What are parsnips? They’re an ancient root crop that can substitute for potatoes in springtime recipes. Find out how to grow this fragrant vegetable, plus discover recipes for cooking parsnips and spicing them up with tangy fresh sorrel.
Spring begins at different times in different places, but its arrival happens in a predictable sequence. Southern Californians welcome daffodils in February and Mainers anxiously await them in April, but no matter where they’re growing, they always bloom before tulips. It’s the same with edible perennials, such as sorrel, chives and dandelions — one heralds the appearance of the next.
Sorrel is the horse to bet on — so early that it’s up as snowdrops bloom. What a welcome sight it is! When it comes, we’re ready to use its lemony flavor to spark up salads and give a fresh taste to soups.
Meanwhile, the root cellar empties out as remaining stores turn spongy and sprout new growth. Even in the dark, they know it’s spring. But one root vegetable remains crisp in the garden, still in fine form. That’s the parsnip, and it will be waiting to be dug as you eagerly start picking sorrel’s bright, young leaves.
They make a good pair of opposites, as extra-early leaf meets patient root. Their flavors are complementary. Parsnips get sweeter and more flavorful when cold sets in, and by spring they’re like honey. Sorrel’s tartness is the perfect foil.
Parsnips were once the most basic and universal of root crops in Europe. They gave up ground to starchy potatoes when spuds arrived from the New World. Nevertheless, just the fact that a gardener can store parsnips all winter in the soil, without the need for a root cellar, is a worthy reason to cherish them.
Parsnips have a year-long lease in the garden, so they deserve a sunny spot with fertile soil that has been well-pulverized and is free of stones. You can sow them as late as June and still get decent-sized roots, but early spring sowing is best. Gardeners must be patient because germination is slow and iffy, especially in warm, dry weather, so always use fresh seed and keep the seed bed moist until the grasslike leaves appear. If your soil is heavy or crusted over, sow parsnips along with a quick nurse crop of radishes to help break the surface. Thin parsnip seedlings to 5 inches apart, and use a mulch of hay, pine needles or autumn leaves to keep the soil moist and help shade out weeds.
You can dig parsnips whenever they’re big enough to be worthwhile. (Prod gently with a digging fork, and then grasp the root by its shoulders and pull.) But the roots won’t attain their sweetness and rich flavor until prolonged frosty weather. Roasting early parsnips to a caramelized bronze will concentrate what flavor they do have, but they’re more of a treat when unearthed during a winter thaw or in early spring. When warm weather returns, they’ll get woody, and it’ll be time to replace them with another crop.
‘Harris Model’ is the classic old-time parsnip variety. ‘Lancer’ is an improved version with resistance to canker — a fungus that causes the flesh to brown and decay. For heavy clay soil that’s hard for taproots to penetrate, grow the short, bulbous ‘Kral Russian.’ All of those are open-pollinated varieties from which you can save seed. Modern varieties, bred for snow-white flesh that doesn’t brown when cut, tend to be less disease resistant.
To prepare parsnips for cooking, cut off the tops where the stems begin and give the roots a good scrub. Peel only discolored areas because much flavor resides in the skin. You can cook the roots whole, sliced, chopped or shredded. They snarl up the box grater, so instead I shave off long slivers with a vegetable peeler and then cut them crosswise with a knife. You needn’t remove the root’s core unless it’s tough and woody.
Parsnips aren’t typically consumed raw, but you’ll find endless ways to cook them. They make a fine purée, either by themselves or mixed with other vegetables, such as carrots, which lend an orange hue, or with spinach, parsley, sorrel and other greens. They’re great in dishes with braised short ribs or roast duck, where their sweetness complements the rich meat. Try them in a mixed-root-vegetable curry. Bake them in a gratin with onions. Create a sweet-and-sour broth with parsnips, sorrel, lemongrass, ginger, soy sauce and toasted sesame oil. Unleash your culinary creativity to bring parsnips to their full potential.
Sorrel is another Old-World crop worth restoring to popularity. Its lemony acidity is no longer needed for curdling milk when making cheese (though I’d love to try that!), but it’s easy to grow and use for other purposes. Because this perennial herb spreads from runners, you may be able to beg a starter clump from a neighbor. You can also easily direct-sow in mid-spring and then thin to a foot apart a month or two later.
Harvest the outer leaves of fresh sorrel as needed, and new ones will grow in the center. Cutting back flower stalks will keep the plant from going to seed and will thereby prolong your harvest, but the plant may still take a vacation during summer’s heat. New foliage will return in fall, along with the superior flavor that cooler temperatures bring. Though the plant survives most winters, protecting it with a cold frame or greenhouse will extend its season.
Good varieties of common garden sorrel (Rumex acetosa) include ‘Blonde de Lyon’ and ‘Green De Belleville.’ The so-called French sorrel (R. scutatus), which has smaller, shield-shaped leaves, is less common but mild and delicious; one variety called ‘Silver Shield’ has white-marked leaves. There’s also a beautiful, red-veined sorrel (R. sanguineus), and a patented sterile one from Richter’s (www.Richters.com), called ‘Profusion,’ which never goes to seed at all. Finally, there’s the wild sheep sorrel (R. acetosella) that navigates your garden on thread-like runners, preferring patches of acidic soil. Look for it in blueberry patches and enjoy it in salads, free.
Raw sorrel suits any dish that will benefit from its lemony zing. Use it as you would arugula to ignite a humdrum salad. Fresh sorrel is also terrific combined with parsley in tabbouleh — no lemon juice required. Remove any tough stems and ribs by folding the leaves in half vertically with the midrib side up, grasping the stem, and tearing the stem and midrib away. Then, use it as is, or cut a chiffonade by stacking the leaves, rolling them into a cigar shape, and slicing them crosswise into narrow strips.
Cooked sorrel is delicious, with a slightly viscous texture that helps to thicken soups. Try it as a puréed sauce, raw or cooked, under a piece of fish. The color of cooked sorrel is, to some, a major flaw. Heat instantly turns it from bright green to khaki. I don’t mind that, but you can improve the color by blending with a little cream, with potatoes — or with parsnips! A handful of bright-green parsley works well, too.
Looking for some easy parsnip recipes and ways to use your fresh sorrel? Try these simple dishes:
Are you yearning to propagate parsnips and seed your own sorrel? Gather more information on how to grow these crops, plus find additional variety recommendations, by navigating to our Crops at a Glance Guide.
Barbara Damrosch writes at Four Season Farm in Maine, where spring comes late and sorrel’s early greening in the garden is much welcomed. She and her husband, Eliot Coleman, are co-authors of The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.