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

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