Ask Chef Christy – What is a Parsnip?

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Hollow-crowned parsnips feature greens that spring from a circular depression in the top of the root

Today’s Ask Chef Christy moment came while volunteering with the Atlanta Free Store.  On this brisk National Day of Service (Martin Luther King Jr Day) we were out giving away free food on a busy street corner in metro Atlanta.  One of the boxes we had contained bags of parsnips, and one after another person picked them up, looked at them with a puzzled expression on their face, and put them back in the box.  I ended up giving quite a few answers to the ‘what are these white carrot-looking things?’ questions.

Parsnips are a fibrous root vegetable that is native to Eurasia.  It is nutritious and filling, something that made it very popular during Lent especially since it goes well with fish dishes.   A nice accompaniment to a boiled cod dinner might be Buttered Mashed Parsnips.  More strongly-flavored than mashed potatoes (a combination of the two makes a tasty mashed dish) it can make a great alternative to potatoes especially if you are avoiding nightshades.

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Parsnips are grown largely for animal fodder, but the smaller more tender ones are sweet, nutty, and aromatic

Parsnips will hold well in the ground during the winter, and in fact they become sweeter once they have been through a frost.  If they grow too big they become tough and the center becomes woody and inedible with a pungent flavor.  A smaller parsnip that is in it’s prime should be sweet, nutty, and aromatic.

In German cooking they are commonly found grated or boiled and mashed to be fried up into Parsnip Fritters.  They can be boiled and buttered like most root vegetables, and they make a great addition to soups and stews.

Boiled parsnips and carrots, served with duck and orange gravy.
Boiled parsnips and carrots, served with duck and orange gravy.

I like to mix parsnips together with other root vegetables, such as a potato and parsnip mash; parsnips, turnips and carrots in a hearty stew; and parsnip with lots of fresh parsley grated and fried into fritters.

Next time you see what looks like a bunch of white carrots, check the top for the distinctive ring where the crown of greenery grows, and give parsnips a place on your table!

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