Ontario’s biggest parsnip producer is still astonished to see his roots on three-star menus.
“When I was a kid the old Anglo Saxons bought them,” says Tony Tomizza, whose family has pulled parsnips from the black muck of the Holland Marsh for more than half a century.
“They knew how to cook them and what to do with them,” he says.
The generation that followed didn’t know or care about the pale roots — sweeter than carrots yet starchy like potatoes — and sales dwindled.
Then, about five years ago sales began to spike. Between the buy-local movement and a little positive press, parsnips jumped from humble to haute.
“Chefs were putting them on menus in high-end restaurants,” he says, “and people started asking, ‘What’s this?’ ”
Even in the Tomizza household, the generational divide shows. Tony’s German-born mother Rose uses just one parsnip to add a mellow, nutty flavour to her famous stews and chicken soup.
Yet his sister cooks a dozen parsnips at a time. She slices the roots lengthwise, bastes them with olive oil and grills the long slices on her barbecue.
“They’re soooo good!” says Tomizza, who sells parsnips year-round in 500-gram cello bags under the Country Fresh label.
Roots from this year’s abundant harvest, which ended two weeks ago, are now happily ensconced in cold, damp storage rooms in Bradford, still covered in soil to keep them creamy beige.
Though they may seem pricey at $2.99 a pound, Tomizza says the seeds are much more expensive than carrots, they’re more expensive to grow, harvest and pack and workers have to cut off the leafy tops by hand.
The sugar content goes up after a frost, so now’s the time to enjoy this delicious and underappreciated vegetable at its peak.
Buy & Store
- Look for cream-coloured skin and a uniform size if roasting — not always easy!
- Avoid limp roots with soft spots or signs of sprouting.
- Rusty marks are a cosmetic issue, perhaps caused during harvesting, and won’t affect the flavour, Tomizza says.
- Like carrots, parsnips keep well for weeks in the fridge, stored in a plastic bag in the crisper.
- Prepare like a carrot; peel and trim ends.
- Slice off narrow end in one piece, then halve or quarter the thicker end into lengthwise pieces about the same size.
- Parsnips cook more quickly than carrots or rutabaga because of their higher starch content.
- Steaming in a basket over boiling water is recommended.
- Roasting caramelizes the exterior while making the inside soft and sweet as candy.
- Parsnips are done when tender enough to easily pierce with thin knife or skewer. Don’t overcook or they become mushy.
- Cook parsnips any way you’d cook carrots.
- Roast alone or with carrots and rutabaga sticks for a colourful medley to serve with roast lamb or beef.
- Parsnips shine in a purée, alone or with potatoes.
- Parsnip soup is sublime; try parsnip and pear!
- Add peeled parsnip chunks to soups or stews during last 20 minutes of cooking.
- Layer with potatoes in scalloped potatoes.
- To eat raw, finely julienne or spiralize parsnips with other root vegetable strips and toss in a lemony dressing.
- To grill, slice 1/2 inch (1 cm) thick and turn once or twice on medium heat until tender and golden.
- Parsnip Fries: Toss peeled parsnip sticks with a little oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper or Tex-Mex seasoning and spread in a single layer on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake at 375 F, stirring once or twice, until tender and golden, 15 to 25 minutes. Toss with a little oil and check seasoning.
Parsnip Garlic Smash
Here’s my all-time favourite parsnip recipe, adapted from chef Stefan Czapalay. This time I used the new yellow Sissi potatoes from local grower Earth Fresh.
4 medium yellow-fleshed potatoes, peeled and halved (24 oz/680g)
1 large parsnip (6 oz/180 g), peeled and cut in thirds
2 to 3 cloves garlic, peeled
1/2 cup (125 mL) milk
2 tbsp (30 mL) butter
1/4 tsp (1 mL) freshly grated nutmeg
1 tsp (5 mL) salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Garnish: minced fresh parsley
Place potatoes, parsnip and garlic in a medium pot on medium-high heat with just enough water to cover and 1 tsp (5 mL) salt. Bring to a boil then lower heat to a simmer. Cook until vegetables are very tender, about 20 minutes. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup (125 mL) cooking liquid if making ahead. Return vegetables to pot and set over low heat. Gently stir until dry, about 1 minute.
Meanwhile, heat milk and butter in a small saucepan over medium heat until butter melts. Remove from heat.
Mash hot potatoes or press through a ricer into a large bowl; return to pot. Gradually add warm milk mixture and mix until smooth. Season with nutmeg, salt and pepper. Serve immediately, garnished with parsley.
Makes 4 servings.
Tip: Make mash in the morning, reserving 1/2 cup (125 mL) of the potato-cooking water. Before dinner, reheat pot over low heat and stir in a bit of the cooking water until mixture is hot and smooth. Add more cooking water if needed.
First published in the Toronto Star Dec. 9, 2015