Growing and Cooking with Parsnips and Sorrel

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.

  • Parsnip and Sorrel
    Fragrant parsnip roots are complemented by the lemony flavor of sorrel leaves in late-winter dishes.
    Photo by Barbara Damrosch
  • Parsnip Roots
    You can harvest parsnips anytime, but the roots will be sweetest after a spell of frosty weather.
    Photo by Barbara Damrosch
  • Sorrel
    Red-veined sorrel brings a zing to any dish, while also offering a delicate, rosy beauty.
    Photo by Barbara Damrosch

  • Parsnip and Sorrel
  • Parsnip Roots
  • 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.

What are Parsnips?

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.

3/28/2016 8:47:24 PM

I invited my brother over for dinner one time and parsnips were on the menu. He asked how I knew he liked parsnips. I was bewildered: Doesn't everyone like parsnips? I wonder if the people who think they don't like parsnips had woody, old specimens?



Fall 2021!

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