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The sweet and peppery parsnip

February 25, 2012

This is my first post as part of my exotically local food experiment! (Pick out a locally-grown form of produce I’ve never tried, make a recipe with it, and blog the experience.) For the most part, it’s been unseasonably warm, but this is still technically winter in Chicago. So except for hothouse tomato and pepper farmers and cold-frame spinach growers, this is storage-crop, root-vegetable season at the market. So my first selection was a good example under these categories: Parsnip.

What are parsnips? I relied on the sign to identify them, because while I had a vague idea I probably couldn’t have picked them out of a root lineup. They are sometimes called the “white gourmet carrot,” and are a great winter crop because cold weather turns their starches to sugar and brings out a sweeter, fuller flavor. Possibly a good replacement for the world-travelling banana, they are a rich source of potassium and other vitamins and minerals. In ancient times, parsnips were cultivated and eaten interchangeably with carrots in the Mediterranean, and their range expanded along with the Roman Empire.

Raw parsnips, doing their best to match our cutting board.

I imagined them as similar to turnips, an infamous vegetable in the Leopold household when I was growing up because of my dad’s purported intense dislike of them, which I had always suspected to be exaggerated for comic effect and led to them being slipped into minestrone soups to masquerade as pieces of potato (secret’s out!).

While turnips can cause strong feelings, members of the parsnip family can actually cause chemical burns. The roots are safe and edible raw or cooked, but the shoots and leaves contain furanocoumarin, a phytophototoxin, which means that when the plant juices contact your skin, they make the skin hypersensitive to sunlight, resulting in burns. This is naturally occurring chemical warfare to prevent predation.

I didn’t make the connection before between the garden parsnip and these noxious relatives, wild parsnip and giant hogweed, with which I actually had an encounter and scars to prove it. Doing my bird surveying job several summers ago, I had to push through a field of tall grasses and weeds. On the drive back, I noticed my arm resting in the sun on the window edge had a strange red rash-like circle developing on it. By the next day, it had become a huge raised blister. It never hurt, but for the rest of the week it looked like an awful burn–which, after some online research, I realized it actually was.

Anyway, to my knowledge I have never eaten one of these seemingly innocuous parsnips in my life. And so the experiment begins:

What it looks like: Yep. A white carrot.

What it smells like: Pungent earth. Somewhat carroty and definitely like something that spent its time quietly in the ground.

The recipe: “Rikke’s Sweet Parsnips,” from The Chicago Diner Cookbook

Ingredients: 1/4 pound green beans (or any amount you have), cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
2 Tbsp. olive oil
4 cups diced onions
1 pound parsnips, peeled and cut into chunks
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper

Blanch the green beans in rapidly boiling water with a pinch of salt for 30 seconds to a minute, then drain and immediately run cold water over them to stop the cooking process.
In a medium skillet, heat the oil and saute onions until translucent. Add the parsnips, salt, and pepper. Cover and cook on medium heat, stirring frequently, until the parsnips are tender and almost caramelized, at least 10 minutes. (It will be done when the onions start to turn golden-brown.) Add the green beans and cook 3-5 minutes more.

The completed recipe! With tender-crisp green beans, caramelized onions, and peppery parsnips.

The taste: A delicious complex flavor, sweet on the tender outside to peppery in the chewier center. Not as soft as a potato or as dense as a carrot. The large amount of caramelized onions and fresh green beans (grown in Florida, bought at Whole Foods in a moment of weakness..) in this recipe–two great veggies–complement the taste well and make it even richer.

Conclusion: An awesome winter vegetable; just watch out for it in the wild.

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