Now that it is cold, or supposed to be, I have been eating parsnips.
Parsnips fall in the category of "winter vegetables" because their flavor fully develops when the roots have been exposed to near-freezing temperatures. The blast of cold weather turns the parsnip's starch into sugar - a reaction to winter weather that is exactly the opposite of mine.
Parsnips look like albino carrots but they taste sweeter than their orange-skinned cousins. While this was news to me, parsnip eaters have known it for centuries.
Reading up on the history of the root, I learned that the Emperor Tiberius, who ruled over the Roman Empire from A.D. 14 to 37, used to dispatch his minions to the banks of the Rhine River to bring him parsnips. (This, I guess, was the ancient Roman equivalent of ordering Chicago pizza on the Internet.)
The Dutch have made soups with them; the Spanish have crafted a passable parsnip wine; and the Irish have been known to make beer with parsnips.
Even pigs, I read, prefer the taste of parsnips to carrots. (This, I confess, is "book learning," as I have not conducted a field test, offering pigs a menu of carrots and parsnips and recording the results.) Italian hog farmers reportedly believe that a diet of parsnips makes the pork flesh whiter and Parma hams more flavorful. Dairy farmers in Brittany, France, contend that their cows' milk makes better butter when the cows have dined on the white roots.
Such parsnips propaganda would have little interest to me if the vegetable had the texture of tree bark. That, it turns out, is an apt description of the texture of the carrots that I pulled from my garden a while back. Carrots, like parsnips and fashion models, are supposed to be long, not wide. My carrots end up looking like Greg Luzinski, the former Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago White Sox ballplayer whose body once was described as being as wide as "a doorway and a half."
The parsnips that entered my life came not from the garden but from the grocery. I spotted some in the fresh-vegetable bin, residing near the turnips, their kin.
Once they were inside the house, the parsnips were treated to the induction ritual many new vegetables receive in our kitchen. They were cooked in butter. This procedure, the culinary equivalent of Botox injections, might not be good for you in the long term, but it sure makes the short term sweet. Any root vegetable, with the exception of my Greg Luzinski carrots, takes on a heavenly flavor when softened and cooked in butter.
The parsnips, which thanks to cold weather were already loaded with sugar, tasted like candy when they emerged from the buttery saute pan. They made a terrific side dish for supper.
A few nights later, the parsnips took a fancier route. They were mixed with curry and blended into bright, creamy soup.
The more parsnip soup I spooned down, the fonder I became of the root.
Maybe, I told myself, I should rip the carrots out of the garden next spring and plant parsnips. I read that one way to plant parsnips is to put them in conical holes made by driving a crowbar into the ground.
Savoring the rich soup on a dark winter night, I warmed to the springtime notion of growing my own parsnips. I like their flavor. Moreover, who can resist a gardening procedure that begins with the words, "First, you take a crowbar"?
Curried Parsnip Soup
Makes 6 servings as a first course
3 tablespoons butter
1 pound parsnips, peeled, sliced
1 cup chopped onion
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons curry powder
4 cups beef broth
1/2 cup whipping cream
salt and pepper to taste
chopped fresh chives or green onions
Melt butter in a heavy, large saucepan over low heat. Add parsnips, onion and garlic. Cover and cook until vegetables begin to soften but not color, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes.
Mix in flour and curry powder; stir 2 minutes. Gradually mix in beef broth. Increase heat to medium, cover and simmer until parsnips are tender, about 15 minutes. Cool slightly.
Working in batches, puree soup in blender or food processor until smooth. Return soup to same saucepan. Stir in cream and bring to simmer. Season to taste with salt and pepper
Ladle into bowls, garnish with chives or green onions and serve.
"The Bon Appetit Cookbook" by Barbara Fairchild (2006)
Per serving: 172 calories, 2 grams protein, 10 grams fat, 6 grams saturated fat, 20 grams carbohydrate, 5 grams fiber, 29 milligrams cholesterol, 1,033 milligrams sodium