Seen at The Festival of the Tree

...if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden - Chinese proverb

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

A Guide to Parsnips - You Ask, We Answer


It never ceases to surprise me how some of the simple things I take for granted are complete unknowns to other people. But the comments from December's comedy vegetable post soon showed me parsnips are not the universal seasonal food I thought they were - apparently they're only familiar now to northern European gardeners. So for Prairie Rose, who asked and Mr McGregor's Daughter, who didn't like the look of them, here's You Ask, We Answer's definitive guide.

You'll see I've pictured Pastinaca sativa this time in both their misshapen and desired forms, together with their close relative, the carrot. Both are umbellifers, setting their seed in their second year, though they're usually harvested during the first so they can be eaten at their sweetest and most tender. Parsnips in particular can go rather woody at their core if they're left too long before harvesting.

I've welcomed the chance to investigate their history: in cultivation here for over 2,000 years and prized by the Romans, they were one of our staple foods prior to the introduction of the potato, which then took over as the root crop of choice to fill us up. They were also used to sweeten food: winter frosts sweeten them and make them all the more delicious, but the rise of the sugar cane trade saw their demise in this role. So now we're left with them used mainly as an accompanying vegetable, in season from November through to February.

Parsnips have one of the longest growing seasons, usually being sown in February/March depending on how cold the soil is at this time. They prefer an open soil with a good tilth, so the roots can go long and deep. The soil should be neutral or slightly alkaline for best results. Clay, stony and well manured soils are all likely to result in parsnips with forked roots. I grow a shorter variety on ground at least two years after manuring in my crop rotation cycle, but as you can see I still get misshapen vegetables!

Germination is notoriously slow (and fresh seed every year is also recommended - I've found Mars and Avonresister to be good varieties), so many gardeners mix the seed with a quick growing crop such as radishes or lettuce. This serves as a row marker, ensuring the seed isn't disturbed by hoeing or confused with weeds and this crop will be harvested in time for thinning the parsnips to eight inches apart. I haven't had much success with this method, and germination has tended to be uneven, so I've resorted to 'chitting' (aka pre-germinating) my seed. I use a sprouter for this, spreading the seed out evenly on some damp kitchen towel. Once most of the seeds have started to sprout, I either carefully space them out into a prepared bed on my allotment, or if the weather's cold, I'll transfer them to some loo roll tubes filled with compost. I use these as parsnips hate being transplanted, so the tube allows plenty of room for the roots with minimum disturbance when I finally plant them out. I leave them in the tube, which then rots away as the plants mature.

You're probably thinking why go through all that faff when they take so long to grow and are so ugly? Well, they're one of mine and NAH's favourite vegetables, especially roasted. They're a fantastic comfort food. Nutritionally they're a good source of vitamin C, fibre, folate and potassium. For me, it's psychologically uplifting to have something to harvest on the allotment over the winter months. They're also relatively large - one good root will make a delicious curried parsnip soup, or a curried apple and parsnip soup to provide us with a couple of satisfying lunches. The latter recipe also tells you how to make parsnip crisps (aka chips - must add that to the planned YAWA dictionary!) - so much nicer than potato ones.

A detailed guide to cultivation can be found here, and loads of recipes by following this link. Finally - Joy you referred to Dr Who in the Comments on my last parsnip post. Might you be thinking of the OOD perhaps? My blogfriend Louise came up with that likeness with her parsnips last year. I can't get to her post directly, but it's the second one down if you take this link instead ;)

Update: I see from today's comments parsnips are known outside Europe, albeit not that widely.

28 comments:

  1. I love parsnips - they are the best bit of Christmas dinner to me and mashed on Boxing Day - yum!!

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  2. I'm glad you mentioned curry parsnip soup - it is our favourite. Best enjoyed hot from a flask on a cold wintry walk.

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  3. I love parsnips, sadly ours are embedded in a layer of permafrost at the moment!

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  4. My mum who is a Roman constantly reminds us of the civilising influence that the Romans had on Britain, but I think she may have forgotten parsnips ! Another fan here too. I like then in mashed potato with a little bit of grainy mustard added in. I must grow some at the allotment this year.

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  5. I'm an adult convert to the parsnip-hated them as a child but am very fond of them roasted now,especially a la Delia- dusted with flour and Parmesan cheese after a short parboil. Mmmmm.

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  6. Thanks for the link love, VP, and the wealth of information! I'm not sure if I've ever eaten a parsnip before, but now I'm going to have to buy some. I always imagined they tasted somewhat like turnips, which I'm not particularly fond of, but turnips definitely aren't sweet.

    You do go through a lot of work to grow them. My mother always planted radishes with carrots for the same reason you mentioned here, and I have followed her example. Your use of TP rolls to start them is ingenious:)

    I think some smart gardening magazine editor ought to pick up YAWA for a monthly column!

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  7. VP ... that is IT !!! .. they are the fore-runners of the Ood who will be making visits to each garden that harvests "baby Oods" .. number one reason why you have to disguise said veggies, and not talk too loudly about them .. be very very careful or the Ood might arrive in your garden plot !!

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  8. Mmmm, love parsnips. Sarah Brown's cashew, mushroom and parsnip roast is one of the best vegetarian main courses I've ever eaten - I'm planning to make that in the next week or two.

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  9. one reason i don't know much about parsnips is because i didn't have a good idea on how to prepare it or what goes will with parsnip. now i do :) thanks! don't know where i'm moving, just that my housemates are getting ready to sell this house next spring/summer. it might well be local, although i would as soon move far, far away from here.

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  10. I love parsnips roasted. At Christmas we had, parsnips roasted with maple syrup and grain mustard. Delicious! Worth trying, and dont they taste sweet after the frost?

    I am going to go home and throw the ones from the veg box out in the icy air tonight! LOL I am joking of course

    Minus 5 celcius tonight, VP, not as bad as last night. Off to the hotel to run up their electricity bill instead of ours! Bliss.

    Do you have any luck with kohlrabi?

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  11. I cooked these for Christmas this year for the first time ever. I really liked them, and the family did not complain. So that is good. I don't think it is a well known veggie here.

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  12. What an informative post! I appreciated the section on pre-germinating and soil. I have not tried this, but you have inspired me!
    :)
    Philip

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  13. Hmmm, I'm in the U.S. and I'm very familiar with parnsips, but it's also true my m-i-l and step-m-i-l were English (um, OK, they're still English, they are just no longer my in-laws). in any case, parsnips are readily available in U.S. grocery stores, but agreeably, not common. I admit I do prefer rutabaga. The TP rolls are also used by winter seed sowers, by the way!
    ~ Monica

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  14. Who knew parsnips were so interesting? I just bookmarked this for reference. Very nice information and thank you. They look very French country to me...like you would expect to see them on a painting displayed nicely with other vegetables. Kinda romantic like. Don't cha think?

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  15. Hi, VP.

    I've just come across this blog and wonder if you already know it?

    http://cheltenhamdailyphoto-marley.blogspot.com/

    Lucy

    P.S. Parsnips, I find, are ok in small doses, wrapped with garlic and butter in foil (very un-ecological!) and baked.

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  16. Hi VP, you are doing a real service here for the parsnip! I have never tried them, or even looked for them at the grocer's but will try them roasted before devoting garden space to them. Last year I saw that tip about the loo rolls, or t.p. rolls as we call them here, for carrots. I have to say the seeds sown in bare earth were much larger than the ones in rolls. It is a tall raised bed so really not necessary for a straight veggie. I do like the YAWA!

    Frances

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  17. I decided to let one of my Winter parsnips go to seed last year. It grew to about 7 foot tall with wonderful yellow flowerheads followed by thousands of seeds which I left to drop. I now have about half a dozen parsnip seedlings self sowing in the garden! I think I'll leave them to see what comes! This germination was better than the row I sowed myself in a carefully prepared bed!

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  18. That's quite a history for such a lowly veggie, thanks for the shout out. I guess parsnips for you are akin to polenta for me (we call it "Italian Soul Food"). I definitely can see a resemblance between parsnips & the Oood. I can't imagine what other people think when they see you dutifully planting loo rolls in your lavishly prepared soil. Do they think you're trying to harvest full rolls?

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  19. Parsnips are considered an old and mostly forgotten veggie here although it's making a bit of a come back now.

    I like to make a nice parsnip and mustard soup in winter. Very tasty and a great comfort food.

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  20. I quite like them roasted but I do see why their appearance puts people off (and their taste for that matter).
    I'm irritated at having to sow 100 seeds to get 20 to germinate but perhaps your pre germination will solve the problem!

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  21. Hi everyone - glad to see so many parsnip fans out there and Amanda, that recipe link looks scrummy as does everyone else's favourite ways of serving them :p

    You'll see I've amended the original post as so many of you non-Europeans know exactly what I'm talking about! And I have a follow-up post planned for this week as I discovered something else about parsnips.

    Like you Gary, ours are frozen into the soil at the mo' - at least they'll be even sweeter!

    Rose - only too glad to link such a prolific contributor to this blog (that goes for you too MMD)! As for YAWA being picked up, that would be fun - perhaps I can dream?

    Joy - I thought so.

    Petoskystone - good luck with your move, wherever you end up.

    SOL - I've never grown kohlrabi - NAH doesn't like that many of the root vegetable family. I had enough trouble getting to like parsnips!

    Garden Faerie - I use TP roll innards for all sorts of things and the fact you call them TP rolls needs to be added to the YAWA disctionary!

    Anna FFG - that's the first time someone's said they've bookmarked a post - I'm dead chuffed! :)

    Lucy - I haven't come across that daily photo blog, but I am aware of the daily photo blog ring as I did a guest post for them on graffiti art last March. I did also toy with starting one for Chippenham at the time.

    Matron - I've allowed one to set seed too - they're great aren't they? Bees love the flowers too.

    Greenforks - it did the trick for me

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  22. Whoever didn't know what a parsnip was certainly does now, everything you need to know about a parsnip, great! My OH does not do vegetables, but strangely does like roasted parsnips, so I often do these, I also really like parsnip soup too. Thanks for the Ood mention, like any Dr Who monster they have a habit of reappearing! x

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  23. Hi Louise - I thought you'd like this post and I still giggle at your OOD like parsnip even now! x

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  24. Look, here's an American blog entry on parsnips: http://rodale.typepad.com/testgardener/2009/02/parsnips.html.

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  25. Hi Monica - thanks :) They even made Garden Rant a couple of weeks ago too!

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  26. this is a very timely post from my perspective, as I'll be trying my hand at growing parsnips for the first time this year. Thanks for the tips!

    I only have a terrace, with large tubs to grow things in, so I'm curious to see how it goes. I did well enough with beetroot last year, so I'm hopeful I'll manage something, even if they're not perfect specimens.

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  27. Tony - good to see you again :) Your method sounds just like the one champion veg growers adopt to grow their large specimens. As long as you have a fairly deep pot with fine compost on there, I'm sure you'll get a decent crop :)

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  28. I must admit I don't know anything about parsnips, this is interesting, am glad I've found your blog and learn new things, (well, at least for me) Thanks for educating me.

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