Try it. Who knows, you may even like it.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The parsnip deserves some respect

By Dick Hirsch

Right now, probably at this very moment as you read these words, a relatively small but very clever and insightful group of individuals are out in their gardens, digging, oh so gently. The soil is just softening from the winter freeze, and they are eagerly conducting the annual harvest.

Harvest? Yes, harvest.

Spring is generally considered the time for planting, and that is certainly a correct description. But the timing is different for some varieties of produce; their patient growers plant seeds in the spring and nurture through the summer, fall and the snows of winter. Spring is the moment for which they have been waiting since last year.

They are the growers of parsnips and they are now carefully harvesting their crop. While digging and then scrubbing off the muddy residue, they are anticipating the joyous moment when they will be dining on this ungainly root, a delightful item that remains a mystery to most of the adult population.

Once, a few years ago, we had company for dinner, and my wife, Lynn, roasted some parsnips as a vegetable to be served. Was she expecting questions? I can’t say, but, if so, she wasn’t disappointed. I’ve always treasured the moment when one of the dinner guests, a very good friend, looked up from his plate and asked:

“What am I eating?”

Others guests at the table were probably wondering the same thing, but were too embarrassed to inquire. Lynn revealed they were parsnips and explained how they had been prepared. In those days we ate parsnips, but we knew little of their heritage or the rituals involved in planting and harvesting. We never grew any, relying instead on the generosity of friends with vegetable gardens, or else choosing the best specimens from the usually sparse selection in the produce department of the supermarket.

Parsnips have never received much respect. Generally they are consigned to a low-traffic location on the outskirts of the produce aisle since so many people are unfamiliar with all their good qualities. They are often parked near a mound of their relatives, the rutabaga, or else in close proximity to the okra or the kohlrabi, two other vegetables that, like the parsnip, are scorned by the multitudes.

The treatment such vegetables receive is very unfair. It can be traced to a substantial portion of the population whose members are reluctant to try new things. Their childhood was dominated by peas and carrots, with an occasional serving of string beans, but any suggestion that they eat, say, spinach or asparagus, was likely to result in an immediate tantrum. Such persons carried over those views into adulthood without justification.

The result: healthy, tasty and well-intentioned vegetables like the parsnip are ignored and derided, and those who grow and eat them are often misunderstood and sometimes ridiculed. It’s a matter of image. You will recall that broccoli was slandered in an unprovoked outburst by the first President Bush. Before that unfortunate incident, broccoli had never before been an issue; it had its supporters, but they were quiet folks who did not proselytize. In the wake of the presidential criticism, there was an outpouring of support for broccoli and it has since attained greater acceptance than before.

It is my hope that defenders and growers of parsnips will step forward to support this unique vegetable. They have survived for thousands of years; in Roman times they were consumed as a sweet delicacy, but by the Renaissance they had become a favored side dish for beef and poultry. They were challenged by the emergence of the potato which soon surpassed them, relegating the parsnip to its status as an also ran, used primarily in making chicken soup.

Check your cookbooks; they are versatile and lend themselves to various treatments. We prefer them roasted. Clean them and cut them into small pieces which can be put into a bowl and then drizzled with olive oil. Then place them on a cookie sheet and roast at 375-400 degrees for about 20 minutes. You will be astonished and pleased with the result.

In closing, I suppose I should mention my source for freshly dug parsnips, the friends with the garden in Akron, who plant parsnip seeds in late spring and harvest them the following year. But should I do that, they are likely to be overwhelmed with parsnip requests, and there might not be any left for us. So check your local market, over near the okra or the rutabagas.


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