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.
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.