Parsnips (Pastinaca sativa) are closely related to parsley and carrots but contain more starch, which converts to the sugars they are known for when they are left in the ground in cold weather and when they are cooked. Parsnips also have a nutty flavor that is unique to them, and they are good for you: they are high in potassium, various B vitamins, antioxidants and fiber, and they may help fight cancer and inflammation. Historically, parsnips were used as a sweetener in Europe before cane sugar was imported and the quick-growing sugar beet replaced them. Introduced to the United States in the 1900s, parsnips were once a staple in the American diet. But being slow growers (they take 120 days to mature—nearly twice as long as carrots), parsnips were gradually replaced by other roots that performed better and took less time to grow, like beets, potatoes, sweet potatoes and of course carrots. And they also are not the most attractive vegetable around, looking somewhat like anemic carrots! Local farms that do go to the trouble to grow this delicious root include Route 1 Farms in Santa Cruz, Pinnacle in Hollister and Live Earth Farm in Watsonville. Taylor Poudrier, Live Earth’s sales and marketing manager, says the farm never seems to be able to grow enough parsnips; they always sell out quickly. Live Earth harvests through the winter as needed, giving the roots that remain in the ground a chance to get sweeter as the winter progresses. GROWING, SELECTING AND STORING PARSNIPS Like most root crops, parsnips prefer a deep, well-worked sandy loam soil with no big rocks that can deform the roots while they are trying to grow. Parsnips are planted in the spring and direct seeded ½-inch deep and 18 inches apart. Parsnip seeds take up to three weeks to germinate which is much slower than weed seeds’ germination time, so effort must be taken to ensure that the parsnip seedlings don’t get choked out by the interlopers. Plants should be thinned to 2–3 inches apart and watered 16 edible MONTEREY BAY WINTER 2016 enough to keep them moist, but not too much because doing so can increase wireworm and carrot or celery maggot populations. When selecting parsnips at the market or grocery store, look for blemish-free, firm, small-to-medium roots as those that are very large may have a tough, woody center. But if all you can find are large specimens, you can remove the woody center with a knife and use the flesh surrounding it instead. Avoid parsnips that have micro roots coming off the main taproot—this means they were searching for water and are probably dry and not as delicious. If you can find some with their greens attached, snatch them up; this is a sure sign they are fresh. However, do be careful handling the greens, as the sap—the parsnip’s natural defense against herbivores like rabbits and deer—is toxic and can cause a chemical burn on the skin similar to poison oak in people sensitive to it. Parsnips can last several weeks, if not months, in cold storage and are best stored unwashed and dry in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. When you want to cook them, scrub well but try to resist the urge to peel them—unless they are not organic—as the skins have lots of flavor as well as fiber, which lowers blood cholesterol levels. BRING BACK THE PARSNIPS! Parsnips can be eaten raw—think very thinly sliced with chunks of citrus like blood oranges or pink grapefruit, a good feta and fresh herbs for a tasty seasonal salad—but the flavor is not as complex or sweet as compared to a roasted or baked one. Steam, sweat, boil, roast, mash, stir-fry or purée—any preparation style will yield satisfying and delicious parsnips as cooking brings out their sweetness. Chop parsnips and include in stews, gratins or casseroles; make a cream of parsnip soup; bake parsnip chips; and remember herb and garlic play well with the parsnip as do warm spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom and cloves. Kids will love parsnips, especially since they gravitate towards white foods. Try them puréed or roasted with butter and add a dash of cinnamon and sea salt.
edible Monterey Bay Winter 2016
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