It is late January and snowing in New Haven, and yet another cold front is howling in.
I have turned all the apples we picked in the Fall into sauce. I have cooked all my butternut and acorn squashes. The tastes of Summer I had packed away in the freezer — poached peaches, ratatouille, and bags of Cape Cod cranberries — are dwindling fast.
CitySeed is running a Saturday market in Wooster Square, but only one a month. And the pickings are slim. By no means a locavore, I do try hard to keep my grocery list footprint small. Reasonably local dairy and bread are easy choices, fruits and vegetables much more difficult.
Late last Winter I gave myself a challenge: to scour the produce section of Shaw’s to try to find something from New England (CT is quite small, after all.) And find it I did. Next to the bright orange California carrots were stacked some one pound bags of what looked to be anemic carrot cousins. The something? “Sugar Mountain Fresh Parsnips,” “grown and packed by Manheim Farm, Whately, MA, USA.” (According to Google Maps, 91.4 miles from my address.)
Parsnips were on the short list of vegetables my family never ate. I was clueless, but resolute, and purchased a bag. I turned to The Art of Simple Food and Simply In Season by Cathleen Hockman-Wert and Mary Beth Lind for help. Alice Waters’s advice was to cook the parsnips in salted water until tender and then puree, alone or with other root vegetables. The Mennonites inspired me to try Maple Parsnip Soup — easy to make, thick and creamy, with a wonderful play of tangy mustard against sweet maple (a second New England product.) This success led me to develop my own improvisation— dicing a parsnip and a turnip, and then sauteing them in olive oil before adding to a batch of pea soup. What a nice kick these roots give!
I decided to learn more about these winter wonders. Parsnips, like carrots, are members of the parsley family. From the parsnip chapter of Root Development of Vegetable Crops, I learned that the parsnip has an amazing root system, with taproots commonly extending 8’ down. If you add that to the 17” height of the foliage, that makes a typical parsnip plant nearly 9.5 feet tall, a lot more impressive than what you see in a plastic bag!
Take some time to root around your produce section. Culinary adventures and botanical discoveries await those brave enough to leave their comfort zones.