Gardening Articles: Edibles :: Vegetables

Cooking With Parsnips

by William Woys Weaver

Parsnip-rhubarb soup topped with fresh dill. In the background, eggless lemon curd

The Romans grew and relished parsnips but thought they were a type of carrot. Cooks in the Middle Ages converted them into thick porridge and stews. And home gardeners today are rediscovering parsnips for their homey flavor and adaptability to numerous culinary treatments.

Most parsnips thrive in a variety of soils, from light and sandy to heavy clay. They are easy to grow but must be planted early in spring as soon as the ground thaws. The rule of thumb is to plant parsnips when you plant potatoes. Sow seeds about 1/2 inch deep in rows 2 feet apart, then thin the seedlings over the summer so that the plants are spaced 3 inches apart. When growing parsnips from seed, be sure the seeds are dated and fresh, because parsnip seeds stay viable for only six to eight months after they ripen.

After the first fall frost, the roots should be ready to pull; freezing always improves their flavor, turning the starches in the roots into sugar. For this reason, your parsnips will be sweetest if left in the ground through the winter. Cover the plants with hay and dig them up over the winter as needed. You can also store them in a large plastic foam ice chest in the garage, well buried in damp sand. Make sure to harvest the remainder of last year's planting now, in early spring, just as the ground thaws and before the roots start growing again; if left in the ground to grow, they will become bitter and tough.

I prefer to grow heirloom varieties available from seed companies. 'Hollow Crown' (pre-1830) and 'The Student' (introduced about 1869) originated in England. These large-rooted varieties require deeply tilled soil. Smaller varieties such as 'Guernsey Long' (turnip shaped) are ideal for small gardens and tub culture. Other more common and widely available varieties include 'Lancer' and 'Harris' Model'. Here are three of my favorite recipes that use parsnips in unusual ways.

Parsnip-Rhubarb Soup

This low-fat soup has a delicious fruity flavor. Tart rhubarb tempers sweet parsnips, and vice versa. You can also add ham.

  • 2-1/2 pounds parsnips
  • 1 pound rhubarb
  • 1 cup chopped leek (white part only)
  • 2-4 fresh bay leaves
  • 2 quarts chicken stock
  • 1 cup sugar
  • Salt
  • Chopped fresh dill (optional)
  • Sour cream (optional)

Peel parsnips, then cut parsnips and rhubarb into 1-inch chunks. Place in a 2-quart pan with leeks, bay leaves, and chicken stock. Cover and cook over medium heat until parsnips are very soft and rhubarb has completely dissolved, about 30 minutes. Remove bay leaves. In a blender or food processor, puree the mixture until smooth and creamy. Return soup to pan and reheat until hot. Add sugar, and salt to taste. Serve immediately with liberal quantities of chopped dill and sour cream, if desired. Makes 6 servings.

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