Writing off parsnips simply as white carrots isn’t just scientifically incorrect. It greatly undersells this versatile root vegetable. Parsnips are related to carrots and parsley, but their nutritional benefits are arguably better than either one of them. Their taste is earthy, sweet and nutty, and they work just as beautifully in heavier dishes like stews and pot pies as they do roasted with a simple drizzle of olive oil for an elegant side dish.
Parsnips are good sources of vitamin C, and they contain high levels of magnesium, folate and potassium — vitamins and minerals that do crucially important work when it comes to keeping the body and the brain efficiently communicating and operating at its very best. “Magnesium helps regulate muscle and nerve function, regulate blood pressure and control blood glucose,” says Dr. Adetunji Toriola, an assistant professor of surgery at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Just one cup of parsnips can account for up to 10 percent of the recommended daily intake of folate. “Folate is very necessary for normal cellular function,” Toriola says. “A deficiency in folate can lead to anemia, which affects red blood cells in the body, and some studies have suggested that folate deficiency may lead to cancer. It is essential to maintaining the normal balance of brain and body functions.”
As we start our slide into the colder months, parsnips are getting ready to shine. That’s because they contain a relatively high amount of sugar for a vegetable. But that sweetness doesn’t kick in until after the season’s first frost, when the starches inside parsnips turn into sugar. Their sweetness only deepens with each successive frost — a silver lining to remember as temperatures begin to plunge. Parsnips’ sugar content also means they’re excellent natural sources of energy. They are low in calories but high in fiber, two important qualities for keeping weight in check. “With parsnips, you get the benefit of feeling full without the body taking in things it doesn’t need, like unhealthy snacks in between meals. Maintaining a healthy weight and adding vegetables and fruits into your diet is a great way to reduce cancer and chronic disease risk,” Toriola says.
When picking out parsnips, look for ones that are smaller in size — these will be the sweetest. They should be ivory in color with few spots, cuts or dents. Parsnips lend a sweet, creamy quality to soups and stews, and they can also be mashed like potatoes. Thanks to their sweetness and hints of spice and even banana, parsnips work surprisingly well in desserts: Think carrot cake with character.
"As American as parsnips” doesn’t quite have the same ring as “apple pie” — particularly because this vegetable is more commonly found on tables in the United Kingdom than it is in the United States. But the kind of parsnip known as All-American is so mild and creamy, it just might inspire enthusiastic flag waving and fireworks. The All-American has a sweet flavor even if it’s harvested in the fall — most other parsnips don’t reach their peak until winter. Add it to soups and salads for an earthy, nutty flavor.
This tough-as-nails parsnip is a great choice for home gardeners who are short on space or have rocky soil: While many kinds of parsnips grow deep roots, Avonresisters’ are relatively shallow. The “resister” part of their name is on point. Avonresisters combat parsnip canker, a common disease caused by fungus that shows up as dark patches on the root. The shorter the root, the less risk of canker and the greater chance of an easy growing experience — perfect for novices.
Cobham Improved Marrow
Cobham Improved Marrow parsnips stand out from the rest because of their high sugar content. Though most parsnips impart an earthy taste, these are quite sweet and carry hints of coconut. Double down on that sweetness by using Cobham Improved Marrow in desserts or glazing them with brown sugar. Their flavor only gets better with each hard frost — patience will be rewarded with a creamy, melt-in-your-mouth texture.
Tender and sweet with a long, slim shape, the Harris Model is considered the top parsnip by many gardeners. The flesh is smooth, white and not as coarse as other varieties, so Harris Models work particularly well as mashed parsnips — an unexpected twist on everyday mashed potatoes (and just as easy to prepare). Though they can be harvested in the fall, Harris Model parsnips reach their full potential after freezing temperatures convert the vegetables’ stored starch into sugar.
The Student parsnip was actually developed by a professor of agriculture back in the mid-1800s. He spent years selecting and crossbreeding parsnips that had desirable traits, such as strong roots and leaves. A decade later the professor was finally satisfied with his result, the heirloom variety now known as the Student. Even today it is prized for its consistently good yield, smooth skin, and the fortitude to stand up to disease and the elements.
In Good Taste is brought to you in partnership with Siteman Cancer Center. Watch for more healthy, seasonal cooking ideas each month.