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Embracing the Earthy Allure of Parsnips: A Seasonal Transformation

June 26, 2024

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Embracing the Earthy Allure of Parsnips: A Seasonal Transformation

Parsnips: Sweetness and Spice

As much as I love the thrill of rapid-fire freshness bound to the delicate disposition of beloved summer fruits that seem at times to spoil nearly as soon as we get them home, I must admit that winter roots are refreshingly relaxed. Yes, they lack the juicy sweet acidity of tomatoes or strawberries, but they are endlessly patient with my busy life and forgetful ways, biding their time in some refrigerator drawer until I chance upon them in an attempt to beg dinner from what’s on hand.

Desperation draws out an old bag of parsnips, looking little worse for their wear. Scrubbed and waiting on the cutting board, they sit in humble readiness – a root vegetable’s take on freshness. For that, I thank them. Parsnips look and smell much like a carrot, albeit one the color of faded lace. Eaten as such, their dry, fibrous flesh, woody core, and pungent aroma would stop you at the first bite. These are not roots for nibbling on.

Compared to carrots, parsnips are “old growth” – sown in cool spring soils and left to sweeten through a few rounds of the following winter’s frost, they spend a good nine months underground. In places where the soil freezes, parsnips may be left in it, developing deep, rounded sugars as they sit under the snow. In our region, now is the time of peak parsnip flavor. Without lingering cold to stunt them, parsnips sown last spring will soon begin their second growth phase.

As a biennial, parsnips develop tender roots and thick foliage crowns in their first year, then flower shoots and seed heads in their second. As the plants mature into their flower-wearing reproductive phase, the taproots lignify, developing a woody core that is unpleasant to eat. Harvesting before spring kicks in – and spring in western Oregon starts mid-February – neatly straddles this cusp, offering roots that had the chance to sweeten in cold ground but have not quite initiated their woody second-year growth.

At the market, look for medium-sized roots, one- to two-inches in diameter. Larger parsnips are more likely to have that lignified core, though it is easy enough to spot and remove once the root is quartered. Thin, little parsnip wisps are likely to be tender, but if you plan to peel them, as most recipes suggest, you will find yourself with little bulk for lots of effort. Parsnips bruise easily for their density, betraying rough treatment with rust-colored scars, but don’t fret about a few blemishes – parsnip bruises are not like tomato bruises, remember, and return their forgiving nature.

Parsnips on the Plate

Traditional treatment of parsnips goes one of three ways: pureed, roasted, or mashed. I find that their punchy, aromatic fragrance brings rooty brightness to mashes or mélanges of roasted winter vegetables that would otherwise tend toward the cloyingly sweet or bland. Parsnip flavor is full of nuance – caramel and pepper, pungent grass, even nutmeg, with which they share the flavor compound myristicin.

Slow roasting brings out their sultry texture – silk with lean muscle – one that was used in wartime Britain to stand in for bananas. This in mind, treating a parsnip with the same technique as a potato or turnip smacks of missed opportunity. Parsnips’ backbone of a flavor profile can stand up to sturdier seasonings than most of its root cellar kin. They pair with complex and warming curry blends as deftly as with the pungent cleanness of Mediterranean herbs like rosemary or thyme.

Oven-roasted, olive oil, and rosemary parsnip fries dressed in flaky salt are deceptively delicious for how easy they are to make. An introvert of a carrot puree, spread on the plate below something you slice, can become an extravagant sauce when roasted parsnips, saffron, and a pinch of freshly grated ginger are pureed along with it. Parsnips have a pillowy glue about them that, when properly fluffed, makes for buoyant dumplings or tender gnocchi.

But the dessert course is where parsnip transformation reaches the level of enchantment. Grate them into cakes and sweet breads, a la carrots, of course, but also consider wilder translations. I came across my first parsnip epiphany in Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Literacy where she includes a recipe for parsnip-cardamom custard. From there, the gates fly open, imagining parsnips balanced by other warming spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, paired with apples, pears, walnuts, dark chocolate, or dates, sweetened with honey, maple syrup, or molasses.

Their silky pulp calls out to pancakes, soufflés, tortes, and streusel-topped coffee cakes, their savory perfume to iced, whipped, or even coconut creams. This spring, when the pastry cravings come knocking, consider parsnip your root.

Winter Radishes: Spice and Surprise

Those who are drawn to the unfamiliar vegetables tucked between baskets of potatoes and onions, frills of kale and glossy collards, may have already plucked a winter radish from the sidelines, brought it home, and sliced it, wondering what in the world to make of it. Unlike spring radishes with their apple-crisp flesh and mild bite, winter radishes stump most of us the first or third or fifth time we bravely endeavor to turn them into something desirable.

The only straightforward part of a winter radish, also called a “storage radish,” is its challenges – dense, dry flesh, pungent spice, and a flavor profile whose most flattering description could be summed up with the word “medicinal.” Salt them for softness, and they’ll exude characteristic brassica sulfur. Eat them raw, and they’ll set fire to your throat. Roast them, and their flesh goes watery.

Three varieties of winter radish predominate our local markets: black Spanish, daikon, and watermelon. Daikon, white and cylindrical like a giant, ghostly carrot, is a mainstay in most Asian cuisines, served pickled, raw, or cooked. Daikon takes on a slightly skunky (in a good way) flavor in the pickle jar, tempered by chili pepper heat, as in kimchee, or in Japanese takuan by the addition of sugar, kombu seaweed, and persimmon peels.

Watermelon radish, a round daikon-type with light green skin and fuchsia center, is the best contender for raw eating. Their appealingly brilliant pigment will dull if cooked or bleed into the brine if pickled. Thinly sliced, their silky flesh is more palatable than the others. Good looks, however, do not tame their spice – try tossing them with shredded cabbage and apples for a zesty slaw or plate them with segmented citrus and a dousing of sweet vinaigrette to lighten up a dark January supper.

Black radishes, the least common of the bunch, look downright mysterious, huddled together in a market basket. Their russeted skin, thick and coal black, creates the illusion of depth, as if their pigment starts in our world and ends in another. It’s a contrast with the bright white inner flesh that is as appealing to my aesthetic as pink-hearted watermelon radish. Given the tag “Spanish black radishes,” they are more common in eastern and northern Europe, where they are fermented with sauerkraut or salted and rinsed for fresh salads.

Black radish flavor is undisputedly an acquired taste – so spicy they are referred to in French markets as “Parisian horseradish.” Raw applications can be tricky. As I prefer spice to sulfur, I usually trade salting for knife work. Sliced into matchsticks, their bite is manageable, especially next to something sweet. One of my favorite combinations is a salad of pear slices, Treviso chicory, and slivers of black radish, tossed in rice wine vinaigrette, salt, and pepper.

Grating helps, too – try adding a handful to mustard-and-vinegar-dressed potato salad, topped with chives and parsley, or submerge them in sugary quick pickle brine and serve for contrast alongside fatty meat. For those who find no charm in penetrating radish heat, cooking is the best option. Though their fibrous flesh gets a bit soggy when roasted whole, you won’t notice if you add it to a root vegetable mash. Quarter-inch slices, sautéed in butter until they’re browned, are surprisingly sumptuous – their spice subdued, their texture tender and meaty.

Toss with sesame or nut oil and steamed chard for a purifying side. Paper-thin slices, oiled and salted, make delicious oven-roasted chips. When something is so seemingly difficult to love or make delicious, allure may not be enough incentive. Why go to such lengths for these musky roots?

The Promise of Winter Radishes

Called “storage radishes” because of their ability to linger in the crisper drawer or root cellar months after fall harvest, these radishes are a reliable winter vegetable carried over from a time that pre-dates international food distribution. Perhaps most compelling to our health-oriented present is their astonishing nutritional profile. Particularly high in vitamin C, winter radishes are known to stimulate bile function, improving the digestion of fats and starches. Black radishes are especially powerful as a liver and gall bladder tonic.

As much as summer, in its quick abundance, obliges us to sit outdoors among the neighbors, popping tomato slice after easy slice, winter with its cold days and lingering darkness forces introspection. Is it any surprise that its vegetables ask the same? Or that, as with many winter tasks, our efforts yield subtle rewards?

The Celery Song

As a word, “celery” is delightful – smooth, translucent, bright, like the ample water its juicy bite unleashes. In today’s kitchens, celery is best known for its fibrous, overgrown stems, sliced into stock or slathered with peanut butter to mellow their robust flavor. In celery’s culinary history, those juicy, blanched stalks are an anomaly.

Nearly every other part of the plant was used as medicine and, less commonly, food for thousands of years before the proverbial ants took a seat on the log, and we shelved all but an inkling of celery. The eternal background singer, few recipes feature celery outright, choosing its sturdy harmonizing nature over the full aromatic experience. Celery, of course, is bitter, and much of its breeding since the 1600s, when European cooks began to recognize its culinary value, has been dedicated to taming that quality.

Though in the United States, we have sequestered our celery usage to almost exclusively the stalks, French cuisine in particular embraced a whole-plant approach early on, using leaves, stalk, and root – a tradition that helped drive the development of different cultivars, highlighting the best each of these plant segments have to offer.

Celery’s wild range circled the Mediterranean Sea. Called “selinon” by the ancient Greeks, it was of great medicinal and cultural importance, described often in literature as an esteemed wild plant. Winners of the Nemean Games, a sporting event held the years before and after the ancient Olympic Games, were presented with a wreath of wild celery. Garlands of “selinon” were commonly used to decorate the departed, and wild celery had a symbolic connection to death – leaves and flowers of the plant were found in the tomb of Tutankhamen, suggesting the tradition was adopted from across the Sea.

This wild celery is known today as “smallage,” a corruption of the Old French word for celery, “ache,” pronounced “ash.” “Small ache” became “smallage,” a word that now refers both to wild celery and a group of selected varieties also known as “cutting celery.” Even cultivated smallage is only a sidestep from its wild origins – small plants, 1-2 ft high, with narrow, often hollow stalks too fibrous to eat raw, and leaves that range from astringent to strongly aromatic.

Not commonly eaten raw, smallage leaves are added to soups, a practice in both European and Asian cuisines where the broth is used to mellow their bite with slow cooking or give a backbone to the refreshing zest of leaves added raw just before serving. Perhaps no part of celery’s taxonomy is so revered as its root, called “knob celery,” “turnip-rooted celery,” or as we know it here, “celeriac.”

The root is celery’s most accessible segment, which is ironic because if the thought of a celery-flavored root vegetable doesn’t turn a shopper away, its bulbous, knotted appearance almost certainly will. While celeriac is a celery-flavored root, centuries of selection have unearthed a satiny, slightly nutty, mild-mannered, delightfully versatile celery-flavored root.

A French classic, “celerie remoulade” dresses fine slivers of raw celeriac in mustardy mayonnaise. Steamed and mashed, celeriac makes a creamy puree similar to mashed potatoes or, when thinned with broth, a rich, elegant soup. Edible raw or cooked, celeriac is an alluring fall salad ingredient – one of the best preparations I’ve had was celeriac, slightly steamed and dressed with hazelnut oil, on a bed of butter lettuces. Leeks, shallots, and garlic make fine companions, as do herbs like thyme, sage, and smallage, creamy sauces, or nutty oils.

October is celeriac’s month when they are pulled fresh from their long tenure in the soil. Celeriac at the market now were planted in early spring. Though they will keep a few months in good storage conditions, they are their most refreshing now, as our palates shift from sweet summer fruits to earthy autumn roots. All parts of the celery plant have a distinctive mineral coolness and an assertive aroma we tend to label “medicinal.” To me, their blend of flavors matches this season’s transitional nature – bright sun with a façade of warmth turning cool in the shadows and cold after sunset. Celery starts with a punch, then fades to an afterthought, but it’s the punch that gives the afterthought its flavor.

Radishes: Spring’s Bright Arrival

Sprinter of the root vegetables, spring radishes can go from seed packet to salad vegetable in 3-4 weeks. Their bright hues of red, pink, and violet are a welcome addition to market displays this time of year, heralding that the season of storage crops is waning. Radishes round the corner first, followed by a pack of tonic vegetables that freshen our palates.

Radishes personify the season. Their juicy crispness, sweet with a hint of spice, seems a direct translation of spring’s temperament – mild coolness, increasing day length, and frequent showers that unleash electric greenness into our hibernating imaginations. Radishes become more bitter and fibrous if their growth is interrupted by heat stress or inconsistent soil moisture, making summer-grown radishes often spicier and pithier. Spring offers nearly effortless conditions for this sumptuous crudité.

The radish has acquired its round shape and vibrant colors only with the help of gardeners. While its early history is largely unknown, the radish likely originated in northern China from which it spread to India, the Mediterranean, northern Europe, and eventually the Americas, where it was one of the first introduced vegetables, hot on the heels of Columbus.

Its original form, like so many domesticated root vegetables, was likely that of a wild annual with a pale, unremarkable taproot. Its four-petaled flower, like its cousin arugula’s, tickled the tongue with peppery sweetness, its leaves with pungent bitterness. Radishes of all types have fleshy seedpods, known as siliques, that are edible when tender, tasting something like a spicy radish soul in the body of a green bean. Perhaps it was these curious pods that first attracted gatherers in search of nutritious forage.

We do not know where a journey will take us when we start. Those early gatherers and gardeners of wild radishes would be shocked to see the range of forms the modern radish takes – from cherry-red to green-shouldered, cylindrical to pointed, to marble-shaped, bite-sized to 70-pound giants. Some varieties have been selected specifically for their large, tender pods. Radish diversity has been proliferated by the tastes and preferences of the cultures through which it has traveled.

The radish with which we are most familiar today – that bright red button of a root we slice onto salad greens – comes from the work of Dutch and Italian gardeners of the 16th century, who began selecting for small, round roots. Up until that time, most European radish varieties looked more like parsnips or elongated beets. The black radish, a variety we see returning to popularity at local

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