We normally associate springtime with the reawakening of the land and the rousing of dormant desires. Yet it is in the frigid, cracked depths of winter that the parsnip swells to its peak of flavor and beckons to us with its strange, pale allure. It promises an elusive taste, an echo of its cousin the carrot, though both heavier and lighter--sweet in a less obvious way and at the same time more substantial in texture, usually too rough to eat raw.
These intertwined roots locked in a lovers' embrace, or a gesture of sibling comfort, like Hansel and Gretel after they've knocked that old candy witch into the oven and reunited, come from Chez Panisse's prized wood cutter Patricia Curtan (okay, she actually prints from linoleum cuts but wood cutter sounded better in the context), and are reproduced in Chez Panisse Vegetables.
Hello. Do not be alarmed. I am a real live parsnip. You can stare at me all you want because I cannot see you. These are raisins that are my eyes. I put them on so you would not be alarmed by my lack of features, but I suppose that eyes can be just as alarming as blindness. Do you like the way that my tiny root arms and legs curve out just so, as though I were swinging through the air or swimming at an upbeat pace? Well, don't look down there too long or you shall notice that I am naked, and then we will both blush, and I'll look like a carrot. Tee hee.
These are my friends, Parsnip Too, Watermelon Radish, and Tokyo Turnip. We hang out all the time like those animals in The Wind in the Willows. Just like Mole, Rat, Toad, and Badger, we go boating, have wild rides, and embark on memorable adventures. One time a gang of small potatoes from the Wild Wood took over Radish Hall...
... but we found a secret entrance and drove those intruders all out again. Good times those were, yes. Radish sometimes gets feisty, but we parsnips calm him down with our mellowness. We parsnips used to be the cat's meow in Europe until the potato came from the New World and took our place next to the meat.
And that is all we have from the real live parsnip because shortly after giving this speech, he was scooped up and put into a gratin with the potatoes, turnips, and a smattering of radish slices.
Here is the recipe for this delicious PARSNIP POTATO TURNIP GRATIN, adapted from Chez Panisse Vegetables.
Preheat the oven to 375°F. Begin with about 5-6 small potatoes, 2 parsnips, 3 turnips, and a watermelon radish if you just happen to have one lying around. Feel free to include rutabaga too. Peel anything whose skin will be distractingly tough to chew through once cooked. Grab a hefty handful of herbs from your herb garden or the supermarket herb shelf. I took parsley, thyme, oregano, and some sage. Wash them all in a bowl of cool water.
Drain then slice the roots into 1/8-inch thick rounds. Rub a gratin dish (I just used one of those gigantic ramekin-looking white ceramic dishes) with smashed peeled garlic and butter. Lay down your first layer of rounds. Season with salt, pepper, and some sprigs of the herbs. Keep going with different root vegetable layers until you reach the top.
After layering, add your choice of cream, cream and chicken stock, or milk until you just reach the top layer. I used a mixture of soy milk and salted water, which was a bit cavalier but the best I could do under the circumstances. It turned out fine, I was half surprised to find. Then sprinkle the top with grated cheese, either Parmesan or Gruyere, or a mix of both, plus some thin shavings of butter.
And if you find you have leftover root rounds, just toss them with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and any remaining herbs and lay them out on a baking sheet to roast on the oven rack below the gratin. Bake the gratin (and the extra veggie rounds) for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until nicely browned like this!
More parsnip recipes are waiting for you at Mariquita Farm.