Parsnips may look like gnarly white carrots, but they taste more like sweet potatoes. Parsnips came to the United States from Europe. They were considered popular in ancient Roman times and eventually became established in northern Europe, where it was a stable vegetable because of its hardiness in extremely cold weather.
Europeans ate parsnips and also fed them to livestock even before the North American colonization began. But as the potato gained popularity in the 19th century, it supplanted parsnips as the starch of choice.
The parsnip’s sweet properties have elevated its stature in soups, stews and mashes and as an accompaniment to other roasted root vegetables.
Parsnips caught the attention of at least two Founders. George Washington tried to grow them at his Dogue Run Farm but expressed concern in a letter to his nephew George Augustine Washington about their condition. “I am really sorry to hear that [they] are so thinly come up,” he wrote in 1787, as he presided over the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. During his presidency, Thomas Jefferson charted the seasons of vegetables — including the parsnip — in Washington, D.C., food markets, and he also grew parsnips at Monticello.
But parsnips weren’t for the gentry’s table only. They were consumed by all classes in colonial times because they didn’t require a lot of effort to grow, said Colonial Williamsburg’s Frank Clark, master of Historic Foodways. Parsnips stored nicely in root cellars, making them a good choice for hearty winter meals. The seeds are planted in early spring “when the daffodils bloom,” and the vegetable is not harvested until after the first frost in the fall, making it a great choice for holiday meals.
“Parsnips were simple to prepare, boiled and mashed and served with butter,” Clark said. “They could also be mixed with breadcrumbs and herbs and fried, similar to a potato pancake.”
Clark selected a recipe for parsnip puffs, which are fritters that use eggs rather than yeast or baking powder as a leavening ingredient and can be made with either parsnips or carrots. Clark cautions that the puffs will be too dense if the oil isn’t hot enough.
Executive chef Travis Brust never tasted parsnips as a kid. He didn’t even know what they were until he went to culinary school.
“Parsnips taste similar to sweet potatoes,” he said. “Sweet carrot meets sweet potato.”
He prefers the smaller parsnips, no more than 6½ inches by about an inch and a half, which are still tender. The larger ones can get woody. “If you grow them at home, by the time they produce flowers, they are inedible.”
Brust has created a recipe for salt-roasted parsnips with honey-pomegranate glaze that is not difficult to prepare and should make an amazing paring with turkey or ham for the holidays or anytime.
“Many times cooks use parsnips as a base with other flavors, but this recipe is perfect for people who want to taste the parsnips,” he said. “It’s a great way to introduce a new flavor to a traditional holiday meal.”