A root vegetable that grows wild in Europe and West Asia, parsnips have been cultivated since ancient times. Its early history is clouded by the fact that writers didn’t always distinguish them from carrots—understandable because the two are closely related, and parsnips look pretty much like beige carrots with really wide shoulders. We do know they were loved in classical Rome, and Emperor Tiberius was picky about parsnips. He had wild ones specially imported from the banks of the Rhine; a potentially hazardous enterprise, since they’re often mistaken for water hemlock, the source of the poison that reputedly brought down Socrates.
As a source of both starch and sweetness, parsnips were of supreme importance in the medieval European kitchen. Sugar was a rare, imported luxury, and honey could be expensive. The potato, later to become a staple, had yet to make its pilgrimage from America. So the sweet, starchy parsnip did double duty for the cook—besides serving as a vegetable, it could be used to sweeten and thicken various puddings. When sugar became cheap in Europe, the parsnip’s popularity waned. A pity, perhaps, because this versatile vegetable takes well to just about any form of cooking, and they’re great in soups and stews.
You can boil and mash them like potatoes or roast them to bring out their distinctively nutty sweetness. Choose parsnips that are firm, and avoid those that are limp or pitted. Trim the ends and peel just before using. If they’re particularly large, they can develop a tough central core that’s best removed before cooking.
—By Jo Marshall, a food writer in Deephaven, Minn.