A PAEAN TO PARSNIPS Little known starch deserves a lot more respect

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[I wrote this story 12 years ago for the Boston Globe, but after looking it up today for a link, I decided to bump it up for new readers. Still holds up, IMO.]

For no good reason, parsnips are the vegetable in need of a publicist.

Most people, if they know parsnips at all, know them as part of a New England boiled dinner. Or as an ingredient in their mother's chicken soup. But they can be so much more.

The parsnip is, with the possible exception of its cousin the carrot, the sweetest vegetable. It is free of fat and cholesterol, has lots of fiber and little sodium, and provides potassium and vitamins A and C.

It is impressively versatile, it can be turned into a treat with a minimum of cooking skill, and it'll keep for weeks in the refrigerator.

It has been cultivated for 2,000 years, and for most of that time it has been highly prized. The Greeks and Romans considered it an aphrodisiac. In the Middle Ages it was a Lenten favorite. American colonists were glad to have it, not only for meals but also in cough syrup.

But maybe 300 years ago it was supplanted in the public's taste by the potato, whose blander flavor made it a better accompaniment to more foods. Even today there are authorities on food who will tell you parsnips are good only as an additive, almost only as a condiment. I say they're wrong.

The parsnip's fall from grace would be easy to understand if it had an obvious defect - the slurping required for the pomegranate, for example, or the sliminess of okra. But what's not to like about the parsnip?

The fact is, it is delicious simply when sauteed solo. It can be baked or boiled, pureed or scalloped, croquetted or casseroled. And it harmonizes with flavors ranging from mace and brown sugar to tarragon and thyme, in side dishes, main dishes, and desserts.

Some like it raw, for crudites or, julienned, for salads. Many recipes pair parsnips with pears and other fruit, attesting to their innate sweetness. Beginners who know only how to turn on the oven can cut up a few, toss them in oil, salt, and pepper, and roast them (400 degrees, 40 to 50 minutes, stirred a couple of times), alone or with other roots. It wouldn't take much more knowledge to steam them and then toss with, say, butter, lemon, and sage. You could exchange parsnip for carrot in any recipe and come out ahead.

The best parsnips are of medium size: Larger ones tend to have fibrous cores that must be removed; smaller ones don't have much left after peeling (unlike carrots, they must be peeled). Some recipes advise peeling beforehand for stews, but after cooking for purees, to help preserve color, flavor, and nutrients.

The parsnip's hardiness in the crisper mimics its hardiness in the ground. Unlike other vegetables, parsnips actually improve when a hard frost hits: The low temperature converts their starch to sugar. Although they're usually available year round, parsnips are at their peak now, in late winter. As if anyone cared.

At the Food and Culinary Expo in Boston a couple of weeks ago, parsnips were included in a kids' quiz of unknown edibles. And when I asked a learned friend and researcher to help with this story, she was eager to assist in raising the parsnip's pitiful profile.

"I like the purple tops," she said. Purple tops? Those would be turnips.

It is an understandable confusion: Both are root vegetables, and "nips" to boot. For the record, turnips are round and often come covered in wax. Parsnips look like albino carrots. They did get part of their name from the turnip, which is curious because they stem from different botanical families.

Relatives claimed by the parsnip would make a pretty good spice rack: caraway, dill, coriander, cumin, chervil, fennel, and anise are all kin, as are celery and parsley.

There's even a notorious bad seed: poison hemlock, which made the brew that killed Socrates. But hey, that was 2,400 years ago, and even then, it's only guilt by association.

The poor parsnip has done nothing wrong, and it deserves another chance.

MULTIGRAIN PILAF WITH PARSNIP SAUCE

This recipe, by TV chef Graham Kerr, is rich in taste and velvety in texture while being extremely low fat. The sauce works just as well over steamed vegetables.

2 teaspoons oil

1 pound parsnips, peeled and chopped into 1-inch chunks (reserve peelings)

6 sprigs of rosemary

2 bay leaves

3 or 4 sprigs of thyme

3 cloves garlic, smashed

1/2 cup brown rice

1/2 cup pearl barley

1/2 cup wheat berries, soaked overnight

1/4 cup wild rice

1/2 cup quinoa

1 1/2 cups evaporated skim milk

Pinch of saffron

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 cups frozen green peas, thawed

1 tablespoon lemon juice

In a skillet or saute pan over medium-high heat, heat the oil. Add the parsnips and a couple of sprigs of rosemary and saute until the parsnips are nicely browned. It's OK if the edges burn; it enriches the taste.

Meanwhile, in a large pot, bring 6 cups of water to a boil. Using a small square of cheesecloth, make a bouquet garni of the remaining rosemary, the parsnip peelings, and the bay leaves, thyme, and garlic. Bash the package with the back of your knife a couple of times to bruise the contents. Place in the pot of boiling water. Add the brown rice, barley, wheat berries, and wild rice, and simmer 30 minutes. Stir in the quinoa and cook a few more minutes, then drain and steam the contents for 15 more minutes. Discard the bouquet garni.

After the parsnips have browned, remove them to a steamer and steam for 30 minutes. Place them in a food processor fitted with a steel blade, add the milk and saffron, season with salt and pepper to taste, and process for 3 minutes. When the grains are cooked, remove them to a large bowl and stir in the peas and lemon juice. To serve, use the sauce as a bed for the pilaf, or make a well in the rice and fill it with the sauce.

Serves 4-6.

PARSNIP AND PEAR PUREE

Pears are often paired with parsnips, probably only partly for the alliteration. This recipe, adapted from "Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook" by Julie Russo and Sheila Lukins (Workman, 1985), works well as a side dish or as a crepe filling.

6 cups peeled and coarsely chopped parsnips

2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) unsalted butter

2 Anjou pears, peeled and coarsely chopped

1 tablespoon orange-flavored liqueur

1/4 cup sour cream

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Place the parsnips in a medium saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook, covered, until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain them, discarding the liquid or reserving it to use as a base for stock, soup, or sauce.

Meanwhile, in a small skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the pears and saute for 5 minutes. Add the liqueur and cook, stirring frequently, for 15 minutes.

Run the cooked parsnips and pears through a ricer, then mix in the sour cream, allspice, and salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately, or warm gently just before serving.

Serves 6 to 8.

PARSNIP SHEPHERD'S PIE

This recipe is a stew in itself. It originated at a Highland, N.Y., restaurant, then was published in Bon Appetit magazine in September 1997, embellished on epicurious.com by an unnamed "New York cook," and further adapted for this story. You can continue the evolution by using any combination of vegetables for the filling. It can be a side dish or the main course.

For the topping:

1 1/2 pounds potatoes

1 1/2 pounds parsnips

1/2 cup milk

1 teaspoon oil

Salt and ground white pepper

For the filling:

1 tablespoon oil

4 medium-size parsnips, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch rounds

2 large carrots, cut into 1/2-inch rounds

2 cups butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes

2 cups turnips, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1 cup chopped onion 3 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger root

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

1 tablespoon butter

1 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 1/2 cups vegetable broth

For baking:

2 teaspoons melted butter

1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

To make the topping, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Peel and cube the potatoes and parsnips. Boil them until tender, then drain them and put them through a ricer. Add the milk, oil, and salt and white pepper to taste. Stir to combine and set aside.

To make the filling, in a large saucepan over medium-high heat, heat the oil. Add the vegetables, garlic, ginger, cumin, and coriander. Saute about 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Cover and cook until the vegetables are almost tender (about 15 minutes), stirring often. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a saucepan over medium heat, melt the tablespoon of butter. Add the flour and whisk for 1 minute. Add the broth gradually and bring to a boil to thicken. Boil gently for about 3 minutes. Add the sauce to the vegetables, cover, and simmer for 5 more minutes.

Transfer the vegetable mixture to a casserole dish. Cover with riced potato-parsnip mixture, paint with melted butter, and place in the oven. Bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes, until the topping starts to brown. Sprinkle parsley over topping before serving.

Serves 4-6.

PARSNIP PUDDING

This recipe is adapted from the dessert chapter of "Amber Waves of Grain: American Macrobiotic Cooking" by Gale and Alex Jack (Japan Publications, 1995). It can be served as is, or used as a pie filling. If you don't have a pressure cooker, simply boil the mixture until the parsnips are tender.

1 cup parsnips, cut into 3/4-inch cubes

1/2 butternut squash, peeled and cut into small chunks

1 cup apple juice

1 cup spring water

Pinch sea salt

Grated lemon peel to taste

1/2 cup cooked couscous

Place the parsnips and squash in a pressure cooker. Mix the apple juice and water and pour it over the vegetables. Add the sea salt and lemon peel. Place the lid on the pressure cooker, bring to high pressure, and cook for about 15 minutes. Release the pressure and mash or puree the parsnip mixture. Return it to the pot and add the couscous. Cover and let it simmer until tender. Serve in individual serving bowls.

Serves 4-6.