Hoeing up a parsnip pie and other delights

I've just gone to what some might consider extraordinary lengths to plant parsnips. There is good reason for this, because the parsnip is a decidedly useful vegetable to have around the kitchen.

Some say of the sweet white roots that all you need is the addition of water and a bay leaf to make a good soup. Certainly they make a significant contribution to the taste of conventional vegetable soup, and they are outstanding in a chowderlike stew. We also enjoy them mashed like potatoes -- ot French-fried. And most recently they have turned up trumps as a dessert.

Could you ask for more of this ever-so-humble vegetable?

With the addition of a few raisins, they make a great pie filling. Now this is not just an opinion, but the opinion of half a dozen colleagues who were given a wedge of pie without being told that pureed parsnip was the principal ingredient.

Well, that's enough said about the pie (the recipe for which appeared yesterday on the Monitor's food page). The purpose of this column is to discuss ways to grow large white roots that are as sweet as sugared cereal to the taste.

Pampered parsnips -- by that I mean roots that are given a rich, soft soil to grow in (once up and growing, they can look after themselves with very little attention from the gardener) -- can weigh in at harvesttime at more than a pound apiece and still remain tender and sweet. After thinning, no more than 30 parsnips will be left to grow in my garden. Yet from that small patch, I hope to harvest close to 50 pounds of roots, trimmed head and tail. That will be more than enough for all the soups, stews, and, yes, desserts we hope to enjoy through next winter and early spring.

Parsnips of the size I want need deeply prepared, stone-free soil to a depth of at least 12 inches, preferably deeper. But rather than dig over the whole bed (and in the process break down the hundreds of earth-worm tunnels in my now long-established beds), I have resorted to a technique the late Jim Crockett demonstrated on his popular TV show.

Wherever I want a parsnip to grow, I make a hole in the soil, using a crowbar or similar tool. Pushing it in to the required depth, I wiggle it around to make a conical-shaped hole. The hole is then filled to within an inch or so of the brim with mature, but unsifted, compost.

Press down the compost to make sure there are no large air holes left in the planting hole. On top of the unsifted compost goes an inch sifted compost, potting soil, or starter mixture in which several seeds have been planted about one-third of an inch deep. Make as many compost-filled holes as the number of parsnips you want to grow, keeping them 4 to 5 inches apart.

Parsnip seeds are slow germinators, often taking as long as three weeks to poke through the soil. But they will eventually do so. Once they reach about 2 inches tall, select the sturdiest one in each hole and, using scissors, snip out every other plant.

In the ideal conditions you have created, the parsnips will grow apace throughout the season, sweetening up spectacularly when the frosty nights of fall arrive. Keep the soil moist until the plants are an inch or so tall. At that stage the slender taproots will have penetrated deep enough to gather all the moisture the plant needs, except in prolonged dry spells.

If you do not have compost, mix aged manure or store-bought composted cow manure 1 to 4 with sifted topsoil and fill the holes with the mixture. It should work equally well.

don't be concerned when you harvest roots that are much larger than those you normally find in the store. That's the whole idea behind this type of soil preparation. It is the large roots, too, that can be so conveniently turned into French fries. Cut them to shape and fry in deep fat, just as you would French-fried potatoes. When you serve them, they will have the same look and same consistency of conventional French fries, but they'll be sweet to the taste.

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