Sweet Parsnips

Nighttime temperatures in the mid-twenties make me a little nervous about the fate of celery root and chard in the winter kitchen garden but very happy about the prospect of parsnips.  Of all the winter roots and hardy greens, parsnips most need real cold to sweeten up.  After a few nights in frozen ground, they go from bland and starchy to sweet and tender.

In New England, where I grew up, parsnips spent all winter buried under snow in the frozen garden.  We didn’t dig parsnips until early spring when the ground started to thaw.  Here in our temperate maritime northwest, parsnip harvest can come sooner.  I wait for a good hard freeze, a rather long wait this year, then a thaw, then I dig.Parsnips digging

Digging parsnips is often a muddy event, especially if I want to get the roots out intact.  They’ve been growing since mid-June when I planted seeds of Lancer and Javelin, and now, seven months later, they’re deeply, strongly rooted.  Still, with a shovel and a digging fork and a little patience and luck I can extract these sweet roots from the mud, hose them off and bring them to the kitchen. Parsnip washing

My mother served parsnips boiled and mashed with butter or stewed in chunks next to a roast or in a stew, all delicious preparations, but I’m more likely to peel them, cut them into strips or chunks and roast them. Coated lightly with olive oil, spread on a sheet pan, and roasted at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes, they soften and caramelize into vegetable candy.  They are a lovely side dish on their own but their nutty, sweet flavor also blends perfectly with the sharper sweetness of carrots and the earthy flavors of rutabaga and beets to create a root vegetable medley. Parsnips roasted

Parsnips also pair wonderfully with kale, another of those winter kitchen garden vegetables that is tastier after a few mid-twenty degree nights.  I picked a basket of both the other afternoon and made a variation on a delicious-sounding risotto from a year-old David Tanis New York Times City Kitchen column: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/11/dining/risotto-with-parsnips-and-greens.html?ref=dining

I didn’t actually make risotto.  Instead, I prepared the parsnips and kale as Tanis directs, added some shell beans and served this vegetable mix on Einka, a whole grain einkorn that my friend Brooke Lucy of Bluebird Grain Farms (http://www.bluebirdgrainfarms.com/index.html) gave me to try.  It’s another ancient grain that Bluebird has begun growing and will offer for sale soon.  The kale and parsnip combination is earthy and sweet and I’m eager to make it again, perhaps using red mustard instead of kale to add a spicy, hot flavor to the sweet roasted parsnips and even making real risotto. Pasnip and Kale

Hot spices like ginger and curries also go well with sweet parsnips. In a recent column, Tanis offers a curry recipe that includes parsnips: http://www.nytimes.com/recipes/1014468/Coconut-Chicken-Curry-with-Cashews.html and Nigel Slater includes parsnips in his root vegetable korma: http://www.goodtoknow.co.uk/recipes/398410/Nigel-Slater-s-root-vegetable-korma. For soups, Deborah Madison in her Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone offers “Parsnip Soup with Ginger and Parsnip ‘Croutons.’” All of these flavors play off the special sweetness of parsnips and promise tasty experiments and shared meals ahead.

Thinking once more of New England and the sweet parsnips my family welcomed in early spring, my fondest memory is of how much my father enjoyed sharing what he called “spring tonic.” One year he sent my visiting college roommate and her husband home with a bag full. She’s still a parsnip fan, forty years later.  And every year, he would take roots from the first harvest to Earl Smead, a dairy farmer neighbor who supplied cow manure each spring for our garden.  “Earl likes parsnips,” my father would say as he dug another dozen.  The parsnips were a thank you but also a chance for a visit. Even after Earl had turned most of the dairy farming over to his daughter Betty and spent his days sitting at the kitchen window, my father would stop by with parsnips and these two Yankees, one older, one younger, would welcome spring and talk.  My temperate northwest winter season differs a lot from New England’s cold winter but the delight in parsnips remains the same.

Parsnip Soup with Ginger and Parsnip ‘Croutons’

From: Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison

3 large parsnips – peeled (about 2 pounds)

6 cups Basic Vegetable Stock OR water

1/2 cup chopped cilantro stems — plus

cilantro sprigs for garnish

4 thin ginger slices — unpeeled

3 tablespoons butter or canola oil

1 large onion — roughly chopped

3/4 pound carrots – peeled and thinly sliced

1 1/2 teaspoons ground coriander

1 tablespoon white rice

Salt and freshly milled pepper

1 cup milk or cream or almond milk to thin the soup — as needed

Cut two of the parsnips crosswise in half, then quarter each half lengthwise. Cut away most of the cores. Reserve the other parsnip. If you’re making stock, include the parsnip trimmings, cilantro stems, and one slice of the ginger. Brown the vegetables before adding the water to bring out their flavors.

Heat 2 tablespoons of the butter in a soup pot over medium heat, letting it brown a little. Add the vegetables, remaining ginger, and the coriander. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onion and carrots have begun to brown here and there. Add the rice and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and cook a few minutes more. Add the strained stock and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer, partially covered, until the vegetables are very soft, about 35 minutes. Remove the ginger, then purée the soup, leaving a little texture or not, as you wish. For a very smooth soup, pass it through a food mill or sieve. Thin if necessary with the milk.

Dice the third parsnip into little cubes and cook in the remaining butter in a skillet, stirring frequently, until golden and tender, about 8 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Serve the soup with a spoonful of the parsnips added to each bowl. Garnish with sprigs of cilantro.

Winter Vegetable Adventures

The winter kitchen garden offers vegetables for harvest—leeks, roots, Brussels sprouts and hardy greens—but the kitchen garden has also provided storage vegetables to take us through the winter: potatoes, onions, shallots and squash now in cool storage, dried beans and dried tomatoes in the pantry, and packets of corn, shell beans and peppers in the freezer.  Part of the fun of creating winter meals is finding ways to combine storage vegetables with each other or with vegetables still growing in the garden.  The possibilities are endless.

Winter squash is one of the stars in this adventure.  The other day, I sliced open two lovely Burgess Buttercup winter squashes, removed the seeds and fibers and baked the squash cut side down on a sheet pan at 400 degrees until the rich, sweet flesh was soft and scooped easily from the shell, ready for soups, ravioli, sweet or savory pies.

Winter squash prep

Winter squash roastedFriends were coming for dinner so I decided to make a savory squash tart, mixing some of the squash with sautéed Copra storage onions and thawed Poblano peppers I’d roasted and frozen at the end of the summer.  The rich, nutty flavor of the squash combined perfectly with the sweetly pungent caramelized onions and spicy peppers.  I added some grated sharp cheddar cheese to the mixture, filled the pastry shell, folded in the pastry edges and baked the tart at 400 degrees for about 45 minutes.  The proportions for a 12-inch tart pan were about six cups of cooked squash, a pound each of onions and peppers and a quarter pound of cheese.   With some shell beans mixed with emmer farro from Bluebird Grain Farms (http://www.bluebirdgrainfarms.com/bluebird-emmer-farro.html) and a celery root, apple and mache salad, this rich tart made a great winter supper.Squash tart

The seeds and fibers I removed from the squash went not to the compost but to the stockpot. Squash stock

In her 1987 cookbook Greens, Deborah Madison recommends adding the seeds and inner fibers of squash or pumpkin to the stock for her “Winter Squash Soup with Red Chili and Mint.”  Celery or celery root, onion, bay leaf, parsley, sage, salt and cold water combine with the squash seeds and fibers to make a flavorful base for winter soups.  This particular winter squash soup is delicious, sort of like the tart filling thinned way down, but there are many other possible variations.  Adding chard or kale, sautéed leeks, maybe some dried tomatoes or cooked beans, even some corn creates tasty new soups. The flavor and color combinations are pleasing and endless.  And there is nothing like a soup experiment to cheer up a dreary winter day.

Vegetable stews are another good way to combine winter garden and storage vegetables. On a recent late afternoon in the garden, the colorful hues of rainbow chard tempted me to pick a bunch.  Braised on their own, they would have made a beautiful side dish but with the addition of sautéed onion, chopped garlic, sliced dried tomatoes and thawed fava beans they became the background for a vibrant stew topping soft polenta.  A little grated Pecorino Romano cheese added just the right salty flavor to the sweet, earthy vegetables and the creamy corn polenta.  The night was dark and cold but this plate looked like summer, a most welcome thought. Polenta, chard, favas