Star vegetable of the week is creamy sweet parsnips, the pale and interesting cousin of the carrot family with a delicate nutty flavour and a lovely smell as they cook. Though Spring is definitely on the way, the market is not yet bursting with new season produce, and it's the brilliance of the last of the winter veg that will see us happily through the 'hungry gap'. I could happily eat asparagus and baby broad beans on a daily basis after the long winter of hearty dishes but so early in the season it would quickly send me broke. Time to look to the stalwarts for just a little bit more.
Parsnips have been around since at least the time of the Romans, a ubiquitous staple long before potatoes and still a firm favourite tucked in alongside a Sunday roast. The name was borrowed into Middle English from the French word pasnaie, which was derived from the Latin pastinaca and pastinaca goes back to pastinum, which means a small gardening tool for making holes in the ground for planting (possibly parsnips!).
There is a fabulous, if slightly gnomic saying - fine words will butter no parsnips. Obviously - but um, really? Before potatoes were one of the two veg to go with meat there were lots of root vegetables, often mashed and always improved if they were 'buttered up' with lashings of the the golden stuff - flattery, innit! But fine words count for nothing if there's no action to back them up and, speaking as someone who enjoys a little toast to go with her butter, mash without butter is just plain wrong. This source offers an interesting snippet - the English were known for their habit of layering on butter to all manner of foods, much to the disgust of the Japanese who referred to Europeans in general and the English in particular as 'butter-stinkers'. A new term of abuse...
The incredible versatility of the parsnip is a bonus as Spring tentatively replaces the winter. These winter roots are a very unfussy vegetable to use, requiring neither precision timing nor complex prep. Late in the season, as we are now, they are usually fairly big with a woody core that can be cut away if it is too substantial as the rest of the flesh is tender.
When the day dawns gloriously sunny simply peel and grate and eat them raw or try this delightful Lebanese salad with dates and yoghurt. For cooler nights try the more substantial Curried Parsnip and Lentil Salad - parsnips seriously love spice.
One last idea, from the brilliant Heston Blumenthal, parsnip cereal with parsnip milk. I was lucky to go to dinner at the Fat Duck a few years ago and one of the many magical things we ate was this cereal.
So ppppick up a parsnip today!
A version of this post first appeared in the Local Greens newsletter