At a recent holiday event at my home, my friend Nancy Simmerman came bringing a bag of large, beautiful parsnips she had just pulled from her winter garden. I love parsnips, especially when harvested in the winter. Freezing nights give parsnips (and other root vegetables - and Brussels sprouts) a particular sweetness they lack in the summer.
Apparently the extra sweetness is due to how the plants prepare to survive cold weather. Instead of using all of their energy for growth, as they do in the summer, many plants concentrate energy (sugars) for storage in their roots. That doesn't explain how Brussels sprouts become sweeter, but I imagine it's a similar process. That sweetening of flavors is one of the special joys of winter gardening in our area.
For those not familiar with parsnips, they look like a large, yellowish-white carrot. They were brought from the Mediterranean area, where they have been popular since ancient times, by some of the earliest Europeans to settle in North America. Before sugar became commonly available in Europe, parsnips were often used to sweeten jams and cakes.
Parsnips are fairly easy to grow if they are planted early, and they seem to like our slightly acidic soil. Like carrots, they prefer a sandy or loose soil texture.
Nutritionally, parsnips are a very good source of dietary fiber. They are also a good source of potassium, vitamin C, vitamin K, folate and manganese. Potassium is an electrolyte that helps your body build proteins and muscle. It also helps control the electrical activity of the heart. Folate is necessary for cell division and also supports the creation of proteins, red blood cells and DNA. Manganese supports the growth of connective tissues and brain functioning.
Parsnips can be particularly helpful during pregnancy, especially because of their folate (vitamin B9) content. Besides helping with DNA and RNA production, folate can help preventing or treat anemia. Eating parsnips has also been associated with the prevention of certain types of birth defects, such as spina bifuda or cleft palate. Folate also helps regulate the formation of fetal nerve cells.
In cooking, parsnips are a versatile ingredient. They can be cooked alone, and they blend well with other flavors. Roasting is a popular method of preparation. The natural sugars in parsnips caramelize well during roasting and develop a wonderful flavor.
Because they offer more nutrition than potatoes, a good way to start eating parsnips is to try them as a substitute for potatoes, or mixed with potatoes or other vegetables to add a delicious nuttiness.
Besides roasting, parsnips can be boiled, steamed, baked, grilled, sautéed, or even eaten raw. They make a welcome addition to soups, stews and salads. They play well with many other flavors, so parsnip dishes can be varied by using different herbs and spices, maple or apple syrup, and by combining with fruits and other vegetables. Parsnips can even be made into wine!
A simple parsnip dish with a fancy look can be made by puréeing steamed parsnips and putting the purée into a pastry bag with a large tip. Pipe the parsnip purée into shapes onto parchment paper on a cookie sheet, and bake at 400 to 450 degrees to lightly brown the purée and crisp the surface.
When shopping for parsnips, look for crispness, just as you would for a carrot. Parsnips with their leaves removed will keep in the refrigerator in an unsealed bag for three to four weeks.
2 pounds parsnips (friend's garden, Lummi Island)
3 cups flour, plus more for rolling out dough (Fairhaven Organics Mills, Burlington)
2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon fresh thyme (home garden, Lummi Island)
Hazelnut oil (Holmquist Hazelnut Orchards, Lynden)
Remove tops and root tips from the parsnips. Peel and slice into 1-inch pieces.
Steam parsnips over boiling water for about 10 minutes, or until soft enough to mash. Test by sticking a fork into a few pieces. It should slide in easily.
Remove the parsnips from the heat and place in a large bowl. Mash well with a potato masher or ricer until smooth (no lumps). Add salt and fresh thyme and stir in well.
Add flour a half-cup at a time, mixing in thoroughly. The amount of flour can vary a lot, so use your judgment regarding the quantity to add. Add flour just until the mixture begins to form dough that pulls away from the side a little. It will still be quite sticky.
Spread another cup of flour on a large cutting board or countertop, and place a 2-inch diameter ball of dough on the surface. Roll it out with your hands into a "snake" about 3/4-inch in diameter. Cut into pieces about 3/4-inch long.
You can cook these as is, but common practice is to use a fork to imprint the surface of each piece with grooves so the cooked gnocchi will hold more sauce. You can also press your thumb to make an indentation on one side and then pinch the edges together slightly over the indentation.
Start a large pot of water to boil. Once you have a good rolling boil, use a strainer or slotted spoon to lower a few gnocchi at a time gently into the boiling water. Cook in small batches, making sure they have plenty of room so they won't stick together.
At first, the gnocchi will sink to the bottom of the pan. When they float to the top, they are done. Remove floating gnocchi with a slotted spoon or strainer and place in a bowl. Add sauce of your choice (pesto, marinara, broth, etc.) and serve hot.
Gnocchi can also be refrigerated or frozen for later use before sauce is added.
Makes about 4 dozen gnocchi, depending on size.
You'll find Whatcom County foods at these stores and farms. Many outlets have seasonal hours. We recommend you call or check websites for current hours.
Acme Farms + Kitchen
Appel Farms Cheese Shoppe, 6605 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4996; appel-farms.com
Artisan Wine Gallery, 2072 Granger Way, Lummi Island; 360-758-2959; artisanwineclub.com
Bellingham Farmers Market, Railroad at Chestnut; 360-647-2060; bellinghamfarmers.org
Boxx Berry Farm Store and u-pick, 6211 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-380-2699; boxxberryfarm.com
Cloud Mountain Farm Nursery, 6906 Goodwin Road, Everson; 360-966-5859; cloudmountainfarm.com
Community Food Cooperative, 1220 N. Forest St. and 315 Westerly Road, Bellingham; 360-734-8158; communityfood.coop
Everybody's Store, 5465 Potter Road, Deming; 360-592-2297; everybodys.com
Ferndale Public Market, Centennial Riverwalk, Ferndale; 360-410-7747; ferndalepublicmarket.org
Grace Harbor Farms, 2347 Birch Bay Lynden Road, Custer; 360-366-4151; graceharborfarms.com
Green Barn, 8858 Guide Meridian, Lynden; 360-354-1008
Hopewell Farm, 3072 Massey Road, Everson; 360-927-8433
Lynden Farmers Market, 514 Liberty St., Lynden, fiveloavesfarm.blogspot.com
Pleasant Valley Dairy, 6804 Kickerville Road, Ferndale; 360-366-5398; facebook.com/pages/Pleasant-Valley-Dairy/161872142667
Red Barn Lavender Farm (egg CSA), 3106 Thornton Road, Ferndale; 360-393-7057
Small's Gardens, 6451 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4637
The Islander, 2106 S. Nugent Road, Lummi Island; 360-758-2190; islandergrocery.com
The Markets LLC, 3125 Old Fairhaven Parkway and 1030 Lakeway, Bellingham; 8135 Birch Bay Square St., Blaine; 360-714-9797; themarketsllc.com
Terra Organica, 1530 Cornwall Ave., Bellingham; 360-715-8020; terra-organica.com
Bellingham Country Gardens (u-pick vegetables), 2838 East Kelly Road, Bellingham; bellinghamcountrygardens.com
Reach Whatcom Locavore columnist Nancy Ging at 360-758-2529 or email@example.com. To follow her day- to-day locavore activities, go to Whatcom Locavore on Facebook or @whatcomlocavore on Twitter. For locavore menus, recipes and more resources, go to whatcomlocavore.com.