Learn about growing winter parsnips for dependable cropping in cold months.
If anyone is soliciting candidates for low point of the year, my trusty advisers and I vote for February. I used to have tacked on my bulletin board a disgusted letter to some editor declaring "February is a waste of time." If you're looking for garden pickings, this is mostly true.
Gail, our panel member in California, says February is fog, and even in this gardening state, there's almost nothing in her garden or the local farmer's market. Matters are even worse in colder places, where farmer's markets often shut down for winter and snow covers the back yards. (Knowing what Arizona summers are like, the rest of us try not to envy Barbara, our desert cohort, who manages to carry broccoli through winter under hoops and plastic.)
I hasten to add, however, that this cold season offers Northerners a couple of spectacular rewards. I plant carrots late, just so I have lots of them for winter; if I've protected them with a mulch of hay, I can keep grubbing them out through the season. They're unbelievably sweet from the cold; so good I could eat them raw every day — and often do.
Parsnips are the real winter reward, but the harvest is a lot more iffy. I've found when growing winter parsnips even very fresh seeds can be hard to germinate in Summer heat, when I usually plant them following spinach. I never harvest a lot, and last year I had none. But if the parsnips sprout, and if I've remembered to sow them where the low winter sun hits, there's usually enough of a temporary thaw sometime in February or March to wrest the survivors out of the ground, sauté them in a little butter and fall into gustatory ecstasy.
Although I've loved parsnips for years, I'd forgotten until I was browsing recently in my journal that late-winter parsnips were what first bonded me, eight years ago, to my present garden's soil. After more than a third of a century in one house, my husband, Alan, and I were gutting a battered old building we intended to transform into our last resting place, short of the grave. In July when the old beast was in the final stages of deconstruction, we seeded parsnips in the garden we'd created out back — confident that by late winter we would be living there to harvest them.
Between the seed and the great white root, however, our world caved in. As I explained in This Organic Life, the building that was to be our future home turned out to be unsalvageably rotted, and had to be demolished. Building a house from the ground up in four months was an unanticipated "opportunity" that turned out to be painful, frustrating, utterly absorbing — and brutally contentious. On the last day of January, the date our contract required us to evacuate our previous abode, we moved into an unfinished house — barely speaking to each other except to bark orders about closet rods and window coverings.
Just over a month later, I wrote the following:
Alan left early. When I went out to the car around 11:00, I cursed myself for having spent the morning indoors. It was spring, with a bird singing and the most balmy air blowing! Lovely! . . .
So when I came home, I dropped my backpack and purse and went out to dig some parsnips for dinner. I had a wave of feeling and remembrance for the garden that has been so remote from our thoughts while we struggled with the house. Feeling for this garden and remembrance of the old one where I would have dug parsnips so many other years. The parsnips are small — the soil needs strengthening for sure — but I dug four and will have them for dinner. After a 61-degree day today, it's going to snow before morning.
Parsnips aside — and I acknowledge that's where many folks think they belong — lots of local foods are available to eat in the cold-season places where most people depend on distant food. Avoiding such dependency simply means learning to enjoy what's available in this difficult time of year. I'm convinced parsnips can help, simply sliced and sautéed briefly (they cook so much faster than carrots) in butter and olive oil.
Jennifer, our New York adviser, votes for an equally simple dish her recipe book calls Morkov Carrots. Since she leaves out three of the major ingredients — tomatoes, peppers and sugar — they're really Jennifer's Parsnips and Carrots, and they're deliciously sweet. Why would anyone add sugar?
Eating locally in winter helps reduce our energy dependence, a dependence made vividly evident in the year just passed. As the preface to a recent British publication called Eating Oil; reminds us: "In the contemporary food system the dependency on crude oil during each stage of increasingly complicated and lengthy supply chains increases the vulnerability of [the] food supply." Climate change, the report goes on, is just one of the consequences of this oil dependence. Learning to crave freshly dug parsnips and carrots to supplement what's stored, canned and frozen is all part of the process of learning to eat where we live.
Reducing our oil dependence doesn't have to mean sacrificing all those tender vegetables in winter. A cold frame in a sunny corner uses no resources except scrap lumber and an old window frame. Then, if you remembered to plant lettuce seeds there in late summer, you can go out one February evening just before dark, raise the window frame, pick some of the elegantly ruffled "Lollo Rosa" leaves, and take them in for a salad to serve with these delicious, delightfully simple parsnips.
By Joan Gussow, with advisers Mary Anselmino,Michigan; Gail Feenstra, California; Barbara Kingsolver, Arizona/Virginia; Toni Liquori, New York City; Jennifer Wilkins, New York.