Talk to pro chefs about spring-dug parsnips — the season’s earliest and sweetest surprise — and you’ll hear recipes that make your mouth water. Parsnips planted the previous year are left in the ground to winter over (protected by the New England deep freeze and a blanket of snow), then unearthed the following spring as soon as the ground is soft enough. Over the winter the starch in the parsnip converts to sugar, and that characteristic floral, herby flavor matures and deepens. When I think of spring vegetables, parsnips are the first that come to mind.
It is said that both the French and the English brought parsnips to North America in the 18th century, and they were often eaten interchangeably with carrots. They were used as a sweetener before cane sugar, and one taste of a spring-dug parsnip will tell you why. It’s like eating pure candy. Parsnips, like carrots, can be prepared in a multitude of ways. They can be eaten raw, shredded into hearty salads, or lightly pickled to accompany grilled meats or fish. But to truly appreciate the parsnips’ sweet goodness, long, slow cooking is the way to go. For me, slow-roasted, bacon-infused parsnip soup is the order of the day.
The bacon adds a touch of fat and smoke to the soup. Choose a heavy skillet to cook it in, and put the pan on low heat to ensure the bacon ends up nice and crisp. Remember, if the bacon cooks too quickly, the fat will taste burned. So slow down. Depending on how thick the bacon is cut, cooking it can take up to 10-12 minutes. Then crisp some thin-sliced garlic in the same pan. Roast the parsnips with onion and coriander in the oven, stirring every 10 minutes or so until they are soft and tender. The coriander complements the floral nature of the parsnip. Next, add the wine and let it simmer over low heat on top of the stove for a couple of minutes. Everything will steam, the alcohol will cook off, and the wine will be mostly absorbed into the parsnips. Then the soup is transferred to a pot for the last few minutes of cooking. The crisp bacon and garlic you spent all that time on add taste but also a bit of crunch to the smooth soup. This contrast of textures is what chefs look for when creating a well-rounded dish.
Ana Sortun, the chef and owner of Oleana in Cambridge, says people just don’t quite understand parsnips. She loves making skordalia with them by combining them with a smooth garlic-almond sauce. Jasper White of Summer Shack fame likes them simply pureed, super smooth, with lots of salt, pepper, and butter. Jody Adams, the chef behind Trade and Saloniki, likes them cut like potato chips and fried until they are crisp and golden-brown, sprinkled with sea salt. Ask a dozen other chefs and you’ll get a dozen different ideas. But one thing chefs all agree on is that parsnips are at their best in the spring. Now is the time to be inspired.