Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Oh you fancy huh?

So, even though it is April the weather up until this week has been off and on between HOT and COLD!
Yes, it's back to that time of year that we are wasting tons of money by simultaneously heating and cooling the house, because you never know what's coming next.
It's such a tease, early spring. I've already gotten out the pitcher for sun tea and put it away before I got the chance to use it 3 different times this month.

When I bundled up in several protective layers to go to the grocery store in the hail the other day, the only thing on my mind was hot chocolate and rich winter food--sugar and fat, perfect for this periodic hibernation weather when all I want to do is curl up under the covers and do nothing.

Realizing that it was probably one of my last chances all year to have seasonal winter vegetables, I thought about parsnips.

Parsnips?!? Whaaaat?

Does anyone even know what those are? There is such a myriad of root vegetables out there, but I just want to know why no one uses parsnips. It's like carrots and potatoes get all the hype, and for no good reason. If you branch out at all, you're officially venturing into no-man's land and there is not a soul there to assist you.

Seriously, what is a parsnip?

Judging by my last trip to the produce section, officially no one knows.
They're not even labeled, they just sit on the shelf buried among the likewise unidentifiable turnips and rutabagas, getting periodically misted but never, ever mentioned in conversation.

A wee child runs up to the produce shelf, too young to know that you must never speak of parsnips. "Mommy, what's this?" he half-whispers, pulling one of the long, spindly pale roots from its protective mist. His voice is overcome with the kind of innocent awe and wonder that children indiscriminately place on the common and the obscure alike.

His mother's eyes grow hazy with unfamiliarity. She screws up her forehead for a split second, puzzled, before quickly defending her front of maternal omniscience with a threat: "Shhh. Put that down," she hisses sternly. Her child shrugs and runs off to rub his sticky fingers over other pieces of produce more likely to be bought. The woman's gaze pauses over the discarded parsnip for a mere moment before she changes her pace, letting the mystery vegetable fall back into oblivion.

That scene actually happened before my eyes. The end of the story, of course, is that after this observation I swooped in after the mother and promptly bought every last parsnip that the kid didn't rub his grimy hands on. I can't let a mystery like that go to waste. I can't leave that stone unturned.

So, what exactly is a parsnip and how does it work?
I'm glad you asked.
(Although please note that people have been actually eating these things for millenia. So I can't take too much credit. Hell, you probably know more about parsnips than I do. Just kidding. I invented them.)

On first impression, a parsnip is a lot like a carrot, if a carrot were totally white and got a lot fatter at the top. I'm not sure what parsnip greens are like, because they are not regularly sold at Kroger (got to go to the Meijer's and their Mall of America-sized produce section for that fancy stuff).
The actual meat of the parsnip root, too, is about the same texture as a carrot. They would definitely have a satisfying crunch if for some reason you were to eat parsnip sticks dipped in ranch.
The parsnip is starchy, but not overwhelmingly so. I honestly love the flavor of raw parsnips. I about filled up on it while peeling them and deciding what to do with it. It's mild at first, like a plain potato, but quickly develops a flavor as you chew it that I can only describe as the reason for having a name like "ParSNip." The name is like an onomatopoeia of the flavor dancing on your taste buds. It's got a punch of spice, but it is just as tolerable and approachable as any carbohydrate. The only other true flavor I can relate it to is a much milder, starchier version of ginger root.
That's what they're like raw. Cooked, as I found, they are entirely different. You would probably want to cook a parsnip, just because theire raw texture isn't great. But, like with carrots, their flavor when cooked breaks down into pure sugar. You could ice a cake with cooked parsnips. They become that sweet. I would love to experiment one day by shredding a parsnip thin enough to use it in its pure state. I want to test out all the ways that I can feature this strange, sugar-and-spice vegetable. My first creative impulse? Mashed parsnips.

I was sad to see the nearly abrasive flavor of the raw vegetable become replaced in the form of sweetness. I love the bite that it had when raw, the kind of spice that leaves a slight tingle in your nasal cavity. Ginger, horseradish, garlic: three other strong flavors that go from spicy to sweet upon cooking. All delightfully spicy root vegetables. So I decided to supplement the mashed parsnips I would make with some of those flavors, rounding it out with salty bacon.

Here's the recipe:

Peel and chop 4 parsnips into 1" chunks. Bring salted water to a boil.
Add parsnips, along with 3 whole peeled cloves of garlic and 2 slices of ginger root.
Meanwhile, fry 2 pieces of bacon. Chop into 1/4" pieces, and save rendered fat.
Boil parsnips for 20-30 minutes. Strain, reserving liquid.
Transfer to a bowl. Mash with a potato masher along with: bacon fat, 2 Tbsp. of butter and 3 Tbsp. of sour cream.
If any extra liquid is needed, alternate between reserved parsnip water and cream (actually I used half & half).
Whip the mixture using an egg beater, gradually adding:
-2 tsp grated fresh ginger
-2 tsp cinnamon
-1 tsp horseradish
-salt and garlic powder to taste
At the end, fold in bacon pieces, reheat if needed, and serve.

That's it!
I hope you try it because I think it's real delicious!
Here it is posing next to a to-die-for swordfish steak that Katie grilled up while I was picking at my nails and fiddling with the hinge of the spice cabinet!

Can't wait for the next time I can write about parsnips!


  1. i'm sure this tasted great but the picture seriously looks disgusting! love, your sister.

  2. Hahahahaha I have to agree with your sister, you need to play with the light so the food does not look so greasy.
    I have never seen a parsnip, they probably don't sell them around here, but I love your story about the kid, I have seen similar scenes in supermarkets and libraries!

  3. :( Well, it was not an ungreasy meal, but it did taste great.