Pale yellow or ivory in colour and shaped like a slightly bulbous carrot, parsnips are one of the tastiest and most appealing root vegetables. Cheap and simple to prepare, their soft, fragrant, slightly sweet flesh adds a warm, comforting element to dishes.
Parsnips have been cultivated by humans for at least 2,000 years. In ancient times parsnips and carrots were often referred to by the same name (pastinaca was used by Pliny to describe both). The writings of Apicius indicate that the Romans held the parsnip in some esteem.
For centuries in Europe they were a ubiquitous and nutritious staple food. Before sugar was widely available parsnips were used to sweeten dishes such as cakes and jams.
Their popularity declined following the introduction of the potato, and this decline continued as sugar became more readily available. The parsnip is now not commonly eaten outside N. European countries.
Wild parsnips are found across Europe and Asia. The cultivated form - Pastinaca sativa - belongs to the umbelliferae family which includes carrots, chervil, parsley, fennel and celeriac.
Parsnips should be firm and dry. The likelihood of a parsnip having a tough, woody core seems to increase with size. Irregularly shaped parsnips won't taste any different but are a little fiddlier and more wasteful to prepare.
Flavour and sweetness are increased by frost, so parsnips are better during mid/late winter.
Keep in a perforated, unsealed plastic bag in the bottom of the fridge. They can last for 2 or 3 weeks but keep a check and use them before they get soft or withered.
Wash, peel, trim both ends and cut according to use.
Raw parsnip is good grated in a salad. Roasting or steaming are the best cooking methods (boiled parsnip can be a bit watery). Steam parsnip chunks until soft (10 - 15 minutes). Roast parsnip in a moderate oven (180°C) for around 20 minutes for chunks, 30 - 40 minutes for whole parsnips.
Whole roast parsnips are delicious accompanied by a yoghurt or sour cream dip flavoured with (for example) garlic, lemon or coriander.
In Italy, pigs bred for top quality Parma ham are often fed on a diet of parsnips.