The parsnip must be the most surprising root vegetable. It’s a slightly gnarly, wedge-shaped white tuber the sight of which isn’t promising. Then it’s cooked and the wonderful glorious parsnip reveals itself. I love the expression of someone who’s never eaten a parsnip before.
The most remarkable thing about parsnips is how naturally sweet and spicy they are. In the economic sense, this is a disadvantage and attraction for the plant. It’s a disadvantage because blander root vegetables usually win out in popularity because they can be combined with more foods, for example, the potato. It’s also a plant that doesn’t produce much food given the room it takes up in the garden. But the attraction is a root vegetable that truly doesn’t need much and is easy to cook.
Globetrotting parsnip history
In classical times, Greek and Roman authors were not clear whether they were referring to the parsnip or carrot or both when they mentioned the daucos, as do both Hippocrates (circa 460-370 B.C.) and Dioscorides in the first century. The Roman naturalist Pliny (A.D. circa 23-79) described pastinaca as referring to either parsnips or carrots, and maybe both.
One of the odd things about the parsnip is that it is originally from the Mediterranean, but hasn’t been terribly popular there since the Renaissance when Maestro Martino da Como gave a recipe for deep-fried parsnips in his “Libro de arte coquinaria” (“Book of the Art of Cookery”) written in 1450. Today, it’s much more associated with cooking in North America.
The parsnip made the voyage to the Americas by way of the West Indies where it was introduced in 1564 on Margarita Island off the coast of Venezuela. It didn’t grow well in the tropical climate of the Caribbean and its popularity moved on to Virginia where it was being grown by 1609.
It was dispersed by Native Americans, for the most part, and was first mentioned in Massachusetts in 1629, where it became a very popular vegetable. Westfield, Mass., became the capital of the parsnip, and when I grew them in my garden down the road in Arlington, I would leave them in the ground to over-winter, digging them up in the spring.
How to grow, choose and store parsnips
Parsnip (Pastinaca sativa L. subsp. sativa) is a member of the Umbelliferae family, as are carrots. In Arabic, the plant is called “white carrot” (jazar abyad). Although the leaves can be eaten, I don’t know anyone who does as the prized edible part is the fat wedge-shaped root.
Parsnips grow best in a very deep, well-dug place with fine loamy soil that has not been enhanced with manure. Manure will make the roots fork. Parsnips can be left in the ground through the winter and harvested in spring before the plant begins to grow again.
Whether from your garden or the store, choose parsnips that are relatively smooth-skinned and straight because you end up wasting a lot of the crooked ones when peeling. Avoid very large parsnips if you think peeling them will be easier: They will be woodier tasting in their centers. But, whatever size parsnip you use, cut them in half lengthwise and then cut out any woody looking sections in the middle of large parsnips with a paring knife.
Also, avoid parsnips that have a lot of hairy-looking rootlets as well as ones that are limp. Store parsnips in the refrigerator in plastic bags, which will make the roots sweeter. They can keep for a month this way.
A simple preparation
Cut the parsnips into ¾-inch cubes, place in a baking dish with some butter or olive oil and salt and bake at 400 F until golden and tender in about 30 minutes. That’s all you need to do for one of the finest root vegetables around.
Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.
Photo: Parsnips. Credit: Clifford A. Wright