Parsnips sweet treat come spring

Disconsolate, my friend trudged from one garden center to another. Not a parsnip seed to be found. I am sure he was able to order some from a catalog — half of those in my own stack offer a variety or two. But it is sad to see a stalwart old vegetable sink to obscurity, especially one so satisfying to grow.

Before the New World potato became an Old World staple, the parsnip (Pastinac sativa) must have seemed like a wonder food. Its homely white, fat roots were full of nutrients, flavor and sweetness. Predating the widespread use of sugar cane and beets, they were an important sugar source when fruits were not in season.

Parsnips keep right through the winter in the ground, their sweetness greatly intensified by frost. In spring, dug fresh, they are best of all. What a blessing to have a crop that needn’t be cellared — a feature, ironically, for modern times, when few gardeners have root cellars. In the old days parsnips were an important food for livestock in the months without green grass. For humans they are the first spring delight, unearthed in mud time.

Since freezing unlocks the flavor, parsnips are not a good southern crop. It was from Germany that the Emperor Tiberius imported the choice roots for his Roman table, and in Russia they were a staple — the original borscht was made from the wild cow parsnip and the surname Pasternak translates as “parsnip.”

Naturally, Maine provides sufficient winter chill, so why not sow a crop this spring? Any of the old varieties would do fine, such as Harris Model, Cobham Improved Marrow, Hollow Crown, or one delightfully named The Student parsnip (I picture a beer hall in Heidelberg filled with root vegetables, their steins raised in song). Modern breeding has gone on to emphasize certain traits such as smooth skin, stocky roots, better germination and foliage less likely to give a rash to those sensitive to it (an occasional problem, more common with Heracleum, the various cow parsnip species.)

Parsnips are a simple crop because you just sow them directly in the garden and leave them there for a year. But it’s important to give them a good start. They need “carrot soil”, that is soil that’s deeply dug, fertile and obstacle-free, to produce straight, unbranched roots. Any manure used must be well-decomposed and applied the year before.

Choose a still day for sowing; the flat little seeds are designed to be wind-scattered but you want yours properly buries ½ inch deep in a proper straight row. The surface must be fine and pulverized, with no crust. Parsnips are notoriously finicky when it comes to germination. The seed must be fresh — preferably no more than a year old — and even fresh seed takes its time. Frequent watering of the seedbed is essential. Gardeners sometimes use the trick of sowing along with radishes; this quick crop marks the row, shades the soil and opens the surface for the grass-like parsnip seedlings, but vigilance with a gentle hose or sprinkler works too. Thin to about 5 inches apart, then keep the plants cool and weed-free in summer by using a straw, bark or pine needle mulch.

Many people think they hate parsnips — an ignorant prejudice easily overcome by any good cook. Someone once gave me a T-shirt printed with the slogan “Fine words butter no parsnips,” which to me says even more about parsnips than it does about the need to follow words with deeds.

Butter glorifies parsnips, whether they are roasted in butter, sautéed in butter, or puréed and topped with a generous pat. I also purée them half and half with carrots, adding a little nutmeg and cream (This makes a beautiful pale orange color) or slice them in disks and fry them like pancakes. You can bake them in a pie with cinnamon, just like apples, or substitute for pumpkin in pumpkin pie. Or fry them — in butter! — with honey and pecans and top with vanilla ice cream.

There’s no need to wait until spring has finally arrived to dig parsnips. They’re a great treat during winter thaws. By mid-spring they start to grow leaves, and then it’s a short time before the core turns pithy and they lose their savor (mulching them heavily prolongs the harvest a bit).

Dig very carefully, removing soil around them rather than trying to yank them or pry them up with a fork. They break more easily than carrots do. Since they are biennials, they are programmed to set their seed the second year, and if you let a few of them send up their giant stalks and make yellow parasol-shaped flower heads, you can ripen the seeds and save them for planting the following spring. A good plan in case, heaven forbid, they should fall even more from favor, but let’s hope it never comes to that.

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Gardener’s Cookbook.”

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