Poor Old Forgotten Parsnips

In the world of food you don’t hear too much about parsnips, do you? Oh, you’ve heard the name. You’re not quite sure what they are though, are you? And you most likely have never bought or cooked one. Well, maybe I can change that.

What’s a parsnip anyway?

Oh, are they those things that look like white carrots? Well, yeah, kind of. Parsnip are carrot-like in size and shape. In fact it’s closely related to the carrot (and to parsley for that matter) and has similar physical and growth characteristics. It’s a taproot that is shaped a lot like a carrot, except it's white or almost cream-color. Parsnips have a higher sugar content than carrots (and so more calories); but also a higher fiber level. Parsnips don’t have the off-the-charts vitamin A levels of carrots, but they do have a higher level of vitamin C, magnesium, and potassium.

One of the biggest differences between carrots and parsnips is in the flavor. The parsnip has an earthier, nuttier, almost spiced flavor (like nutmeg and cinnamon), whereas the carrot has a sweetness that is closer to that of winter squash.

Parsnips' peak season is during the late Fall/early Winter. It’s important for it to have a winter frost as that’s what makes it convert its starches into sugar. Some farmers choose “overwinter” some (keep them in the ground longer) and let the sugar content continue to build up. These tend to be quite sweet.

So, what do I do with it?

Parsnips can be eaten raw like a carrot, but more often they are cooked. One of the more popular ways to cook and serve parsnips is to roast and then mash them - like mashed potatoes. It will be almost like mashed sweet potatoes. Also more and more I’ve seen recipes for parsnips sliced really thin and fried like potato chips. To show you how versatile these can be I thought I'd share a few really good recipes I came across. Check these out:

Baked Parsnip Fries with Rosemary

Baked Parsnip Fries with Rosemary

They sound a lot like potatoes too.

Yes they do. You'll hear about chips and mashing, so you might wonder how they compare to potatoes. Parsnips are lower in calories and contain only about 50 percent of the protein and vitamin C content of potatoes. But they are higher in fiber than potatoes. Also, while both parsnips and potatoes provide significant amounts of a number of B vitamins, the parsnip is a much better source of folic acid (23% RDA vs. potato’s 5%).

Picking and prepping

When you buy parsnips, look for smaller to medium-sized ones. The smaller ones tend to be more flavorful. Large ones can be somewhat tough and woody. Look for blemish-free, firm skin.

Also, make sure they don’t have those little feathery threads on the end. That is a sign that they were in soil that was a too dry (and developed those threads to search for more water).

A lot of the flavor of parsnips is just below the skin. So, instead of peeling them it’s better to give them a good scrubbing instead.

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So if you haven’t given much thought to parsnips, maybe it’s time. They are a nice alternative to carrots and a little lighter alternative to potatoes - although they are really nice when they share a recipe with either one. If you’ve never tried parsnips and their sweet, yet earthy flavor, now’s the time!