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Although today we can buy virtually any fresh vegetable even in the dead of winter, in the time before refrigeration people's options were much more limited. By mid-January 100 years ago, people living in northern climes were restricted to what they had canned the summer before, and to hardy vegetables like potatoes, carrots and turnips which could be stored in root cellars.
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One root vegetable more commonly eaten then than it is today is the parsnip. Parsnips have been grown in America since colonial days, when they were first brought over from Europe. They resemble carrots, except they are ivory colored and have a stronger flavor which has been described as nutty or celery-like.
Several years ago, I was giving a tour of the store to my son's second-grade class. We happened to have parsnips at the time, and the kids were fascinated by the "white carrots," which none of them had seen before. Many of the kids tried a bite and liked them. This surprised me, because the flavor of parsnips is strong. However, they have a pleasing sweetness to them, and resemble carrots enough to seem vaguely familiar.
Parsnips are a quintessential "winter" vegetable. They are normally not harvested until after the first frost. In colder temperatures, some of the starch in parsnips is transformed to simple sugars, giving them their characteristic sweetness.
Parsnips are a treasure trove of nutrition, containing significant amounts of vitamin C, folate, potassium and manganese. In fact, parsnips are one of nature's best sources of potassium, containing 600 mg. per 100 grams. They are also high in fiber.
When buying parsnips, look for roots that are crisp and firm. Like carrots, they will tend to get a bit flaccid and soft with age. While still suitable for soups, older parsnips will tend to have less flavor than fresh ones.
Parsnips can be prepared in several ways. They can be boiled and mashed like potatoes. Some people mix mashed parsnips and mashed potatoes to boost nutritional content and add an interesting flavor. Parsnips can be cut up, brushed with olive oil and roasted along with other root vegetables. They are also good added to soups or stews.
Here is a recipe which plays up the sweetness of parsnips with the addition of nutmeg.
Sweet and gooey parsnips
1 lb. parsnips
2 tbsp butter
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Scrape or peel the parsnips. Then cut them into sticks about the size of your little finger. Dry well with paper towel. In a heavy 10-inch skillet, melt the butter; then add the parsnips, shaking to coat. Cover tightly and sauté on medium heat for about 5 to 10 minutes. The parsnips should be tender and gooey, and slightly carmelized. Add salt and pepper to taste. Yield: 4 servings.
Recipe from Elizabeth Smith of Caretaker Farm, 500 Treasured Country Recipes by Martha Storey & Friends.
David Ottoson owns Rainbow Foods and has bought, sold and written about food and health for 20 years.