Parsnips must be rejoicing in their newfound freedom. Once the pariah of the vegetable world, discriminated against as “other” and often misunderstood by those who dismissed them as “second-grade carrots” – an epithet that still stings – they are finally getting to enjoy their place in the sun.
What to do with a parsnip? It looks like a carrot but it isn’t. Like a pale, insipid distant cousin, it has spent much of its existence in the wings, shunned and distrusted, barred from sitting on ‘carrots only’ benches in parks and having to go to parsnips-only beaches in the vain hope of building up a bit of colour.
When carrots filled acres of space on the refrigerated shelves of supermarkets, parsnips barely got a look in. Recipe books were full of ways to cook carrots, but parsnips were only ever allowed into the odd soup recipe, or the occasional hearty stew. Even at farmers’ markets, plump, shiny carrots would preen on the table top while a few desultory parsnips would lie limply in a cardboard box under the table, unnoticed and forlorn.
And then the aparsnipheid regime instituted the hated Parsnip-stan policy, relegating the pale, pointy tubers to their own pockets of land in obscure parts of the country, with the hated Bopparsnipswana becoming the laughing stock of the local and international comunity.
But, as the venerable Mahatma Pharsnip once observed, being oppressed, whether in the minority or the majority, does not make you inferior, only more interesting. ‘People look at you askance beause they do not understand you. They see you as ‘other’ and therefore distrust you. But in fact, you are special.” Yeah right. Tell that to PW Carrot.
But then something happened. Nobody could pinpoint quite when it was but it slowly became clear that some in the parsnip community were not prepared to take the status quo any more. Parsnips rose up and started organising themselves. They held rallies, undermined the carrot-head bigots, and some went underground in an attempt to root out the worst perpetrators of anti-parsnippian discrimination.
Nobody could ever forget the day of the great Purple Rain when everyone – parsnips, carrots, cabbages, pears, grapes, even potatoes – was sprayed purple by the water cannon of the aparsnipheid pigs. A great expiation happened as understanding seeped into the national vegetable psyche. We are all one. Even parsnips.
And so it happened, slowly but inexorably, that parsnips began to take their rightful place in society and today, finally, they can bask under the brightest lights in the fridge down at Woolies and Checkers, and are given pride of place on the farmers’ market trestle tables, alongside the carrots and the organic swedes (which, also long denigrated, were a staunch ally in the United Parsnip Front throughout the long struggle years).
So it is a thrill to see so many parsnips in the shops at the moment, knowing what they have been through, and I have been buying them and cooking them madly as if to make up for all the lost years.
The parsnip is a venerable vegetable from Eurasia and is, as most people correctly guess, a member of the carrot family, or, as parsnips prefer to put it, carrots are a member of the parsnip family. Look, it’s an old feud. Parsnips have much more flavour but less crunch, and are often described as spicy and sweet, with notes of caramel or butterscotch, spices such as cinnamon or cardamom, and a certain nuttiness.
This makes them great for caramelisation, for roasting, with the addition of any number of your favourite spices and something sweet, such as a glaze of something with honey in it, and a little lemon to add a bit of tartness.
Try leaving out the carrots in a carrot cake and replacing them with parsnips (an act treasonable in the carrot world but hey, we’re not carrots). Make a cream of parsnip soup flavoured with cumin or cardamom, enhanced with cream or coconut cream.
Make parsnip rösti, using them instead of potatoes – just find rösti recipe and follow it having made the swop (don’t tell the potatoheads). Make parsnip risotto – dice parsnip into tiny cubes, sauté in butter, add stock and then wine, and use this stock to add to the rice a ladleful at a time.
Roast whole washed parsnips to go with a roast, with nutty herbs such as parsley – thyme also goes well. Make a hearty winter chicken casserole with whole garlic cloves, baby onions and chunks of parsnip, with lots of herbs and dry white wine. Make a chicken and parsnip curry, starting by braising mustard seeds and cardamom in ghee, and building it up from there.
And make a delightfully creamy parsnip mash, as I did last week, to use to accompany a meat or poultry dish, or a lovely piece of pan-fried yellowtail or Cape salmon (geelbek), or with steamed sole.
Instead of mashed potato, make parsnip puree to go on top of a shepherd’s or cottage pie, topped with finely grated parmesan and grilled to finish it off. Or add a layer of parsnip puree to a moussaka – it’s not traditinal, but it works. You could either still include a layer of bechamel (white sauce) or leave out the bechamel and use a similar quantity of pureed parsnip.
Bangers and parsnip mash
Pork sausages of your choice, 2 or 3 each, grilled
100ml cream OR fullcream milk OR coconut cream
30ml/2 Tbs butter
Salt and finely ground white pepper to taste
One large onion, sliced
1 cup (250ml) balsamic vinegar
100ml red wine
2 Tbs sweet sherry or muscadel
I made parsnip mash to go with good old-fashioned bangers and mash. Parsnip mash cannot be made in precisely the same way as mashed potato, because parsnips can be very stringy, and that stringiness has to be conquered. Here’s what I do…
Top and tail the parsnips, peel them, wash and cut into chunky cubes. Steam over boiling water until soft – merely al dente is not enough.
Drain thoroughly as you do not want any of that water. Put in a hot, dry saucean, toss on the stove to get rid of any excess water, then put it all in the blender and blitz until it is absolutely fine and creamy. Remove back to the saucepan, add butter and either cream, full cream milk or coconut cream, stir until the butter is melted, season with salt and pepper and serve with grilled pork sausages and a sauce made by sautéeing the sliced onions until soft, adding the wine and balsamic vinegar and reducing.
Enjoy it in honour of freedom of choice and association and in celebratiom of the rights of even the humblest of us.
First published in Weekend Argus June 2012