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Rooting for Parsnips

by Betty Fussell

To get in touch with your roots, try parsnips. Parsnips are those funnel-shaped, yellow-white, peasanty roots obscured on your supermarket counters behind the flashy carrot and the waxed turnip. You suspect them of being all wood and pith, bitter at worst and tasteless at best. Something for the starving Armenians, perhaps, but short of starvation, why bother? Let's stick to friends we know and trust: the carrot, the turnip, and---on cold winter nights -- the potato.

It wasn't always like this. Until late in the nineteenth century, the parsnip was the very model of what a root vegetable should be. Listen to Messieurs Vilmorin and Andrieux, in a popular work of the last century, The Vegetable Garden, eulogize what has become our most prominent current variety, the Hollow Crown, or Student, parsnip; "Root handsome, long, thick, very clean skinned, with a fine neck surrounded by a circular gutter-like depression, from the centre of which the leaves issue, the root being swollen all round it."

This handsome root had reason to be swollen with pride, if nothing else, because it had been esteemed on the tables of Europe since the time of Tiberian Rome. In the Middle Ages, it reigned supreme over Lenten tables because it was nutritious (high in potassium, calcium, and vitamin A), filling (high in carbohydrates), and delectably sweet. It reigned until a tuber from the New World, the arriviste potato, displaced it by being blander and more versatile.

For a couple of centuries, however, the parsnip held its own against the potato, since colonists in the New World planted the root far more eagerly than Europe cultivated the tuber. Because the parsnip is at its best in winter, after a good freeze has turned the root's starch to sugar, parsnips with salt fish saved many a starving Pilgrim Protestant as they had once saved fasting Catholics. And our Protestant colonists were good enough to pass the parsnip on to the Indians, who welcomed it to their hillocks of beans and corn.

Colonists who were not starving turned parsnips into pancakes and puddings following receipts of the kind William Penn's first wife, Gulielma, inscribed, "Too make a Parsnep puding." "Take sum parsneps," Gulielma wrote in England in the mid-seventeenth century, "and boyle them till thay bee very soft, then mash them very small and picke out the hard peces."

Those hard pieces may have led to the parsnip's decline, for the center of the root goes hard and wooden when it is past its prime. But a young swollen root, with a fine neck and a clean skin and everything handsome about it, should not be blamed for the sins of its elders. In any case, you can cut out the hard pieces of the core after cooking.
The best way to cook the parsnip is to parboil it with the skin on, as you might a potato. Then douse it in cold water and the skin will slip off like wet paper. Once the root is peeled, you can slice it crosswise or lengthwise in narrow strips. You can toss the slices in butter and parsley or glaze them in a little sugar, as you might glaze carrots.
Our nineteenth century ancestors were fond of mashing parsnips, shaping them in balls, rolling them in flour, and sauteing them in butter to make parsnip fritters, as Fannie Farmer did in her 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cook Book. But I'm afraid Miss Fannie signaled the current low status of parsnips when she advised, "They are raised mostly for feeding cattle."

Since the root is both pungent in character and dry in texture, it needs emollients like butter, cream, olive oil, or yogurt, much as a white potato does. Because it is naturally sweet, it has an affinity for sweeteners like sugar, honey, or maple syrup, much as a sweet potato does, and for related spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves.
In the recipe below, I've layered parsnips with salt cod in a cream sauce flavored with onion and garlic to acknowledge their former Lenten glory. The very word parsnip comes from the Latin word pastinaca, from pastinvu, the name of a tool for digging. So as long as we're digging into roots, let's go whole hog. Instead of pitying the poor parsnip, let's root for it.

Creamed Parsnips and Salt Cod
Serves six

1 pound salt cod
2 pounds parsnips
6 tablespoons butter
2 large onions, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 tablespoons flour
2 cups milk (or half and half)
2 cups diced cheese (Swiss, Gruyere, or Cheddar)
1/2 teaspoon thyme
pepper to taste
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Soak cod twelve hours or overnight in cold water, changing water at least once. Drain. Bring cod to a simmer in cold water to cover and simmer gently 10 to 15 minutes. Drain cod and flake the meat with your fingers. Parboil parsnips with skins on for 15 to 40 minutes (depending on their size); drain, cool, and peel. Cut crosswise into ¼-inch slices.

Make a cheese sauce by melting butter in a quart saucepan. Gently saute onions and garlic in the butter until they are soft (5 to 10 minutes). Stir in flour and cook 2 minutes. Heat milk separately and add it all at once to the mixture, stirring vigorously until it smooths out. Add the diced cheese, thyme, and pepper, and taste for seasoning (Don't add salt without tasting first). Simmer until sauce is nicely thick and smooth.
Cover the bottom of a baking dish with half the sliced parsnips, then the flaked cod, then the rest of the parsnips. Pour the cream sauce over the whole. Sprinkle the top with Parmesan cheese. Bake at 350 degrees about 15 minutes, or until the top is bubbly and brown.


Betty Fussell is a food historian, home cook, author, English professor and freelance writer. Her book, The Story of Corn, was reprinted by University of New Mexico Press. Betty Fussells' latest work is My Kitchen Wars, which was transformed into a one-woman show performed in New York City and Hollywood. Fussell is currently writing a history of American beefsteak.

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