The parsnip was once a major Roman foodstuff called pastinacea, after the Latin word pastus for food. Parsnips grew wild and still do in parts of Europe and the Caucasus long before their cultivation. The Caucasus region is a mountain range lying between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, considered part of the natural boundary between Europe and Asia. Geographically it is usually considered part of Western Asia, adjacent to northeastern Turkey and northwestern Iran, but culturally, this portion of Russia is also part of Eastern Europe.
Parsnips are a member of the carrot family and look like a large, rather anemic white carrot. It has a starchy root that is among the most nourishing in the whole carrot family. Since the Middle Ages, the potato has gradually replaced the parsnip as a filling, high-starch vegetable, but there was a time when the sweet, nutty, aromatic flavor of parsnips was a popular table delight for emperors and peasants alike.
In ancient Rome parsnips were reserved for the aristocracy, who liked them drowned in honey or combined with fruit in little cakes. The Roman Emperor Tiberius was so fond of their sweet, nut-like flavor that he had them specially imported from Germany when they were out of season in Italy.
Smooth, firm, well-shaped parsnips of small to medium size are generally the best quality, but some grow up to twenty inches long and are still tender and sweet. Softness may indicate decay and discoloration may indicate freezing.
Parsnips have a sweet nutty flavor that some actually complain is too sweet. They are best after being exposed to cold temperatures, so that their starch content is converted into sugar. If tender, parsnips can be eaten raw and are quite delicious and nutritious. Small pieces of raw parsnip add texture and a tingly taste to mixed green salads.
If cooked, they should be steamed, not boiled, to obtain their full flavor, then peeled and served, preferably with Himalayan salt, pepper and butter. Because of their strong, dominating flavor, use parsnips with discretion in soups and stews.
Parsnips have carried some strange superstitions: carrying one was said to ward off snake-bite, but if you forgot and got bitten, according to the Greeks you could crush a parsnip and mix it with the pork fat they used to grease their chariot wheels, spread the paste on the wound, and be cured. Many people thought parsnips were dangerous – especially old ones, which they believed would cause insanity.
They are a good diuretic and hold a specific affinity toward the kidneys, stomach, and spleen, and are helpful in conditions of bladder and kidney stones. They are loaded with more food energy than most common vegetables and they help detoxify and cleanse the body and improve bowel action.
Parsnips contain calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper and manganese. They are rich in thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid and folic acid. Add some variety to your diet with parsnips and you won’t be disappointed.
Parsnip Spinach Salad
1 cup raw parsnips
1 cup raw apple
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup pecans
2 cups spinach
1 tsp. Himalayan salt
pinch cayenne pepper
2 Tbs. fresh lemon or orange juice
1 Tbs. olive oil
Chop the parsnips and apple into small bite size pieces. Break up the pecans into pieces and combine all with the raisins, spinach, salt pepper, lemon or orange juice and olive oil and toss together.