Plants with a pur­pose

The parsnip has a poor rep­u­ta­tion with peo­ple forced to eat it as a child, but this gourmet vege de­serves a sec­ond chance.

NZ Lifestyle Block - - Contents - JENNY SOMERVELL

Give this gourmet root a sec­ond chance

The parsnip has been de­scribed as a ‘pasty-faced, over­weight car­rot, an­cient and un­re­fined.’ I’m guess­ing that per­son was not a fan. Parsnips and car­rots be­long to the Api­aceae (Um­bel­lif­erae fam­ily), they both have ed­i­ble tap roots and share the same shape, but there the sim­i­lar­ity ends.

The parsnip’s flavour is much more ro­bust - too ro­bust for some - and sweet so it tends to dom­i­nate when added to stews and casseroles. Per­haps its hum­ble roots as a near-sta­ple food have not helped. You might re­mem­ber the in­fa­mous ‘love it or hate it’ car­rot and parsnip mash you ate as a child.

It seems some parsnip cre­ativ­ity is called for. Pair parsnips with com­ple­men­tary foods and as­sertive herbs and spices like horse­rad­ish, chillies, car­damom, co­rian­der, turmeric, cumin, gin­ger, mus­tard, tar­ragon and rose­mary and this root will shine as a dish all on its own, and pro­vide a great foil for fatty meats.

If you have a sweet tooth, parsnips can ex­tend their range into brunch. When roasted or sautéed the sug­ars caramelise richly. Parsnips are so sweet that they were used in cakes and jams be­fore the ar­rival of cane sugar, and yes, I have en­joyed a parsnip cake.

Parsnips ( Pasti­nacea sativa) have been eaten since an­cient times. Cul­ti­vated forms de­vel­oped from wild parsnip which is be­lieved to be na­tive to Europe. Ac­cord­ing to Pliny, Em­peror Tiberius was so fond of parsnips that he had them

brought an­nu­ally to Rome from Ger­many where they grew along the Rhine. By the 16th cen­tury parsnip was cul­ti­vated in Ger­many, Eng­land and, shortly af­ter, in the Amer­i­can colonies. It was a sta­ple of the poorer peo­ple of Europe and was used as sugar sub­sti­tute be­fore sugar and beet were avail­able.

In 1730, Tourne­fort wrote of wild parsnip’s ‘agree­able taste and whole­some­ness’ es­pe­cially ‘if first nipt with cold’. Parsnip seeds were col­lected for their medic­i­nal value and sold by herbal­ists. Culpeper wrote that gar­den parsnip is ‘good for the stom­ach and reins and pro­voketh urine.’

In the mid-nine­teenth cen­tury parsnip was re­placed as the main source of starch by the potato and its use sub­sided. Nu­tri­tion-wise, parsnip’s food value ex­ceeds any other veg­etable, other than pota­toes which re­placed it. The nu­tri­ents packed into this low calo­rie veg­etable are sur­pris­ing.

A cup of parsnip has only 100 calo­ries, less than half a gram of fat and is an ex­cel­lent source of di­etary fi­bre. They also pack a stack of vi­ta­mins and min­er­als in­clud­ing potas­sium, cop­per, man­ganese, phos­pho­rus, sev­eral B-group vi­ta­mins, folate, Vi­ta­min C and K. In ad­di­tion some stud­ies have found anti-ox­i­dants in parsnip to have anti-in­flam­ma­tory, anti-fun­gal and anti-can­cer func­tions.


A small num­ber of peo­ple are af­fected by fu­ra­nocoumarin, which is con­tained in parsnip leaves. It can cause skin to burn on ex­po­sure to sun­light. Symptoms of phy­topho­to­der­mati­tis in­clude red­ness, burning, blis­ters, and a dark dis­coloura­tion on skin which can persist for some time. If you have sen­si­tive skin, han­dle plants with gloves when in bright sun­light. An­i­mals can also be af­fected where the skin is ex­posed.

Parsnip should not be con­fused with hem­lock ( Conomium mac­u­la­tum) which is highly poi­sonous.

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