If you think parsnips look a bit like an albino carrot, you’re not far off; botanically speaking, they both belong to the Umbelliferae family, whose members also include celery, chervil, fennel, and parsley.
But, in laymen’s terms, the poor parsnip really belongs to a family of overlooked, underappreciated vegetables I call the PPPP: Peculiar Produce Punished by Prejudice. Its members include various veggies burdened by weird names and strange appearances, like rutabaga, kohlrabi, and burdock. Shoppers routinely shun these oddities, fearful of the unknown.
Most of us would grow increasingly bitter if you left us out in the cold, but parsnips actually become sweeter after a light frost. They’re available from fall through spring, but their delicate flavor is at its best after a cold spell’s converted their starches to sugar.
Parsnips were prized for their sweetness in medieval Europe, when sugar was scarce and honey was expensive. They served double duty for thousands of years as a sweetener and a starch. It’s only in the last few centuries that the potato, a relative newcomer from South America, knocked the parsnip off its perch to become the world’s favorite starchy vegetable.
The potato dominates our plates to this day, but the parsnip’s a superb team player, pairing beautifully with other fall and winter staples such as apples, pears, pumpkins and squash. They’re rich in vitamins and minerals, and high in pectin, the soluble fiber that’s thought to lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels.
Fresh young parsnips can be grated and eaten raw in a salad, but most recipes call for cooking (or baking) them. They make a fantastic purée, blending nicely with other root vegetables, but you can also team them up with greens, as in our Creamed Parsnips with Spinach side dish.
Parsnips are a prime ingredient in winter soups, too, such as this simple, satisfying Curried Parsnip Soup with Shredded Apples. If you want to emphasize parsnip’s sweet side, try this virtuous vegan Parsnip Cake, a tasty twist on the classic carrot cake.
Look for firm, medium-sized parsnips at your farmers’ market or grocer. Large ones may have a woody core, while small ones will be harder to peel. Limp parsnips have been sitting around too long. Though they keep exceptionally well for months on end if properly stored, parsnips left to languish while you dither about whether to purée or sauté them will eventually lose their resolve and turn soft. That’s a bitter end for a root with so much sweetness just waiting to be tapped.