The Proof is in the Parsnip

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RECIPES BY ELLEN JACKSON
PHOTOS BY STEVEN JACKSON

img_0865Perhaps you’ve heard the expression, “Fine words butter no parsnips.” In other words, flattery (“buttering up”) is meaningless without the behavior to back it up. A variation of sorts on “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” it’s a particularly apt turn of phrase when speaking of parsnips, that humble root vegetable whose gnarled exterior is at odds with its creamy, sweet interior.

The irregularly shaped parsnip — wide at the top, then dramatically tapering to a tail that sometimes resembles a rat’s or a forked tongue —belongs to the carrot or Umbelliferae family. Its members include an exceptionally large number of herbs (parsley, chervil, cilantro, fennel, and dill, to name a few), as well as vegetables that grow above ground (fennel, celery, and rhubarb) and below ground (parsley root, celery root, and carrots).

What they all have in common is the seed head, or umbel, that forms when they flower. Shaped like an umbrella, the cluster of blossoms is delicate and lacy, recalling Queen Anne’s lace, another Umbelliferae. The family members also make lovely companions for one another on the plate. As they say, “What grows together goes together.”

Parsnips spend a long time in the ground — far longer than carrots, and sometimes as much as nine months—as they’re sown in the spring and are best overwintered or left to harvest until after the first hard frost when their flavor and sweetness peak. For that reason, don’t be surprised if your parsnips cost more than their orange-hued cousins; the investment in time alone makes them more precious and rare.

With the wait comes a reward: creamy fleshed, earthy, and sweet, parsnips are a simple, unfussy food capable of being transformed. Medieval cooks, for whom sugar and honey were precious, appreciated the parsnip’s inherent sweetness, which can be coaxed out by caramelizing its natural sugars.

Roast them in a hot oven, sauté them in brown butter, or bake or fry them as you would a potato, destined for dipping in ketchup. Feature them in a soothing and velvety soup made exotic with a bit of curry powder, or in a shy yet sumptuous mash befitting a Sunday roast. Or use them in a dessert.

Their pungent sweet aroma suggests that parsnips would pair nicely with the warm spices associated not only with curry, but also with baking: cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, and nutmeg. And they do. You could make a parsnip cake with cream cheese icing, parsnip custard kissed with cardamom, or a rich and creamy filling the texture of cheesecake to bake into a graham cracker crust.

But don’t take my word for it. Talk is cheap. The proof is in the parsnip.

 

Creamy parsnip tart

Parsnips may be unexpected in the pastry kitchen, but their natural sweetness and creamy quality when cooked recommend them for the job. The inspiration for this elegant dessert came from a similar treatment of carrots, which got me thinking … if parsnips can stand in for carrots in a classic favorite like carrot cake, why not a tart?

Makes one 10-inch tart, to serve 8 to 10
Start to finish: about 5 hours, including baking and chilling

img_1006Recipe:

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
2 tablespoons honey
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup whole-wheat flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
10 ounces parsnips, peeled and sliced in 1/4-inch thick coins (about 1 1/2 cups)
2/3 cup heavy cream
3 cloves
1 cinnamon stick, broken in 2 pieces
2 eggs
1 egg yolk
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
pinch salt
1 cup buttermilk

To make the crust, cream the butter, granulated and brown sugar, and honey in the bowl of an electric stand mixer, fitted with the paddle attachment, until smooth and lighter in color, about 3 minutes.

Combine the all-purpose and whole-wheat flour, salt, baking soda, and cinnamon and add to the creamed butter and sugar in 2 batches, scraping down the sides of the bowl between additions. Mix until well combined. Form the dough into a disk, wrap with plastic wrap, and chill at least 1 hour or until firm.

On a lightly floured work surface, roll the dough into a 12- to 13-inch circle with a 1/4-inch thickness. Fold the dough in half and carefully lay it in a 10-inch tart pan with a false bottom and fluted edges. Lightly press the dough into the corners and fold the outer edge of the pastry into the sides, pressing to create an even wall that extends just beyond the top of the pan. Pinch off excess pastry. Dock the bottom of the shell by pricking it with a fork and freeze 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 325°F.

Make the filling while the shell is in the freezer. Combine the parsnips, heavy cream, cloves, and cinnamon stick in a small, nonreactive saucepan. Simmer the mixture, covered, over low heat until the parsnips are soft, about 20 minutes. Cool completely, remove the spices, and puree until very smooth.

In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs, egg yolk, sugar, nutmeg, and salt until well combined. Add the cool parsnip puree and the buttermilk, whisking until smooth. This mixture can be made and refrigerated 2 days ahead. Bake the chilled shell until deep -golden brown and dry in appearance, about 30 minutes.

Pour the filling into the shell and bake 30 to 40 minutes or until the edges of the filling puff slightly. The tart will jiggle in the center and appear to be underbaked—this is OK. Cool at room temperature for 30 minutes, then chill until set, about 2 hours.

Serve the tart at room temperature the day it is baked, or chilled the following day.

 

Parsnip pancakes

You could call these latkes, rosti, or fritters too. Appropriate served alongside sliced brisket or with a poached egg and a side of sausage, these crispy-edged pancakes are pleasingly creamy in the middle, thanks in part to Gruyere cheese, an egg, and a glug of cream, which hold them together.

Makes about 12 pancakes, to serve 4 to 6
Start to finish: about 45 minutes

img_0936Recipe:

4 cups loosely packed, grated parsnips (about 3 large)
1 small onion, thinly sliced or grated
2 ounces Gruyere cheese, grated (about 1/2 cup)
1 clove garlic, finely minced
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2/3 cup heavy cream
1 egg
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh thyme
4 teaspoons all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon olive oil plus more as needed

Use your hands to toss together the parsnips, onion, cheese, garlic, salt, and pepper in a large bowl, making certain to distribute the ingredients evenly.

In a separate small bowl, whisk the cream with the egg, thyme, and flour, being careful to remove any little lumps of flour.

Lightly film the bottom of a larger cast-iron skillet with the olive oil and set it over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, place 2 or 3 large spoonfuls of the mixture in the pan and flatten lightly with the back of the spoon. Cook the pancakes 3 to 4 minutes or until they’re crispy and dark-golden brown, then flip them over and cook an additional 4 minutes on the other side. Repeat until the mixture is gone.

Hold the finished pancakes in a warm place, or in a low oven, in a single layer.

 

 

Parsnip “popcorn”

You know how parsnips taper dramatically from top to tail, becoming slender halfway down? This snack is a perfect use for the lower skinny ends. When thinly sliced and baked in a low oven, the parsnip rounds curl up into pieces the size of popped corn. Sprinkle generously with your favorite flavored salt or spice—I like garam masala—and find a movie!

Buy your parsnips from a farmers market or another source of organic produce so that you can leave the skins on. After a gentle scrub, they clean up nicely and you’ll get the added bonus of extra flavor and nutrients.

Makes about 2 cups, to serve 2 hungry moviegoers
Start to finish: about 1 hour

img_1061Recipe:

4 small parsnips (or the “tails” of 3 large)
4 teaspoons olive oil
2 teaspoons sea salt, divided
1 teaspoon garam masala, optional

Preheat the oven to 275°F and line 2 rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper or foil. Using a mandoline, thinly slice the parsnips into rounds ranging between 1/2 and 1 inch in diameter. You should get about 2 cups.

Put the parsnips in a bowl with the olive oil, 1 teaspoon of salt, and the garam masala if using, then toss to combine, making certain the slices are evenly coated. Arrange the rounds on the prepared baking sheets in a single layer without any overlap.

Place the trays in the oven and bake 20 to 40 minutes, depending on the thickness of your slices. When they are ready, the chips will have browned lightly, curled up, and become crunchy. Start checking them at 20 minutes to prevent burning.

When they are ready, remove the pans from the oven, sprinkle the chips with the remaining salt, and let them cool completely on the pans.

 

Ellen Jackson is a Portland-based cookbook author, food writer and stylist, and recipe developer. In addition to having a deep knowledge of regional food products, growers and suppliers dedicated to the celebration of food, Ellen is passionate about the importance of cooking and protecting local and global biodiversity. Learn more at www.foodprintstyle.com

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