Now that it’s January and we start to cleanse ourselves of the holidays, we seem to fully embrace winter vegetables. Not that we don’t like our winter vegetables, we just like spring and summer produce better (we like spring and summer better than winter, period). But when we do revisit winter vegetables we always come back to parsnips and wonder why we took so long. Parsnips aren’t just a decent winter vegetable, they can be sweet, flavorful and a lovely compliment to the roasts, braises and stews that make up so much of our cold weather cooking. And, believe it or not, when you roast parsnips with a little fat, salt and thyme you get a snack you can enjoy at any time.
If you are unfamiliar with parsnips (or had a bad experience and tried to forget), they are a root vegetable that looks like a large ivory-colored carrot (some varieties are less uniformly shaped). Parsnips combine some of the sweetness of carrots and a bit of the earthy flavors of potatoes with a slight “rooty”, sarsaparilla-like note. Parsnips play very well with heavy fats like cream, beef drippings and bacon fat, so they tend to go with heavier dishes. But you can roast, mash or purée parsnips with just a bit of added fat (or sugar if you are so inclined) for a healthier dish. The only issue left to deal with is texture.
The big issue with parsnips is in many dishes they are either undercooked and/or have stringy and woody sections. Nigel Slater once noted that most people experience their first parsnip in a roast or stew when they think they just ate a “woody potato”. First impressions often last a lifetime, and this is no way for people to discover parsnips. (It isn’t an accident that most chefs love parsnips, but mostly serve them pureed.) But there is a simple trick that takes care of any textural issues, just cut the parsnip in thin wedges and steam it before you oven roast. The smaller pieces cook in less time and the steaming allows the rest of the parsnip to cook evenly. It does take a few extra minutes, but what else do you have to do in the dead of winter?
Otherwise, this is a very easy dish to make. Peel and cut the parsnips into wedges, halve the thin ends and quarter the thicker ends. Steam for ten minutes and then toss the parsnips with a mixture of butter and bacon fat or beef drippings, salt, pepper and thyme (olive oil doesn’t seem to love parsnips, just a FYI). Lay out the wedges on a baking dish and cook in a 350 degree oven for one hour. About halfway through the cooking turn over the parsnips so they caramelize on a few sides. And they will caramelize and give you a sweet, slightly crispy outer crust that gives way to a sweet, earthy and creamy center, simply delicious. You can serve these with almost any meat dish, but we garnish the parsnips with a bit of coarse salt and some chives and start snacking…they never last more than a few minutes.