Don’t underestimate the parsnip

Nothing against corn beef and cabbage, but the parsnip is quietly, quintessentially Irish to me, and not simply because it’s so pale. The taproot has a subtly sweet character and stubborn perseverance that says Ireland, especially this time of year when the Irish parsnip harvest is in full swing. And it’s worth remembering that long before the potato was introduced to the Emerald Isle, it was the parsnip that provided much of the winter calories consumed there.

Ireland’s climate is mild enough that the seeds can be planted in summer, with the resulting roots can being left in the ground and harvested all winter and deep into the spring. The Irish countryside is also home to wild parsnips, which were traditionally used in conjunction with hops to make beer, while Ireland’s English neighbors to the south prefer parsnip wine.

Domesticated parsnips arrived in that corner of Europe thanks to the Romans, who discovered that they grow better in northern climates. Emperor Tiberius was so fond of the perfumey taproots that he had them cultivated on his behalf in France and Germany. But it seems that the UK is where they have found a more secure place in the cultural and culinary fabric. For a time, parsnips were commonly used as a source of sugar. In contemporary England, the parsnip is used to describe the shape of the ideal man, with wide shoulders and a narrow torso (Less desirable man shapes include the “yule log,” “candle,” and “Christmas Pudding.”). The parsnip is also used in pop culture to refer to a man’s manliness.

I’ve had the pleasure of living in two places with Irish communities that celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with a vigor and hard-headedness that could be compared with the parsnip.

In my hometown of Boston, a holiday with supposed historical relevance called Evacuation Day was manufactured in order to get around a lack of Federal support for an official day off from school and work. But nobody ever gathered around the water cooler to discuss their upcoming “Evacuation Day” plans. “Hey, what are you doing for Evacuation Day?” We all knew what the holiday was really called. Similarly, the parsnip is determined to do what it wants, when it wants. The seeds are notoriously difficult to germinate, and will grow if and when they feel like it, despite any attempts one might make to dictate their schedule. Winter is no obstacle, and when the snow recedes in spring they are ready to party.

In my second home, Montana, the city of Butte houses cavernous bars that require hundreds of people, at a minimum, to appear anything but empty. But on St. Paddy’s Day they can be too full to squeeze into. Likewise, the parsnip is rarely used, but hard to ignore when it is. Though admittedly, a parsnip is a bit more subtle than a packed bar in Butte.

In honor of the long, pale tuber that’s currently in season, and (as well as) the recent St. Patrick’s Day holiday, here are two parsnip-based recipes to help you celebrate.

Beef and Parsnip Stout Stew

You can’t get more Irish than a stout beer like Guinness. Other Irish stouts, like Murphy’s, work as well. This is a slow cooker recipe, and the longer and slower it cooks the better. It’s best made the day before. The sweet stout is absorbed by the other contents, and the result is a dark, rich broth, faintly parsnippy.The recipe is modified from

2 lbs. beef, or more if the cuts have bones attached, which is preferable. I last made it with a mix of beef stew meat chunks and beef neck. Ribs would work, as would shank. Whatever you use, it should be in manageable chunks.

3 medium carrots cut into sub-inch cubes

3 medium parsnips cut into sub-inch cubes

1 turnip, peeled and cut into sub-inch cubes

1 large onion, chopped

3 stalks celery, chopped

1 pint Irish stout

2 Tbsp. tomato paste or pizza sauce, or ½ cup canned tomatoes

2 Tbsp. butter

1 Tbsp. dried thyme

2 Tbsp. garlic powder

3 cups beef broth (unless you’re using beef bones)

Brown the meat under the broiler, and add it to a Crockpot or slow cooker that’s half full of water. Alternatively this can be cooked in the oven in a baking pot with tight fitting lid.

Add a tablespoon of butter to the meat browning pan, and then the celery and onion. Brown them on the stove or in the broiler, and add to the stew. Deglaze the pan with beer and add it to the stew. Add the parsnip, carrot and turnip, thyme, garlic powder, tomato, broth(if using), and the rest of the butter. Salt to taste as it cooks. Cook 4-8 hours on low until beef is completely tender.

Parsnip Apple Soup

This lovely dish merges the sweet, rosy aroma of apples with the earthy sweet fragrance of the parsnips, and adds many more layers of complexity with a mix of spices. It all merges smoothly into a delightful harmony. It comes by way of

2 Tbsp. butter

1 onion, chopped

2-3 parsnips (1 lb), thin-sliced

2-3 apples (1 lb), peeled, cored, sliced (it helps if you have one of those contraptions that peels an apple and turns it into a slinky)

1 clove garlic, pressed or crushed

2 tsp. curry powder

1 tsp. ground cumin

1 tsp. ground coriander

2 pints chicken or veggie stock

optional: cream, and chives for garnish

Melt the butter in a pan; sauté the onion untilthey begin to get soft. Add the parsnip, apple and garlic and cook until soft. Stir in the spices and cook for 2 minutes, stirring.

Add the stock and bring to a simmer, stirring continuously. Season with salt and pepper. Reduce the heat and simmer for about 30 minutes until the parsnips are tender. Puree in a blender and stir in the cream. Heat gently without allowing the soup to boil.