Kitchen-garden diary: in praise of parsnips

Ameer Kotecha
·3-min read
Photo credit: NATALIA YANEZ-STIEL
Photo credit: NATALIA YANEZ-STIEL

From Town & Country

The parsimonious parsnip. For all their good value and delicious taste, they barely get a look-in outside of the festive season. On Christmas Day they will have been a star: everyone suddenly remembers how much they love this veg, and yet once the tree and fairy lights are packed away, the parsnip has invariably had its day.

Parsnips tend to be rather unloved all-round. Italians have no time for them, and the French little use them except as a flavouring root in a pot-au-feu or the occasional beef stew. As Jane Grigson points out, under the entry for parsnips, French dictionaries give a slang phrase: “Des panais! – Parsnips!, Nothing doing!, Damn that!”. They’re missing out.

These are a proper winter vegetable – the cold, and especially frost, intensifies and sweetens their flavour when growing, and elevates their peculiar, earthy smell. Cooked in the Christmas manner, as slender quarters roasted in butter and honey, with perhaps just a smattering of sesame seeds on top, they become two veg in one: crisp and chewy at the pointy end, soft and sweet at the other. So long as your oven is hot enough and you give them long enough, there is no need to pre-boil. And in place of the butter you can use olive oil, beef dripping, or duck fat.

They really are sweet – before cane sugar was widely available, the parsnip was used as a sweetener. That sweetness is a double-edged sword: it is delicious when roasted, but can become questionable when boiled or steamed. They are less forgiving than other vegetables to the lazy ‘meat-and-two-veg’ treatment. Personally, I cannot abide the mixed freezer trio of parsnip, carrot and swede. A boiled parsnip served up on its own without any flavouring or finishing is a sorry thing: as Grigson instructs, never serve them straight from the water, any more than you would appear at the dinner table dripping from a bath.

Turned into a soup, they are swell: pair with warming spices as a counterpoint to the sugar to make a curried parsnip soup. Angela Hartnett serves hers with an onion bhaji. Nigel Slater also employs the classic pairing with spice to make savoury parsnip cakes with a creamy curry sauce. Also use them grated in sweet cakes, as you would with carrots, or even try this root vegetable tarte tatin. They can be deep fried into kettle chips too, as Tyrrells have deliciously demonstrated.

Puréed, they are a healthy side to meat, game or wild mushrooms. Or use as a mash to top a shepherd’s pie. Nigella makes a slightly bizarre but interesting gratin from parsnips, potato and porcini, flavoured with star anise. The late Gary Rhodes has a recipe for a parsnip and chestnut crumble: a warming, satisfying dish for the cold winter months, especially if you’re attempting Veganuary.

Parsnips are the sort of old-fashioned, wholesome vegetable that seem so at home in Delia’s cooking, and so it is little wonder that she has a triumphant method, baking the parsnips with parmesan. She also has a recipe for parsnips with a mustard and maple glaze; American cooks do something similar, using brown sugar and fruit juice to create a glossy finish.

There is little to say about preparation, for it is straightforward. Slice off the top and then peel. Alternatively, if making into a purée and you want to preserve every ounce of flavour, cook unpeeled and then run under a cold tap until you can peel away the skin with your fingers. Supermarket parsnips for some reason seem to come with their pointy ends lobbed off. It so infuriates Jamie Oliver that the first thing he does when preparing them is use his knife to sharpen them up again. Bravo.

It may be true that kind words butter no parsnips, but this trusty and overlooked root veg deserves a little praise. They will help get you through the winter. And, God knows, we need that in these trying times.