While I am an advocate for eating locally and seasonally, it's quite difficult this time of year to find local produce given that we're just coming off 5 months or more of snow and below freezing temperatures. These conditions just are not conducive to producing fresh local vegetables for out table right now. We all know this.
While I did have the pleasure of eating some locally grown arugula a week or so ago, we won't be seeing local veggies until later in the season, although I'm looking forward to the first parsnips that will be dug as soon as the frost is out of the ground. For those of you who are parsnip fans, you know how sweet they can be after a winter nestled in the frozen earth. If the crocuses are coming up, parsnip season can't be far behind.
So the last of the fall root crops becomes a harbinger for spring...that's nice. It helps tie last year's growing season to this year's. I suppose there is an analogy here about life, but I'm a foodie, not a philosopher, so let's talk parsnips.
Pastinaca sativa, developed during the Middle Ages, is an umbelliferous plant, meaning it is a member of the parsley family. Originally coming from the wild, where the root was small and tough, but with a distinctly sweet parsnip flavor, it was used as a flavoring, and later came under cultivation, which improved its size and edibility.
While known to the Romans, they used it interchangeably with the carrot, to which it is also related. During the Middle Ages, before the starchy potato was imported from South America, it was a staple due to its starch content, but also because of its sweetness, as sugars were either unavailable or very expensive.
As sugars became more readily available and the potato was introduced into Europe, the parsnip's influence waned, and today it is an under-consumed vegetable, primarily because its unusual, semi-sweet taste is difficult to pair with other foods. Although here in New England it is often paired with cod, and it is frequently included in mashed potatoes.
Parsnips tend to be grown in colder climates, and their flavor improves with frost and cold weather. Usually harvested in the late fall, they are best if left to winter over in the garden. Under the freezing ground they convert their starches to sugar, making them delectably sweet when dug in the early spring. It wasn't long ago that I used to frequent a fellow with a pickup truck full of scrubbed white parsnips selling them on the side of the road. Delicious!
One mistake people make in cooking parsnips is peeling them. Much of the flavor rests just under the skin, so in peeling, you are tossing away a lot of it's taste. Better to scrub them with a vegetable brush, cut into equal sized chuncks, toss with some good extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, and roast them on a parchment paper lined half sheet pan in a 425 degree oven, turning them every 10 minutes until soft, about 30 minutes. Serve warm. Roasting concentrates their flavor while retaining their nutrients.
Parsnips develop their maximum flavor if cooked in a covered saucepan with a small amount of liquid, butter and seasonings until the liquid has evaporated, and the parsnips are beginning to saute in the butter. For 6 people:
1 lb. Unpeeled parsnips, quartered if large, cored, if need be, and sliced
2 tbl. Unsaled butter
1 cup Water or chicken stock
Pinch Salt and pepper
2 tbl. Parsley, minced
Using a heavy bottomed sauce pan, bring the liquid to a boil with the parsnips and seasonings, and simmer, covered, 30 minutes or so until the parsnips are soft, but not mushy, and the liquid has evaporated. They should start to sizzle in the butter. If you want to glaze them, either add a little sugar (maple syrup at my house) or honey, and toss in the syrupy glaze until thoroughly coated. Sprinkle with minced fresh parsley, and grab a fork!