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Chef John Foster: The mighty parsnip, a versatile root vegetable that’s both healthy, and delicious

Behold, the mighty parsnip! No, wait, that’s not right. Consider the gentle parsnip…No still not the tone I want to set. People, eat your parsnips, not only are they good for you, they’re delicious! There, that’s the proper introduction to a very sticky subject; root vegetables in general, and the parsnip in particular. Last week it was beets, this week parsnips, sometimes called the white carrot, it resembles the carrot only vaguely. The shape is the same, you do generally peel it, it is a classical root vegetable that winters over well, but the flavor is “different”.

Parsnips hail from Eurasia, a wide-ranging area where a lot of our root vegetables not only developed but are still utilized today. Close cousin to the carrot, it also shares some kinship with parsley and has some of the health benefits of both. High in vitamin C and fiber, it is also a historical source of sugar before the advent of cane sugar became the standard. They are used as a natural medication for high cholesterol, diet and as an aphrodisiac, pretty sweet for a vegetable that most people pass by in the store. That omission is part of a wider pattern of ignoring the roots to get to the plants. At a health and wellness level that’s missing a whole level of nutrition packed into an economical and virtually non-perishable storage container.

Root vegetables typically have two skins, the outer barrier that we peel away and a thin skin that slows moisture loss and inhibits shrinkage. Nothing lasts forever of course, but the unique botanical make-up of a parsnip allows it to last through the dark, cold winter months, while it keeps our vitamin and mineral levels high. Not to mention that the versatility of the parsnip lends itself to starch and vegetable preparations and even as a sweetener for quick bread and desserts.

Methods of preparation vary widely from raw to pureed. Because the texture of the parsnip is like a carrot, many of the raw or near raw preparations are the same; crudités, dips, or as part of a slaw, where the texture lends itself to shaving the parsnip thinly on a mandolin. You can also shave the parsnip into wide strips with your peeler and simulate pasta. The texture of parsnips (and carrots for that matter) are a bend and not break texture, so we can experiment with using them in a blanched form as gluten-free “pasta”, layers for a lasagna, or wraps around a filling, similar to stuffed cabbage rolls. Parsnips will give you no advantage in color, but it makes up for that minus with the flavors and the textures common only to root vegetables.

Roasting parsnips, either from a raw stage or blanched can be done quickly in a sauté pan or over a longer period in a roasting pan with other roots or a large roast chicken or pork loin. The size and shape of the cut are the keys to a successful roast. Blanching the parsnip, starting with cold water and bringing it to a simmer will speed the roasting process up as well. Parsnips have a higher sugar content than carrots, so they will burn easily if not turned. The benefit though to a good browning is bringing out the sweetness as you caramelize. Alone, or with other roots, this technique balances richness with umami, the earthiness of the parsnips with the fullness of the roast.

Parsnips also lend themselves to soup, mashes and purees. The inherent starch prevents them from totally losing their cohesive abilities. They blend well with potatoes in a mash, giving the dish sweetness. A puree of parsnips with caramelized onion and a bit of heat provides a nice contrast of flavors and will provide enough body on the plate to hold a large cut of pork or half chicken in place without turning into glue. It’s no small feat to get that to happen as most starch will turn to paste, but snips have moisture when fresh, and retain moisture when cooking or cooked.
This is typical of most roots (remember the two skins!) and is one of the reasons they grace a lot of my plates

Finally, in my experiments over the years I find that roots in general and snips in particular, lend themselves to smoking. It’s probably the sugars which ward off excessive bitterness that can come about with a smoked product. Added to stews and soups as a smoked product they can be deceiving; is there a ham hock hiding somewhere in that vegetarian stew? Once again, the amount of moisture evident in the fresh parsnips absorbs a good amount of smoke in a shorter period of time so the risk of bitterness is lessened. Whatever preparation you choose though you need to consider parsnips on your next trip. They will rightfully fade from the market soon so get some work in now. Come next winter, you will be glad you did!

John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene and a promoter of local and seasonal foods for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been the executive chef of his former restaurant, Harvest, and now his Chevy Chase eatery, The Sage Rabbit.

To read more from Chef John Foster, including his recipes, click here.

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