If there’s a nip in the air this versatile, sweet root with be at its very best, says former Sienna chef-proprietor Russell Brown
Parsnips have been cultivated for over 2,000 years, yet in some countries they are regarded as an animal food rather than for human consumption. In Italy, for example, they are often fed to pigs raised for prosciutto, but in the UK they are synonymous with the Sunday roast.
Nutritionally, parsnips contain 80% water, 18% carbohydrate (of which 5% is sugar and 5% dietary fibre), 1% protein and a large range of vitamins and minerals. They are relatively high in potassium and vitamin C.
The sap from the leaves and stalks of a parsnip can be toxic in combination with strong sunlight and can cause phytophotodermatitis. This is where the sap causes a chemical reaction that makes skin hypersensitive to ultraviolet light and results in burns and blisters.
The main UK growing season for parsnips is between October and April, and the idea that they are improved by frost – when the plant converts starches into sugars – seems to hold sway. This idea dates back to at least 1730 and was mentioned in The Compleat Herbal by French botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort. He recommended parsnips boiled with butter and said: “For they are not so good in any respect, till they have first been nipt with cold”.
Commercially, after the first frosts stop growth, parsnips are often covered with deep straw to stop the root regrowing in the spring, effectively extending the season. Cultivars for early crops contain higher levels of sugar to overcome the lack of frost.
In culinary terms, the parsnip has a large number of uses in both savoury and, more unusually, sweet dishes. They can be roasted, boiled or puréed and made into preserves, beers, wine, crisps and cakes.
Richard Collingwood from the Dining Room at the Hillbark Hotel & Spa has used them in a parsnip cake with candied parsnips and ice-cream, and Rory Lovie, head chef at Bridgeview Station in Dundee, uses them in a parsnip risotto with parsnip crisps, sage and curry oil.
Different riffs on the roasting theme come from Andrew Clatworthy at the Rummer Hotel in Bristol, who roasts parsnips with garlic butter, Marmite and malt extract, and Gareth Brown, executive chef at the London Marriott Hotel County Hall, who recommends roasting and caramelising the roots in ginger beer.
Buying and storage tips
- Choose roots that feel firm and rigid.
- Small to medium roots will be more tender. l Larger roots are still good, but may need the core removing before cooking.
- Dark patches indicate rot or soft areas.
- Parsnips range in colour from creamy yellow to off-white, depending on the variety.
- Most parsnips are sold without the leaves, but if they are attached, the leaves should be fresh and green. Remove them before storage.
- Parsnips are best stored in perforated bags in the fridge.
- Only wash and peel just prior to using.
- Parsnips freeze well as soups or purées.
The UK parsnip season runs from October to April. Imported parsnips are available for the rest of the year due to the supermarket’s Canute-like denial of seasonality. These will mostly be from Spain, but I have, on one occasion, seen them from Australia. Imported parsnips from warmer climes are not recommended.
Parsnips really are better after a frost as they respond to the cold by increasing their sugar levels to protect against freezing. This is also true of many other plants, including brassicas and Yorkshire forced rhubarb. You should expect to pay £1.50/£1.70 kg for top-notch parsnips.
Makes 10-12 croquettes
For the filling
- 20g unsalted butter
- 20g plain flour
- 130ml semi-skimmed milk
- 25g grated Parmesan
- 1tsp Dijon mustard
- 200g thick parsnip purée
- Maldon sea salt and fresh black pepper
Melt the butter in a heavy-based pan and then add the flour to make a roux. Gradually incorporate the milk to make a smooth, thick sauce.
Add the Parmesan and mustard and season well. Beat in the parsnip purée and check the seasoning.
Transfer the mix to a piping bag with a large plain nozzle. Pipe the filing out onto a tray lined with silicone paper, cutting the filling to around 70mm long. Neaten the ends with a palette knife dipped in water.
Freeze the filling for one hour, turning the pieces after 30 minutes so they firm evenly.
For the pané
- 1 whole egg, beaten with 2tbs milk and strained
- 100g seasoned flour
- 75g panko breadcrumbs
Coat the filling first in the seasoned flour, then the egg wash. Drain each croquette well before transferring to the breadcrumbs and, once coated, roll gently to shape.
Transfer to a tray and refrigerate for one hour. Deep-fry at 165º until golden brown and hot right through (about five minutes). Serve with wholegrain mustard mayonnaise and a rocket or watercress salad.
Makes 1 soufflé
- Finely grated Parmesan and soft butter for the moulds
- 1 egg yolk
- 60g thick parsnip purée
- 2 egg whites
- Maldon salt and fresh black pepper
Start by preparing the ramekins (90mm diameter). Butter liberally with soft butter using a flat pastry brush. Coat the base with butter and then draw the brush up in straight lines from the base of the mould to the rim. Chill and repeat with a second coat. Allow the mould to come to room temperature and then add a tablespoon of finely grated Parmesan. Rotate the mould to coat completely and then knock out the excess, reserving for the next mould. Re-chill the mould before filling.
For each soufflé, beat one egg yolk into 60g of parsnip purée. Beat two egg whites with a pinch of salt until they reach stiff peaks but aren’t grainy. Remove 40g of beaten white, discarding the remainder. Add a third of the weighed white to the soufflé base and mix thoroughly. Season well and then gently fold in the remainder of the weighed white. Fill the ramekin and smooth the top with a palette knife. Clean the mix away from the rim of the mould by running a fingertip around the dish.
Bake the soufflé on a heavy tray in a preheated oven at 170º for 10-12 minutes. Reduce the fan speed in a convection oven.
For the sauce
Makes 8-10 portions
- 2tbs olive oil
- 2 medium onions, finely diced
- 2 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced
- 2tsp fresh ground cumin
- 2tsp garam masala
- 200ml apple juice
- 200ml double cream
- Maldon sea salt and fresh black pepper
Sweat the onion and garlic in the olive oil with a pinch of salt; use a low heat and place a lid on the pan to get the onion really soft without colouring.
Add the spices, increase the heat, and cook for one minute, stirring. Add the apple juice and reduce by three-quarters. Add the cream and reduce by half. Transfer the contents of the pan to a blender and blitz until smooth. Season and pass through a fine strainer.
- Rocket salad
- Sharp vinaigrette
- Parsnip crisps
Dress the salad as the soufflé is finishing cooking, place in a mound on the plate and top with parsnip crisps. Warm the sauce and transfer a portion to a small jug. Transfer the cooked soufflé to the plate and serve immediately.
For the parsnip purée in these recipes, peel and core the parsnips before cutting into even chunks. Wash and then place in a pan, cover with cold water and add 25g butter and five whole peppercorns for each kilo of parsnips.
Bring to the boil and then reduce to a simmer. Cook until the parsnips are completely tender. Remove the parsnips with a slotted spoon and transfer to a blender, making sure none of the peppercorns are included.
Reduce the remaining cooking liquid to a buttery syrup, strain and then add to the parsnips. Process until completely smooth and season well with Maldon sea salt.