Wednesday, April 4, 2012

For the love of parsnips

My interest in parsnips was first peeked by Joan Dye Gussow's book, This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader. She described them as "spicy, aromatic, and delicious" and talked about how wonderful they taste when sauteed in butter and oil. After such a description I had to grow some and try them out.  The product of that first gardening attempt, chronicled in my first blog post, was the catalyst to start this blog. Even though they are notoriously hard to propagate due to spotty germination and can turn woody if you don't harvest them at the right time, they are absolutely worth the effort.

A little about the parsnip:
The parsnip (pastinaca L.) is part of the Apiaceae family which includes carrots and celery. Essentially the body of a parsnip is a root that looks like a slightly thicker white-yellow carrot, but that is where the similarities end.  The foliage is deep green, similar in size and shape to flat-leaf parsley. And unlike carrots, parsnips have a slightly tangy spicy taste. They are much loved in the UK but not as familiar to American eaters. The most common varieties grown by gardeners are the Hollow Crown which tends to be very long and the Harris type which is a bit shorter and quicker growing. Parsnips are said to prefer sandy, loamy soil since clay soils are known to be rough on root vegetables, causing forking. Also it is believed that size makes a difference, smaller parsnips thought to be better tasting. 

Traditional advice has been to sow them in the summer and harvest in the late fall after at least a frost or two has hit them and made them sweeter. They can also overwinter in the garden (just throw some soil on top of them) and supposedly the stored starch in them will change to sugar in early spring as the plant gets ready to grow out new greenery. Ideally if you harvest them early enough in this process they will still taste especially tender and sweet. The down side is that once the roots put out new greenery they supposedly lose much of their flavor and start to become woody. Also, the general garden wisdom is that parsnip seeds, which are  round, flat, papery thin and brown to tan in color, need to be absolutely fresh in order to get decent germination. 

Cooking and Nutrition:
Parsnips can be boiled, fried, baked into bread but my favorite method of cooking is to saute them with honey and olive oil or to add them to stew. Joan Gussow even describes eating slices of them with maple syrup like a pancake! They are high in vitamin C, potassium, magnesium, folate and have approx 6 gms of fiber (in a 9" root) according to Nutrition Data website. Here is one of my favorite parsnip recipes (I also throw in some cinnamon).
Parsnip Rash:
Picking parsnips and handling the greens while in sunlight is linked in some instances to cause a skin condition called phytophotodermatitis (some times called Parsnip Rash). This causes blistering skin lesion, but this does not seem to affect all people and seems mainly to affect agricultural workers picking a great quantity of parsnips at one time and in sunny conditions. While this doesn't constitute medical advice, it seems prudent to wear gloves when picking parsnips in full sun (particularly if you feel you might be sensitive). I can tell you have I am allergic to everything in the garden, and I have never had an issue picking the stray parsnip. For more information check out this article from the Journal of Accidental and Emergency Medicine. The Australian Centre for Farmer Health also has some helpful hints.

Our experiences so far: 
We are still trying to crack the code for our own zone and soil as to when to sow and when to harvest to get only tender parsnips but we have had no problems getting seed to germinate and we have had no serious forking despite our heavy clay soil. Based on our own experience, size doesn't matter (see pics and captions below). The mega parsnip we harvested in early spring a while back was amazing despite being gargantuan. It had been threw a horrible winter and hadn't yet grown a new top so perhaps this was why it was so tender despite its size. We have since harvested some that were smaller but that didn't experience a frost. These tasted woody and awful. We also just harvested one that overwintered in the garden but had grown all new greenery, and it was just beginning to be fibrous.
Ultimately you have to figure out what works for you but if you have any tips for growing tender ones feel free to share.  We have used the same packet of seeds for the past few years with no problem (stored in a miracle whip container in the fridge) but when they run out I am going to give the Harris variety a try. Our hollow crowns grow such long roots that we often end up breaking off the very bottom just to get it out of the ground. You can see in the last picture how long they grow. 

Over wintered, picked before much foliage regrew. Tasted terrific.
Started in summer and picked before a frost. Very fibrous and woody.
Overwintered, picked in spring but after new foliage came. Part tender and part fibrous.

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