The Savory Side of the Parsnip

Many, many years ago, I asked my mother what parsnips tasted like. I came across a mention of parsnips while reading something – and back in the 1970s I was reading either novels or my mother’s tattered copy of the Fannie Farmer cookbook, so guess where – and they were unfamiliar to me. As far as I knew, my mother had never prepared this particular root vegetable, and since the unknown has held a certain amount of intrigue for me always, I asked. Her response was to bake a side dish of parsnips, halved and sprinkled with brown sugar and dotted with butter. A classic preparation for the slightly sweet root.

I didn’t like them.

I wasn’t sorry I asked but I never asked for a repeat either. For some reason I’ve never understood, sweet root vegetables – carrots, parsnips, sweet potatoes, yams – often get paired with honey glazes and butterscotchy syrups and a layer of toasted marshmallows, the sweet made sweeter, tasting more of dessert than vegetable. That’s just not to my taste.

Like its close relative the carrot, the parsnip is loaded with natural sweetness but with a hint of spice thrown in for good measure. I think an almost anise flavor, but I’ve read it described as a more subtle cardamom. To me, extra sugar just camouflages the subtlety, and the complexity of that subtlety, and I prefer salt and pepper only to let the natural delicate balance of flavors shine.

I’ve been roasting parsnips with chicken and tossing them into the vegetable mixture in pot pies for some time. Their savory-sweet balance pairs really well with poultry and also seafood. But for a side dish that would showcase all that I now like about parsnips without adding any sugar, I had to do a bit of digging. I found what I was looking for in Fine Cooking magazine. With a few changes to their recipe, I came up with my version of Parsnip Pancakes, something like potato pancakes only better, more interesting.

We served these as a foundation for a garlicky sauté of shrimp all sauced up with equal splashes of vermouth, lemon juice, and chicken stock. The meal was a little savory, a little sweet, a lot delicious. Just the way I like my parsnips.

Parsnip Pancakes

  • 1 pound parsnips, peeled, halved crosswise, thick ends halved lengthwise
  • 1/2 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/8 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
  • grapeseed or canola oil for the pan

Bring 2 quarts of water to boil in a large saucepan. Salt the water. Add to it the peeled and trimmed parsnips and cook for 3 minutes. Drain the parsnips in a colander and rinse them under cold running water until cool to the touch. Drain again, thoroughly and pat dry gently if necessary.

Place the parsnips in the feed tube of a food processor fitted with a medium shredding blade and shred. Tip these into a mixing bowl. Add to the parsnips the chopped onion and toss together gently.

Add the egg, flour, salt and pepper, and toss everything together using a rubber scraper or fork just until blended. Set aside.

Heat a large heavy skillet of medium high heat. Add enough oil to the bottom to cover and make 1/8-1/4-inch depth. Let the oil heat until slightly shimmering and drop the mixture by generous tablespoons into the hot oil. Do not overcrowd pan; cook about 4 cakes at a time.

Cook pancakes until golden on one side then flip to cook evenly on the second side. Remove to a baking sheet and keep warm in the oven while you finish working through the remaining batter.

When you have worked through all the batter, serve the parsnip pancakes immediately.  Delicious served just as you would potato pancakes with applesauce, or sour cream and smoked salmon and capers, but these also work well as a base for a variety of stews and braised meats, soaking up any rich sauce.

©2012  Jane A. Ward