Versatile parsnips for your holiday table


In the midst of all the glitter and lights of Christmas, we are reminded of the Christ child’s birth in a humble stable.

In the food world, the humble parsnip is a reminder that goodness — and great taste — can hide just under a plain surface. This unassuming root vegetable looks like a boring white carrot. Yet, when cooked, it offers a pleasingly delicate sweetness. Parsnips came to our country from Europe in the early 1600s, but never became as popular as they were in the Old World. And that’s a shame, because the economical parsnip offers many culinary uses. If you like baked or mashed potatoes or roasted carrots, you’ll love parsnips. They are related to carrots, with the same long shape; just white instead of orange. Unlike carrots, however, you won’t want to eat them raw. Cooking will soften their woodiness and bring out that delicious sweetness. When mashed, parsnips taste like potatoes in texture, but with a hint of sweetness. Like potatoes and carrots, parsnips can be added to stocks and soups, baked, boiled, sauteed, fried or steamed. They offer a little iron and some vitamin C.

Although parsnips are available year-round, winter is their peak season, so quality is better right now. When shopping, look for small to medium, well-shaped parsnips that are firm with a smooth skin. Avoid the woody large ones or very small ones which yield little after peeling. Creamy, crispy or caramelized: here are a few recipes to add versatile parsnips to your meals this holiday season and beyond.

Parsnip-potato puree

These can stand in for mashed potatoes, only with a wonderful hint of sweetness. Adjust quantities depending on the number of people you are serving.

1 parsnip per person

1 potato per person

Salt and pepper to taste

Butter

Warm milk

Peel and dice the parsnips and potatoes. Bring water to boil in two separate pots. Cook parsnips and potatoes separately in boiling, salted water until tender. Drain. Puree vegetables together in a food processor or blender or mash by hand. Season with salt and pepper to taste and add a little butter. Thin to desired consistency with warm milk.

Cream of parsnip soup with ginger

This might be your new comfort food of choice. Recipe from “The Cook’s Bible” by Christopher Kimball; makes 4 servings.

2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 medium onion, peeled and chopped

1 cup chopped leeks (white part only)

1 teaspoon minced ginger

A dash of ground turmeric

3/4 pound parsnips, peeled and coarsely chopped

3/4 pound potatoes, peeled and coarsely chopped

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1 to 2 cups chicken stock

2 cups water

1/2 cup heavy cream*

Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

1/4 cup minced fresh flat-leaf parsley

Heat butter and olive oil in a large pot. Add onions, leeks, ginger and turmeric. Cook, covered, over low heat for 15 minutes (don’t let onions and leeks brown). Add parsnips, potatoes, sugar, stock and water; bring to a simmer and cook until vegetables are just tender. Add parsley; cook 5 minutes more. Transfer soup in batches to a food processor or blender; puree. Return soup to the pot, stir in the cream, and reheat almost to the boil. If soup is too thick, add more stock. Add salt and pepper to taste and garnish with additional parsley. Serve hot.

*Note: Although I haven’t tried it, you could substitute whole milk yogurt for the cream if you wish to have a lighter soup. Start with 1/4 cup and go from there. Just reheat slowly and do not boil.

Parsnip chips

The season’s version of French fries from “Chez Panisse Vegetables” by Alice Waters; makes whatever quantity you desire.

1 or 2 parsnips per person

Peanut oil for frying

Salt to taste

Peel and slice parsnips about 1/8-inch thick. Heat enough peanut oil to cover potatoes to 365 F in a deep pot. Fry parsnips a few at a time as you would potatoes, until golden brown. Drain on paper towels, then salt and serve immediately.

Roasted winter vegetables

Great with poultry or ham, these are so much more interesting than plain potatoes. Make as much or as little as you need for the number of people you are serving.

Equal amounts of each: parsnips, butternut squash, fennel bulb, turnips

Butter to coat vegetables

Salt and pepper to taste

Trim and peel the parsnips, squash and turnips. Cut into 1/2-inch cubes. Trim and slice fennel into thin wedges (save the frilly tops for garnish). Toss vegetables with butter to coat lightly; season with salt and pepper. Spread vegetables in a single layer on a large baking sheet with sides. Roast in preheated 400 F oven for 30 to 40 minutes or until thoroughly cooked and beginning to caramelize nicely. Stir occasionally with a spatula to make sure they don’t stick. Don’t let vegetables get too dark, or the sweetness will turn to bitterness. Serve hot from the oven.

Parsnips with peas, crispy prosciutto and mint

This is an incredibly easy and delicious side dish that’s especially good with chicken. Recipe from Bon Appetit magazine; makes 6 to 8 servings.

2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 large shallots, minced

4 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto, cut into 1/4-inch pieces (about 1/2 cup)

12 ounces parsnips, cut into 1/4-inch pieces (about 2 1/4 cups)

2 cups frozen baby peas, thawed

1/4 cup chopped fresh mint leaves

Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter with oil in small skillet over low heat. Add shallots and prosciutto; saute until prosciutto is just crisp, about 10 minutes. Cook parsnips in a large saucepan of boiling salted water until crisp-tender, about 2 minutes. Add peas; bring to a boil. Drain; return parsnips and peas to saucepan. Stir in remaining 1 tablespoon butter, mint and prosciutto mixture. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve warm.