There are some vegetables that make winter worth enduring. Parsnips, those white, tubular root vegetables that appear in markets and CSA shares this time of year, delight both eaters and growers who know what to do with them. Europeans introduced the variety to North America during the 1600s but 400 years later, the vegetable is still waiting for its day in the sun. The knobby, stringy stalks with thick, scaly skin are often bypassed for the more familiar gleaming carrots and purple-topped turnips but they’re an excellent addition to any winter root cellar for their earthy, sweet flavor and easy preparation.
Though some growers will pull them up in the spring, in this area they’re usually harvested in the fall after a good hard frost has developed their starches to sugar, creating a sweet herblike taste, reminiscent of a carrot but with a spicy zing of green cardamom. Roasted, sautéed or mashed, parsnips can be served in place of any of the usual root vegetable suspects, bringing a new taste to the winter table.
But those great flavors don’t come without cost. “They’re probably the most difficult of all the root crops,” says Nathaniel Thompson, owner of Remembrance Farms in Trumansburg. “It takes about 120 days from germination to harvest, so we plant them in the spring and harvest them in the fall and the weed control during that time is challenging.”
Thompson, who pulls in 5,000 to 10,000 pounds from the ½ acre of parsnips he grows, says they’re increasing in popularity with restaurant chefs and home cooks because of their unique flavor.
But farmers remain the most welcoming fan base. “Parsnips are the first thing you put in the ground in spring, and the last thing you pull out in fall,” says Anton Burkett, who runs Early Morning Farm in Genoa. “But after all that waiting and work, when they’re ready and you pull this thing out of the ground it’s like ‘Yes! A big white parsnip!’”
If eaters can get as excited when they see them at market, perhaps parsnips will become like asparagus in spring, a harbinger of all the good seasonal meals to come.
Inspired to make parsnips a part of your winter home-cooking? Check out our recipe for Sour Cream and Garlic Mashed Parsnips
This piece originally appeared in our Winter 2011 issue