussels sprouts and other winter vegetables.
To make good roast parsnips using oil, massage whole, peeled medium-sized parsnips with a little oil. Put them in a shallow dish and cook for about 40 minutes, turning them from time to time and taking care not to let them burn. Or do them American style, in orange juice and brown sugar and cook till golden and glazed. Added to a tray of roast vegetables, parsnips contribute lots of flavour – just remember to rub each one generously with oil because a drizzle won’t do it if doesn’t anoint each piece of parsnip. A good combination is carrot, parsnip, fennel, red onion and trimmed heads of garlic. Add herbs towards the end.
Spice them up
Parsnips like spices, too, and they can take loads of garlic. A good commercial blend of curry powder works with them, although you can make a spice blend of your own with ground cinnamon and cumin, chilli powder and a touch of turmeric, with or without garlic. Forgo the Indian spice route and try them with a grating of fresh nutmeg, with or without lashing of cream or butter. They’re good with soft herbs such as chopped parsley and chives, and woody ones like rosemary and thyme.
Quick soup idea
One of the most delicious soups can be made quite quickly and with little effort, from chopped parsnips added to a pan of sizzling butter along with onion and garlic. Add a tablespoon or two of water, then cover the pan and let the vegetables soften. Once they’ve wilted, stir in a spoonful of curry powder, and this needs to be fresh; don’t use something you’ve had at the back of the cupboard for a year or two. Add some cubed potatoes to give the soup bulk, then simmer the lot in stock or water until tender. Blend until smooth and finish with a little cream or yoghurt. It’s a real toe-warmer. Curried Parsnip Soup
Other ways with parsnips
More common than mashed swede and parsnip is the combination of mashed carrots and parsnips. This is good with just salt, pepper and butter, but it can be enhanced with a touch of curry powder, or a sprinkling of herbs such as snipped chives or chopped parsley, or a little fresh thyme.
Sticking with the curry-spice thing, another easy idea is to toss cooked parsnips in a spicy butter flavoured with crushed coriander seeds – parsnips like the lemony scent – a jot or two of chilli powder and a pinch of ground cumin. Don’t go overboard with the amount of spices or you’ll overpower the parsnip’s nutty sweetness, just add a little of this or a little of that to make it taste interesting.
Parsnips are also good simmered until tender in a well flavoured chicken or vegetable stock and served alongside roast chicken or lamb cutlets. Add a smattering of snipped chives or chopped chervil to bring a refreshing aniseedy taste.
Roasted in the oven and finished with garlic, rosemary and parmesan is a delicious treatment. Best-ever Roasted Parsnips with Crispy Parmesan & Garlic
Parsnips make great chips – frying seems to develop their sweet nutty flavour and they brown well because of the sugar content. Choose young snappy parsnips with no woody cores and slice them into the thinnest rounds possible. For 4 parsnips, heat 6 tablespoons oil in a frying pan until it is very hot, almost hazing. Fry in batches, for 2-3 minutes, until golden brown. Remove with a slotted spoon, drain briefly on paper towels and salt lightly. These can be made in advance as they will stay crisp for a few hours, and if kept airtight, they’ll be good for at least a day.
A different look is obtained if you peel the parsnips and shave into long, thin strips with a potato peeler. Fry in batches in hot oil in a deep fryer till lightly golden. Remove from the oil with tongs, drain briefly on paper towels and sprinkle with sea salt. Cool, then store airtight; the parsnips can be made several hours in advance.
And parsnips make great fritters, either mixed with other vegetables or with walnuts added for crunch.
What to look for
Parsnips are available just about year-round, but they are at their best during the winter months. Like Brussels sprouts, they are all the better for a nip of frost. The chill makes them sweeter and crisper as the starch is converted to sugar as the parsnips freeze.
Look for slim, young and fresh creamy-white parsnips when purchasing. Don’t buy them if they are withered or showing signs of yellowing, or have bendy tips. They’ll be a disappointment. Mature parsnips often have a woody core, which needs to be cut out as you prepare them.
To keep parsnips crisp, store them refrigerated, in a pierced or open plastic bag (they will rot if moisture is trapped in the bag).
Good for you
Parsnips are a very good source of dietary fibre, vitamin C and potassium, and contain small amounts of phosphorous, iron and beta-carotene.
Parsnips have a distinctive flavour – at once earthy, nutty and woody, and sweet.
Citrus, especially lemon and orange, give a fresh clean lift and cut some of the sweetness. They love freshly ground coriander, smoked paprika, ground cumin, nutmeg and cinnamon, but careful with the last, just a few jots, or it will be too scented. A few pinches of curry powder can also give a spicy lift.
Umami ingredients such as parmesan cheese and bacon and pancetta, either folded through a mash (grated parmesan, or sizzled and chopped bacon or pancetta), draped over the top or a mash or gratin (sizzle bacon or pancetta rashers), or scattered over the top towards the end of roasting (grated parmesan) is a tasty angle to introduce.