Not everyone loves the strong flavor of parsnips, but those who do are rejoicing right now. Not many garden vegetables begin their season just as winter is setting in, but to parsnip connoisseurs those fat white roots are worth eating only after a few good frosts, when their flavor becomes more pronounced and their flesh turns sugar-sweet. In deep winter they can be be pried from the ground only during thaws, and cold-climate growers must often wait until spring to unearth this unusual treat.
Historically, parsnips preceded the bright orange carrot and the versatile New World potato as the dominant root vegetable in European culture. Nothing stored as well in the ground, without having to be cellared. And, long before the development of the sugar beet, it provided a sugar source as well.
So why not turn parsnips into desserts? I can imagine them as an apple substitute in, say, apple crumb cake, or playing the part of bananas in a spicy loaf of parsnip bread. Would they even take the place of sugar for those excluding cane sugar from their diets?
That question can be answered only by trying recipes one by one, so I decided to start with parsnip pudding. I got the idea from a book written in 1669 called “The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened,” under “To Dress Parsneps.” Sir Kenelm tells you to boil them in milk, adding more and more milk until they are “well swelled with it, and will take no more.” So I shredded the roots with a vegetable peeler, chopped them up a bit and simmered them in a pot with a milk-to-parsnip ratio of 2 to 1. When the mixture started to thicken, I added raisins, a pinch of saffron and at the end a little cream, leaving the pudding slightly soupy. I sprinkled chopped pistachios on top, the way they garnish rice pudding in Indian restaurants.
It was delicious. Thanks to the natural sugars in both the parsnips and the reduced milk, it was just sweet enough to be a dessert, with a mild parsnip flavor. The shredded flesh was soft but had retained just enough of its texture to impersonate rice pudding, and my two lunch guests refused to believe that parsnips were involved and rice was not.
Next adventure? I’m going to try my version of bananas Foster, in which I fry halved bananas in butter until they caramelize, and remove them. Then I deglaze the pan with flaming rum, stir in a little honey and cream, and pour the sauce over the bananas. Only they'll be parsnips instead. We'll see if they need the honey.
Barbara Damrosch is author of “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook”; her wsebsite is www.fourseasonfarm.com.