This week, we’re travelling to Europe for the parsnip, a member of the umbelliferae family, which includes carrots, chervil, parsley, fennel, and celeriac. The name parsnip comes from the French pastinaca and the ‘nip’ was added to indicate its resemblance to the turnip.
Humans have been cultivating parsnips for at least 2000 years, before which they grew wild across Europe. They were considered a luxury vegetable in ancient Rome and steadily gained popularity across Europe during the Middle Ages, becoming a widely eaten staple crop. Before sugar was widely available, parsnips were used to sweeten dishes such as cakes and jams. Europeans brought parsnips to North America in the sixteenth century. Before potatoes, parsnips were a main source of starch though they are also more nutritionally dense than potatoes. Parsnips store well for months in a cool and dark place, which is part of the reason for its popularity for centuries.
Parsnips are pale yellow or ivory in colour and shaped like a slightly bulbous carrot with soft, fragrant flesh and sweet, nutty taste. Parsnips become sweeter in cooler weather and develop their true sweetness after the frost has helped convert their starch to sugar. Much of the flavour compounds of the parsnip are to be found under the skin, which is why many recipes call for parsnips to remain unpeeled.
Parsnips can be prepared in a number of ways: steam and serve with your favorite entrée; roast with other root vegetables in a 400°F oven with a drizzle of olive oil and your favorite herbs; simmer chunks of parsnips, then puree and add your favorite broth for a simple soup; add parsnip chunks to all your soups and stews for interesting taste and texture.
Parsnips are a good source of Vitamin C, fiber, folate, and potassium. Half a cup of boiled and drained parsnips, according to Health Canada, contains about 70 calories, 2.7 g of fibre (10 per cent of the daily RDA), 30 mg of calcium, 302 mg of potassium, 48 micrograms of folate and 11 mg of vitamin C.
Fun fact: In Italy, pigs bred for top quality Parma ham are often fed on a diet of parsnips.