Parsnips – the unsung heroes of the winter vegetable plot

Parsnip

Parsnips are a very underrated vegetable in my opinion; indeed, many of our fellow European countries regard parsnips as animal fodder, not fit for human consumption. They clearly haven’t enjoyed the delights of a roasted parsnip with their Sunday lunch or a mound of creamy mashed carrot and parsnip accompanying virtually any meat, but particularly the slightly gamey cuts of venison or lamb. I wouldn’t be without them, in the kitchen or in the plot. They are in the ground a long time, admittedly, but they also come into their own in the dog days of winter/early spring, when there are very slim pickings to be had from the kitchen garden. What’s more, you can leave them in the ground all winter and dig them up as you require – unless you live in a very cold area, when you might struggle to break through the frozen soil in the winter months! In these cases, you can lift your root crops and store in sand in a cool place like a garage or shed. Temperate Britain doesn’t usually warrant such extreme measures, though.

I usually sow my parsnips in late March/early April, depending on soil temperature. If you can remember to cover your chosen bed with enviromesh or fleece for a few weeks beforehand, that can give you a start too. Just weed the bed and rake thoroughly to a fine tilth, removing any stones; don’t add manure as this can cause root crops to fork, reducing your crop significantly. I usually plant parsnips in a dedicated root crop bed as part of my 4-year rotation scheme, sowing three rows of parsnips along with successional sowings of carrots and beetroot. Parsnips take a long time to germinate – up to three weeks – so if they don’t germinate for whatever reason, it’s often too late to plant more. Germination isn’t normally an issue, however – I rarely have a complete crop failure with them, unlike carrot seedlings which can get annihilated by slugs overnight if you’re not careful. Interplanting the rows of parsnips with fast-cropping radish can be a good idea, as it reminds you that the parsnips are there, but the radish can be done and dusted by the time the parsnips are big enough to need the space. As they start to grow, thin out as you would with any root crop, and remember to water them occasionally in dry weather. Then just (!) wait until after the first frosts to enjoy them in their full glory. The cold turns the starch into sugar, enhancing the taste in the process. You can eat the thinnings or young roots earlier on, but they taste very mild at that stage. Parsnips may be huge, they may be scabby, but, after you’ve peeled and chopped them, the flesh is always delicious. You’ll be glad you made the effort in December when you can serve your own roast parsnips with your Christmas dinner.

Christmas parsnips

Most of the parsnip recipes I’ve shared here have been side dishes such as the unctuous Parsnip & Leek Dauphinoise or parsnip scones based on my trusty Cheese & Apple Scone recipe. I’ve always struggled to find a good parsnip soup recipe, as they can be quite cloying unless you add a lot of spice – and then the spice can overpower the taste of parsnip. However, I recently discovered a delicious parsnip soup recipe in an American cookbook called Six Seasons by Joshua McFadden. As ever, I’ve tweaked it based on my years of soup-making experience, but what gave this one the edge was the delicious, zingy garnish, which really lifted the soup to a whole other level. Try it and see!

Parsnip Soup – serves 4-6

Parsnip soup

Olive oil (or butter if you prefer)
1 large onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
500g parsnips, peeled and chopped (you can add potato if you don’t have enough parsnips)
2-3 celery sticks, chopped (reserve the leaves for the garnish)
1 litre vegetable stock
Freshly ground nutmeg
1 bay leaf
Seasoning
Milk (or water) to taste

Garnish:
50g currants (or sultanas)
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
50g sunflower seeds, toasted (or pine nuts, almonds or cashews if you prefer)
handful parsley, chopped (or coriander)
1 tsp lemon zest, finely grated
1 tsp lemon juice (or lime, if that’s what you have!)
1/4 fresh red chilli, finely chopped (to taste)
seasoning
olive oil

Add a glug of olive oil (or a knob of butter) to a large soup pan and add the chopped onions, garlic, celery and parsnips. Cook gently for about 10 minutes until starting to soften. Add the freshly ground nutmeg, seasoning and stock, bring to the boil and cook for 20-30 minutes or until all the vegetables are tender. Remove from the heat and purée with a stick blender, or transfer to a liquidiser and blend until smooth. Return to the pan if necessary and adjust the consistency by adding milk or water if too thick. Reheat to serving temperature.

While the soup is cooking, prepare the garnish: put the currants or sultanas in a small bowl and pour over the red wine vinegar. Allow to soak for at least 15 minutes. Then toss the currants and their soaking liquid, toasted pine nuts, chopped parsley (or coriander) and reserved celery leaves, lemon zest and juice, finely chopped chilli and seasoning together. Add a glug of olive oil to finish and apply to your soup with a decorative flourish!

My final parsnip recipe comes from the same book, heavily adapted to adjust the US cup measurements for an English audience! It’s a parsnippy take on a carrot cake and quite delectable: lusciously soft, yet decadently crumbly at the same time. Even confirmed parsnip haters won’t detect its presence…

Parsnip, Date & Hazelnut Loaf

Parsnip loaf, slice

250g parsnips, peeled and roughly chopped
150g self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
100g chopped dates
100g hazelnuts, coarsely ground in a food processor
150g caster sugar
50g dark brown Muscovado sugar
2 large eggs, beaten
1 tsp cinnamon
150 ml olive oil
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp lemon zest

For the icing:
100g icing sugar, sifted
Juice and grated zest of half a lemon, setting aside some zest for the cake

Grease and line the base of a standard loaf tin. Pre-heat the oven to 150°C fan (Gas 3).

Put the chopped parsnips into a food processor and process until finely chopped, or grate if you prefer. Place the sifted flour, baking powder, cinnamon and salt in a large bowl. Add the chopped dates and finely chopped hazelnuts (you can chop these by hand if you haven’t got a food processor, but they have a habit of rolling all over the board because they’re round!).

Place the eggs, caster and Muscovado sugar, vanilla extract and 1 tsp lemon zest in a large stand mixer, or beat with a hand mixer. Add the finely chopped parsnips, then gradually pour in the olive oil until well mixed. Fold the parsnip mixture into the dry ingredients until completely incorporated.

Transfer to the prepared loaf tin and cook in the pre-heated oven for 1 hr to 1 hr 10 minutes. This will vary considerably depending on the age/texture of your parsnips and your oven temperature. The original recipe said 35 to 45 minutes, but mine was nowhere near ready by that time (homegrown parsnips perhaps?) and took nearer 1 hr 10 minutes. Do keep checking with a skewer (it should come out clean when inserted in the centre of the loaf) and touch with a finger to make sure it springs back to the touch, rather than still looking soft.

Meanwhile, prepare the lemon glaze by mixing the sifted icing sugar with the remaining lemon zest and a tbsp or so of lemon juice until the consistency is thick enough to coat the cake. You can add more icing sugar or lemon juice to adjust if necessary. Set aside.

Cool the loaf in the tin for 15 minutes, then carefully turn out onto a cooling rack, place greaseproof paper beneath (to catch drips) and pour over the glaze, making sure it covers the top surface and runs prettily down the sides.

You could, of course, go down the traditional carrot cake route and top with cream cheese frosting, but bear in mind that frosting won’t keep as long out of the fridge if it’s not all going to be eaten straightaway.

I found the glazed version keeps for a good week in the tin – the perfect afternoon treat!

Parsnip, date and hazelnut loaf

The February Blues

When I booked a trip to visit my son and daughter-in-law in Boston at the end of January, I envisaged snow and arctic conditions across the pond, followed by a return to early spring in the UK when I got home in February. But no. It was not to be. New England was experiencing its mildest winter for some years, with temperatures hovering around freezing, but brilliant blue skies and sunshine – a far cry from the wettest autumn/winter on record (or so it seems) we’ve experienced at home. So far, so welcome – and a delightful break, lovely to be reunited with family and spend time together, of course. Plus we got to see some snow in a trip to beautiful Vermont, so that satisfied my snow longings.

Unfortunately, my son had a nasty cold while I was there and my throat was starting to feel suspiciously tickly on my night flight back. It quickly developed into a decidedly croaky voice, followed by a full-blown stinker of a cold – just what you want when you get back from holiday. Nearly two weeks on, and I’m gradually shaking it off, although now my 86-year-old father has it and I’m feeling bad about passing it on to him in the brief time I saw them between landing and picking up my car.

Needless to say, gardening has been off the agenda over the past two weeks, even had the weather been kinder, but no, we’ve been battered by storms, mirroring my mood. I did manage to venture out to the allotment last weekend, while Storm Chiara (my name in Italian – how apt!) was doing her worst, and my poor shed is definitely on its last legs. Only the clematis is holding it up, I suspect – a new one will have to be on the agenda very soon, when I feel up to doing the research, that is! More torrential rain is on the way this weekend in the shape of Storm Dennis, so we’ll see whether that finishes it off – it hasn’t been as bad as last weekend so far, although the main road to Tunbridge Wells is flooded again. For the time being, my tools – and, more importantly, my little stove! – are covered and I daren’t try and rescue them in case the whole thing collapses on my head!

Poorly shed

Cooking from scratch is another thing I haven’t really felt up to, most unusually for me, but this is where a well-stocked freezer and all those soups transformed from bumper harvests last season come into their own. Tomato soup, carrot & coconut and turkey broth have gone down particularly well: all those vitamins doing my throat good on their warming way down, even if my sense of taste and smell isn’t all it should be either. Hot drinks have been my salvation: copious amounts of tea (even more than usual, which is pretty good going, even for me!), hot blackcurrant and lemon, plus Lemsip at bedtime. I’ve even gone off coffee and alcohol – it must have been a really nasty bug! Herbal remedies from my friend have really helped, though: andrographis compound, plus eucalyptus and thyme for my chesty cough and eyebright (euphrasia, who knew? Augentrost, or eye consolation in German, which is also rather nice) & calendula for my streaming eyes. Oh, and beetroot juice to boost my immune system.

Carrot & Coconut soup

Before I lost my sense of taste and appetite, however, I did manage to make a batch of chocolate chip oat cookies – having returned post-holiday to a house with empty biscuit and cake tins! That would never do… As it happened, we’d made some American-style choc chip cookies in Boston from a new cookbook borrowed from their excellent local library. They were very good (especially when we’d halved the amount of sugar in the original recipe!), but it reminded me to dig out my old recipe, adapted from a magazine many moons ago. Mine are definitely more traditional crispy biscuits than the American softer cookie-style ones, but try both and see what you think:

English Chocolate Chip Oat Cookies – makes 24

Choc chip oat cookies

4oz butter, softened
3oz soft light brown sugar
1 egg, beaten
3oz oats
3oz self-raising flour, sifted
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp vanilla extract
pinch of salt
4oz dark chocolate, roughly chopped

Pre-heat the oven to 150°C fan (Gas 4) and grease two baking sheets, then line with baking parchment.

Cream the butter and sugar until light and creamy, then gradually beat in the egg and vanilla extract. Stir in the remaining ingredients and mix well. Place heaped teaspoons of the mixture on the baking sheets, spaced apart to allow for spreading during baking. Bake for 15 minutes, cool for a minute on the trays and then remove to wire racks to finish cooling. Enjoy with a steaming hot cup of tea.

And the American version appeared in this book, duly adapted for a less sweet English tooth:

Book cover

American Oatmeal Chocolate Chunk Cookies – makes 24

8oz butter, softened
4oz caster sugar
4oz soft brown sugar
1 large egg, beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tbsp golden (or maple) syrup
4oz self-raising flour
4oz oatmeal
1 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
6-8oz dark chocolate, roughly chopped
4oz oats

Pre-heat the oven to 150°C fan (Gas 4) and grease three to four baking sheets, then line with baking parchment.

Cream the butter and sugars until light and creamy, then gradually beat in the egg, syrup and vanilla extract. Stir in the remaining ingredients and mix well. Place heaped teaspoons of the mixture on the baking sheets, spaced apart to allow for spreading during baking – these will spread more than their English cousins! Bake for 12 – 15 minutes or until just cooked: American cookies are usually softer than their British counterparts. Cool for a minute on the trays and then remove to wire racks to finish cooling. Enjoy with coffee (if you must!) or still excellent with a steaming hot cup of tea.

American choc chunk cookies

The suggestion in the original recipe is for these to be served as ice-cream sandwiches, with homemade raspberry ripple ice cream – now there’s a thought for the balmy days of summer at the height of the raspberry season…

In the meantime, I think I need another holiday to recover from my horrible decennial cold – just as well I have a restorative week in the Alps (not skiing this year, sadly) lined up in March 🙂

Frozen blackcurrants