Friday, January 13, 2012

Harvest Meal: Roasted Parsnips

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!


Jenny said...

I love parsnips added to beef stew. I usually fry mine in bacon fat first. I don't worry about cooking them through because they will be cooked in the stew, just giving them some flavor.

Ruth Trowbridge said...

Have always passed on this vegetable, the only one - now I want some you make them sound so good - thanks for the post, i will for sure grow them this year - peace

Anonymous said...

Hi Kate: Yummy! Nice meal on this cold day. Check out Search for parsnips. Marion

The Cranky said...

This looks wonderful, can't wait to try it!

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

That recipe looks wonderful, and gave me yet another reason to wish my parsnip harvest had yielded more than a handful of stunted little roots. Sigh.

Dorothy-Life With Boys said...

I have to say, I've never eaten a parsnip (that I'm aware of, anyway!) This really intrigues me enough to grow some next year. Thanks!

Hazel said...

A roast parsnip has to be one of my favourite vegetables.
They're common in the UK, but in continental Europe they are considered little more than cattle feed- we've successfully introduced my husbands Hungarian colleague and family to parsnips and swede (rutabaga)!

As well as roasted (also excellent in butter if you don't have bacon- parsnips love dairy products- and with a little honey or maple syrup if your shop bought parsnips aren't as good as they could be) they are also gorgeous pureed or made into a smooth soup. They take warm spices well, so I tend to add curry flavours like cumin, coriander seed or garam masala to either the soup or puree.

They combine well with apple (try grating an apple into the pureed soup and heating through; the sharpness can prevent it becoming too sweet and cloying) and mushroom- top large mushrooms with (leftover?) parsnip puree and bake, maybe topping with cheese, or I make a lasagne that is layers of mushrooms cooked with either garlic or chopped parsley and lemon with parboiled parsnip slices on the top under the final layer of sauce.

I'd also recommend the unlikely sounding but quite delicious parsnip risotto.

Final thought is that if you get a choice avoid the really huge parsnips as they are often woody in the centre and you have to cut the core out.

Sorry Kate- no comments for ages and then I'm back with another epistle. It's talking about food and cooking that does it...

KT80 said...

I was just talking about roasting parsnips, thanks for the tips!

Kate said...

Jenny, parsnips in beef stew sounds great. And of course, everything's better with bacon, or even just bacon fat!

Ruth, I've converted a few friends of mine to parsnips. They'd only had summer-harvested parsnips that they're frugal grandparents insisted on eating. I'm pleased to have persuaded you as well. The key is to dig them after it gets truly cold. They do end up hogging garden real estate for a long time, but I'm not terribly pressed for space, so it's worth it to me.

Marion, thanks for the pointer. Interesting site that.

Jacqueline, hope it goes well for you.

Tamar, I've been there. Last year we had no parsnips, due to a germination failure in the hot spring of 2010. I've found that broadcasting seeds in very late fall or early winter does the trick. The seeds can decide best when they want to germinate, which is surprisingly early, and conveniently, when I don't need to water.

Dorothy, glad to have another potential parsnip convert.

Hi, Hazel. I never mind your epistles. Thank you for the spice suggestions for the pureed soup. I may have to try those soon. I may have to try the apple combo too.

KT80, any time!

Prairie Cat said...

I am never had parsnips, but I have heard great things about them. Maybe I will try growing them this year. said...

That sound delicious. I was thinking of growing parsnips this year. Any suggestions for doing it successfully?

Kate said...

Eleanor, my suggestion is to plant the seed VERY early. Parsnip is a finnicky, Goldilocks sort of germinator. It likes it not too cold and definitely not too hot. Plus, it needs three weeks at more or less the right conditions to sprout. Oh, and the seed has a very limited shelf life. I actually sow in very late fall and let the seed decide when to germinate in the spring. This is better than me trying to time things in spring, as I've learned from experience. In one year with a warm spring, we got none because I planted too late. So I would say, plant sooner rather than later. Keep in mind what you plant now you won't harvest for 10-12 months. Parsnips hog real estate for a long time. Good luck!

Jeri said...

I planted parnips for the first time and dug them up when I read your post. They were pretty weird looking (mostly split) but I was able to make the recipe. Guess I need more specific measurements, though, as my dish certainly didn't turn out anything like a main course. It really turned out like roasted vegetables, which is just fine with me. But it was a good experience and again, Kate, you inspired me to go forward with trying something new. Thanks!