Parsnips are homely, but oh-so-sweet

Pity the poor parsnip. Pale, bordering on anemic looking, it's a rather gaunt, awkward vegetable; linebacker shoulders tapering down to ballet-dancer toes - skinny on the bottom and too wide on top. It lacks the color and grace of even its humble, ruddy cousin, the carrot.

But parsnips have their sweet side. Marian Morash, author of "The Victory Garden Cookbook," says, "I think of parsnips almost as a garden candy. They can develop a sweet, nutty flavor unlike any other vegetable." Her husband, Russ, wasn't so sure. Then, she explains, he "tasted one grown in the Victory Garden plot, and discovered that this crisp, delicious vegetable bore no resemblance to the overcooked, mush parsnips he had tasted in stews of his youth. Now he's become such a parsnip fanatic that each year he adds a little extra space to the parsnip row."

Widely popular in Europe during the Middle Ages, when sweeteners such as sugar and honey were rare and expensive, parsnips were found to be the perfect accompaniment for salt cod and smoked herring, two staple proteins of the day. A perfect foil to the popular Serf Cuisine of the period.

Parsnips, like Brussels sprouts, are one of the few vegetables that improve after a frost. A touch of cold actually converts much of its starch to sugar - that's were the sweetness comes from.

It's also a vegetable, like fennel, that gives a wonderful flavor to homemade stocks, especially chicken and veal.

On the downside, parsnips must be eaten quickly as they tend to get as limp and rubbery as a piece of red licorice - fast. When shopping for parsnips, choose those that are of medium size (since large ones tend to be woody) and firm (so they are completely inelastic). Check local farm stands for the freshest, sweetest, most flavorful parsnips.

Try putting them in stews, soups, and casseroles. Or even add coarsely grated parsnips to salads. But, be warned, like Russ Morash, you may just become a parsnip fanatic. (Worse things can happen in the kitchen.)

Two of these recipes call for white pepper. It is usually used for aesthetic purposes. (No little black specks in your white foods and sauces.) Black pepper may be substituted.

You may also choose to peel the parsnips. I find some of the sweetness is then lost, so I prefer to scrub them well instead.

No holiday meal with my family would be complete without Rotmos, a simple Scandinavian parsnip-based dish.

The proportions are somewhat subjective. I prefer more parsnips than potatoes, some like equal parts of each. Turnips are sometimes substituted for parsnips; carrots may be added for a touch of color.

Rotmos (Root Mousse)

1 pound parsnips, scrubbed

3/4 to 1 pound potatoes, peeled

Salt

White pepper

4 tablespoons butter

1/3 cup heavy cream

Cut parsnips and potatoes into 1/2-inch cubes. Place in a pan and cover with water. Boil, reduce heat, and cook until parsnips are just tender - about 10 to 12 minutes.

Drain, puree in a food processor. Add salt, pepper, butter, and cream. Process until just blended.

Serves 4.

Sauteed Parsnips

1-1/2 pounds parsnips, peeled

3 tablespoons butter

Salt and white pepper, to taste

Cut parsnips in thin rounds. Sautee in melted butter for 6 to 8 minutes or until just tender when pierced with a knife. Add salt and pepper just before serving.

Serves 4.

Parsnip Muffins

1 cup whipped, cooked parsnips

1 egg

1/2 cup milk

1-1/2 cups flour

1/3 cup sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

Pinch of ground cloves

1/4 cup butter

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

In a large bowl, mix together the parsnips, egg, and milk. Sift the dry ingredients in a separate bowl. With a pastry blender, or two knives, cut the butter into the dry ingredients. Add the parsnip mixture, stirring only enough to combine the ingredients. Fill 8 greased muffin cups. Bake for 20 minutes. Serve warm with butter.

Makes 8 muffins.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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