The parsnip (Pastinaca sativa) is an often ignored, yet delightful, root vegetable related to the carrot. The parsnip is also a relative of celeriac and parsley root and closely resembles carrots in appearance, but is tan and have a more distinct flavor.
Parsnips originated in the eastern Mediterranean, but the date they were introduced into cultivation is unclear because the references to parsnips and carrots in Greek and Roman literature are interchangeable. Tiberius Caesar was said to have imported parsnips from Germany, where they flourished along the Rhine, though the Celts may have brought them back from the east long before that era.
The parsnip originally was the size of a small carrot when fully grown but the further north the vegetable was grown the larger they grew. Cultivation has produced a sweet, aromatic root that looks much like a carrot, only it is a tan color with white flesh. There are varying shapes of parsnips: bulbous types are stocky with rounded shoulders; wedge types are broad and long; and bayonet types are long and narrow.
Until the potato arrived from the western hemisphere the parsnip and other root vegetables were used extensively for culinary purposes. In medieval Europe, sugar was rare and honey expensive so the sweet parsnip became doubly useful. The juices were evaporated, and the brown residue was used to sweeten foods. Parsnips were used extensively as a sweetener until the development of the sugar beet in the 19th century.
In the middle Ages, the parsnip was also valued medicinally for treating such diverse problems as toothaches and stomach aches.
Parsnips were introduced into North America by early settlers. They were grown in Virginia by 1609, and were soon accepted by the American Indians. As the sugar supply increased and the potato gained prominence the popularity of the parsnip began to wane.
Parsnips have a mild celery-like fragrance and a sweet nutty flavor, which improves if the root is allowed to stay in the ground until after the first frost. This causes the starches to covert to sugars. A fresh one will have a buttery-soft texture when cooked – the whiter ones are the most tender, and should be firm like a carrot.
Parsnips will keep for weeks if properly stored in a very cool place and should be scrubbed rather than peeled.
The parsnip is rich in vitamins and minerals though lacking the beta carotene of close relative, the carrot. Parsnips are a good source of fiber, folate, magnesium, potassium, Vitamins C and E, calcium, iron, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and B6. Parsnips are also a low calorie food, but this depends on how they are cooked.
Parsnips are starting to make a culinary comeback due to a new generation of chefs and the parsnips amazing versatility.
Parsnips can be boiled, roasted, grilled, micro-waved, stir fried or even eaten raw. They can be served alone or paired with other root vegetables. They are perfect as a side dish or used in stews, soups and casseroles.
Here are two easy parsnip recipes with a few variations: