"Parsnips ... ugh!"
There's something about the very word "parsnip" that can shrivel the taste buds of a generation raised on TV dinners. And I'll admit that the way in which this root vegetable is traditionally served (boiled and buttered) seems to please more adult than juvenile palates.
But parsnips can be so much more! Soups and stews, for instance. French fries. Pancakes. Pies. Even flaming desserts! As I'll prove before this article is finished.
Parsnips are a "full season" crop (the roots take about 130 days to reach full maturity) and do best when planted sometime between early spring and early summer. I like to put mine in my garden's border rows ... where they're out of the way as my family harvests faster-growing produce in the rest of the vegetable patch and sows second crops in its place.
Sprinkle your parsnip seeds out very thinly and about one-half inch deep in rows spaced two feet apart. Then, when the plants are three inches tall, thin them until they stand five inches from each other in the rows. (These are average "common sense" distances that should guarantee success for almost any first-time parsnip grower. I have, however, grown superior parsnips spaced only three inches apart in rows separated by just eighteen inches.)
The best parsnips are smooth-skinned and tender, and have a sweet flavor. And the keys to making yours grow up that way are rich soil, and ample and consistent moisture.
Parsnips require plenty of moisture all the time and the surest way to turn your roots into a woody, fibrous, malformed crop is by allowing the earth around them to become dry for even short periods of time.
But then, of course, there's no real need for your parsnip patch to dry out. Not when it's so easy to keep it consistently moist with a thick layer of leaves, weeds, grass cuttings, straw, hay, or other organic mulch. Even a heavy carpet of newspapers or magazines weighted down between the rows with stones will do the trick.
Your roots may be added to soups and stews as soon as they attain a reasonable size. Freezing, however, greatly improves both the flavor and texture of the vegetable and brings out its sweetness and aromatic characteristic.
Before the ground freezes, then, you should dig only as many parsnips as you'll want to use during the main part of the winter. When washed and wrapped whole in anything (say, waxed paper) that conserves their moisture, these roots will keep for weeks — even several months — in a refrigerator.
Whole washed and wrapped parsnips will also keep well in unheated garages, sheds, and cellars during the very cool days of fall and on into the winter. Do not, though, allow such roots to alternately freeze and thaw. (One good continuous freeze is OK, but alternate freezes and thaws will cause the vegetable to rot.) Keep any parsnips stored this way cool — even cold — but unfrozen.
Parsnips are ideal candidates for pit storage too. Just bury a big box or barrel in your garden or yard (I've sunk a number of nail kegs from the local lumberyard in mine), fill it with layers of parsnips surrounded and separated by layers of dry leaves or straw, fit the container with a tight lid, and cover it with a tall mound of soil. The idea, once again, is to keep the harvested roots ill from drying out, and cool — even cold — but free from the danger of alternately freezing and thawing.
Of course, in most localities where parsnips are grown, there's no real need to go to even this amount of trouble. Here in Nebraska, for example, I usually just leave about half of each year's crop of the vegetable right in the ground and right in the rows in which they grew. All I do, in the fall before the first freeze, is cover the parsnips with four or five inches of dirt and then top that earth with another four or five inches of straw, leaves, or other mulch. So protected, the roots slumber peacefully through the winter and are at their very best when dug fresh as desired from the garden early the following spring.
The general rule, by the way, that most folks follow when using this last method of storing parsnips is "the roots must be harvested in the spring before new growth begins." And it is true that the vegetables probably will be worthless for the table if they've started to grow again before you dig them. I have found, though, that the parsnips themselves are still quite palatable if dug after only a little new foliar growth has been sent out by the plants.
What this means in actual practice is that, as soon as I see the first signs of new green foliage popping up in my buried last-year's parsnip patch, I simply pile on more soil and mulch. By so doing, I've been able to inhibit any damaging second-year growth until as late as May 1.
Still, the earlier you dig "wintered over" parsnips, the better. And, properly stored (washed and wrapped and placed in the refrigerator or a cool cellar), such spring-dug parsnips will keep and keep well until the new crop matures in the fall.
Finally, if you're a true child of the modern age ... yes, you can store parsnips in your home freezer too. Wash each root thoroughly and slice it-either cross — or length-wise — into quarter-inch-thick pieces. If the cores are woody, remove them with a sharp knife. Then water-scald the chunks of vegetable for three minutes or steam-scald them for four ... and cool, bag, and freeze the prepared parsnips.
Parsnips are rich in minerals and vitamins ... especially vitamin C. The vegetable is also reputed to aid digestion. And, although I have no scientific or medical proof, I personally find that regular servings of the roots improve my circulation and alleviate pain in my joints, my hands, and my feet.
I'm sold, then, on the healthful benefits of eating parsnips. I'm also, after some experimentation, more than a little excited by the gastronomic potential of the vegetable ... as I'm sure you will be too if you try the following recipes.
Slice one medium parsnip (core it, if its center is woody), one small turnip, one medium carrot, one small onion, two golf ball-sized potatoes, and three medium salsify, and steam them all in a covered container until they're completely tender. Then mash or blend all the vegetables and combine them with four cups of milk. Bring the resulting solution to a near boil — but do not boil it — over a low flame.
Brighten the dish with pinches of garlic powder, red pepper flakes, parsley, oregano (go easy), or celery seasoning. Then pour the chowder into bowls, top with pats of butter, and season to taste with salt and black pepper.
Cut very large parsnips crosswise into four-inch-long sections. Then quarter each section lengthwise and slice the resulting pieces lengthwise again into eighths. Remove all cores and continue slicing the pieces of parsnip lengthwise until each one is "french-fry" size.
Deep-fry the slivers of vegetable in oil, just the way you'd deep-fry potatoes, until they're golden brown. Salt and pepper to taste and serve as a supremely healthful snack, or side dish.
For tenderest fries, deep-fry the sliced root over a low flame in a covered pan until each sliver is half done. Then remove the cover and brown the pan's contents over a medium-high flame. You'll be surprised at how little oil the pieces of parsnip will absorb!
Cut the upper halves of large parsnips into silver dollarsized slices three-eighths of an inch thick. Then tenderize the slices by cooking them in a small amount of water in a covered skillet over a very low flame. Cook this way until the inner core, as well as the outer flesh, of each chunk of the root is tender.
Finally, remove the cover, add enough butter or margarine to brown the slices, and serve them with maple syrup, fruit syrup, or honey. And that's all! This dish tastes better than "real" pancakes, and is certainly more healthful.
Use your best pumpkin pie recipe ... but substitute an equal amount of cooked and blended parsnips for the pumpkin. Serve cold with ice cream or whipped cream.
Add one-half to one cup of chopped or blended shelled pecans to the Not-Pumpkin Pie recipe (above). Fill individual baking dishes with the mixture and bake until it becomes firm (approximately 45 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit). Top with pecan halves and cherries. Chill. Serve with whipped cream topping.
Cook four cups of one-quarter-inch-thick slices of parsnip in one-half cup of orange juice in a covered skillet, over a very low flame until the parsnips are half tender. Maintain enough liquid (orange juice or water) in the pan at all times to prevent burning.
When the slices of parsnip have softened but are still firm, add one-eighth pound of butter or margarine and simmer until the shortening is absorbed by the chunks of vegetable (about three minutes).
Then add one-half cup of honey and a dash of ginger. Cook everything over very low heat until the slices of parsnip are thoroughly tender and the, syrup has thickened slightly. Do not overcook.
Serve this heavenly creation, piping hot, in very small dishes (it's rich). Top each portion with one tablespoon of honey-butter-orange juice syrup. For a really special occasion, you can pour a scant spoonful of brandy into each bowl, ignite it, and present this dessert au flambeau.
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