As the days get warmer and the ground thaws, it is time to dig spring-dug parsnips. Characterized by some as ‘the cream of the crop’, spring parsnips come from seeds sown in the spring of the previous year, grown during the summer, allowed to die back in the fall and freeze in the ground over the winter.
Parsnips can also be dug in the fall after a frost or two, but those left over the winter are sweeter and more flavorful. The extreme cold converts the starches into sugar and allows the flavor to mellow. The timing is critical for spring-dug parsnips; they need to be dug as soon as you can get into the ground with a shovel or fork and just as their tops start to show new growth. If they are left in the ground too long in the spring and the tops start to grow out, they become woody.
Never had parsnips? Some mistakenly refer to them as white carrots, but while they may be related to carrots distantly, they are actually part of the parsley family. They are a cream-colored, gnarled, carrot-shaped root vegetable. They can be eaten raw but are best prepared by roasting, frying, grilling or steaming to bring out their distinct succulent flavor and nutty sweetness. They have a tan peel that is typically removed before use; peeling also removes their gnarly surface. The flesh is cream-white. They are a very versatile vegetable with recipes ranging from roasted side dishes, soups and stews, mashed, turned into fries, and even made into wine. They pair well with other root vegetables, too. Like potatoes or an apple, parsnips oxidize when exposed to air after their peelings are removed. If not prepared right away, cut parsnips should be placed in water to reduce the effect.
Being white in color, one would tend to believe that they offer little nutrition. Quite the opposite is true. According to the USDA, a half-cup serving of parsnips are high in heart-healthy fiber providing 3 grams of fiber and only 55 calories. They are a low-fat food yet a good source of numerous vitamins (especially C and K), minerals (especially folate and manganese), and antioxidants. (Note that the level of vitamin C is somewhat reduced with the cooking.)
Besides the home garden, parsnips are available at the supermarket and likely can also be found at the late fall and spring farmer’s markets. Spring is the best time to give them a try if you are new to parsnips. If you are lucky enough to find this once-a-year spring treasure, choose fleshy, fresh, firm, medium-sized and even surfaced roots. Avoid woody, over-matured, long, thin, and tail-like roots as they are off-flavored and have tough fiber. Also avoid soft, pitted, shriveled, knobby, or damaged roots.
Fresh parsnips should be stored in a plastic bag in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator where they should last three to four weeks. Use cooked, refrigerated parsnips within three days. Parsnips can also be frozen for later use by cutting into 1/2-inch cubes, water blanching for 2 minutes, cooling promptly in cold water, draining, and packing and sealing into containers, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Fully cooked parsnip puree may also be frozen for up to 10 months for best quality. Drying is another method for preserving parsnips as well.
For more information on parsnips, check out Growing Carrots and Parsnips in Home Gardens by the University of Minnesota Extension.