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.