Friday, January 13, 2012
Posted by Kate at 11:16 AM
This winter we have a surfeit of parsnips to harvest, which is wonderful because they are one of my favorite vegetables. But parsnips can be tricky to cook well, because they aren't very dense. So when you roast them (one of the very best cooking methods for this vegetable) with other root crops, they tend to cook through much faster than carrots, potatoes, or turnips. Add to this the abundant sugars in a winter-harvested parsnip, and you have a recipe for burned, or mushy parsnips, or worst of all, both conditions at once.
So I like to roast parsnips on their own, and I recently hit on a fabulous way of doing that. It's a bit more fussy than other methods, but it produces such deliciousness that I'm willing to go to the extra effort. The nicest thing about this dish is that all the major ingredients are either homegrown, or homemade.
I start by cutting up several slices of my home cured guanciale. I'm sure bacon or pancetta would work fine as well, but the extra seasonings that I add to my guanciale give the dish a little something special. If you use bacon or pancetta, one or two slices should do it. My guanciale is small, and my slices short; I used about seven slices for two full pans of roasted parsnips. A little bit of fatty cured pork goes a long way in the flavor department. So the slices are cut into bite-sized pieces and gently heated in a skillet just enough for some of the fat to render out into a liquid state. Some of the guanciale pieces begin to brown a little, but I'm not aiming to crisp them up at this point.
While the fat renders I go to the trouble of peeling several parsnips and cutting them also into bite sized pieces. I check my quantities by spreading out the chopped parsnips on a sheet pan. I don't want it overcrowded, but neither do I want too much open space on the pan. The vegetables should all fit in a single layer with a bit of space around the pieces. To each sheet pan of parsnips I add several peeled cloves of garlic, left whole, a good amount of finely chopped rosemary, and freshly ground white pepper. I gather up the ingredients to the center of the pan, pour over the rendered guanciale fat and the guanciale pieces, and add just a bit of olive oil to the pile. Then I mix everything by hand so that the vegetables are well coated with oil and fat. These get spread back out to an even layer, and sprinkled with kosher salt just before going into a 375 F oven.
A single pan of these parsnips will take about 25-30 minutes to roast. If you make two or more pans of these goodies at once, it'll take longer. It's a good idea to rotate pans between shelves, as well as turning them 180 degrees if you're making a lot. I didn't need to stir the parsnips around from time to time as they cooked. With larger pieces of root vegetables I've noticed that doing so encourages more even cooking. The smaller pieces don't seem to need it. When the parsnips and guanciale develop a lovely browned appearance, you'll know they're done.
It may seem strange that I'm elevating what most people would consider a side dish to the status of a proper meal. All I can say is that I tried using these roasted parsnips as a topping for pasta, and while it worked just fine, I noticed that the pasta seemed more of a distraction from the vegetables than a help. So I gave up and next time just ate a large bowlful of the roasted parsnips. Not the most nutritionally balanced meal in the world, but I can't stop eating them. I'm thrilled to have stumbled on a great recipe for parsnips that uses homegrown garlic and rosemary, which is doing well by the way under protection. We've hardly needed much in the way of season extension infrastructure with the mild winter we're having, but that's another post.
I got the basic idea for this dish from Molly Stevens' All About Roasting cookbook. She takes her dish in a sweeter direction than mine with the addition of brown sugar. To my mind, a parsnip that is allowed to stay in the ground through a few frosts so that it sweetens up on its own is plenty sweet enough, so I leave the sugar out. But I appreciate the attention to detail in Stevens' book. Hitting on the best temperatures and cooking pans for roasting all sorts of different foods is not an intuitively obvious thing, but one arrived at through much trial and error. So I'm grateful for the sheet pan and temperature recommendation on this recipe, and the topic of the book is well suited to the season.
Anyway, I hope some of you will try this parsnip recipe, especially if you've never been impressed with this humble treasure before. It was once the main winter staple crop of Europe, before the potato was brought from the new world. I do wish that I could retrieve some of the ways our ancestors prepared this vegetable. I'm sure they had some very good ways with the parsnip. If you have a favored recipe for parsnips or other root crops, please do share them in the comments!