In spite of my spring apathy, there is one local spring vegetable that I look forward to all year. It's a parsnip. It's not green, like you'd imagine things in the spring to be. If you've never seen a parsnip, it looks like a carrot, only white. These parsnips are called "spring dug" or "wintered over." They stay in the ground all winter turning incredibly sweet and are harvested in the spring.
The only ingredients in this dish are parsnips, olive oil, and salt. But the taste is so complex, you'd hardly believe the humble ingredient list. There are notes of orange, vanilla, maple syrup, and freshly churned butter. How do you get all that from just parsnips, oil, and salt? Some of it is the spectacular spring dug parsnips and some of it is the technique. I use high heat at first to develop color and then low heat to cook the parsnips through. I've seen this kind of vegetable technique referred to as "braising", but what's peculiar about it is that you don't add any liquid and keep the pot covered the entire time. In a true braise, the food is usually cooked on high heat in an open pan to help steam escape and promote browning, and liquid is added during the low and slow part. The reason I keep the pot covered the entire time and don't add any liquid is to concentrate the flavor. This way, the parsnip juices stay in the pot, eliminating the need for the addition of any foreign liquid.
This is a fabulous technique to use with parsnips, celery root, sweet potatoes, carrots, and turnips if you are planning to purée them (or coarsely mash). Normally, I use butter instead of oil, and add heavy cream during the low heat part of the cooking. But I was making these parsnips for my 6 month old son and we haven't introduced cream and butter yet. The fact that I ate half of them while trying to get them into baby food jars speaks for itself.
The topping in the picture is a lingonberry jam thinned with a little Creme de Cassis (black currant liquor). If you are serving these parsnips with duck, pork, chicken, or game, that sweet berry accompaniment is very harmonious. A rhubarb jam would be lovely too.
Braised Parsnip Purée
Note: You can substitute parsnips with celery root, sweet potatoes, carrots, or turnips. If using celery root increase the quantity slightly, since you'll discard a lot of it while peeling (it's a very bumpy vegetable). The vanilla bean is optional, but do not substitute it with vanilla extract. I tried, it doesn't work.
2 Lb parsnips, peeled, and cut into 2/3 inch cubes
3 Tbsp olive oil or butter
1/4 cup heavy cream (optional)
1/2 vanilla bean split lengthwise (optional)
Salt to taste
- Set a large heavy pot over high heat. Add the oil or butter. When oil is hot, add the parsnips and cover the pot. Cook covered, stirring occasionally until good number of cubes are browned. It will take 5-8 minutes. Try to stir after the first 2 minutes. If no color developed yet, try stirring less frequently. If the cubes on the bottom got too dark, stir more frequently. The browning won't be even. Some cubes will have 2 brown sides and some none at all.
- Add the cream and vanilla bean (if using). Sprinkle with salt and mix well. Cover, turn the heat down to very low and cook until the vegetables are completely tender and can be easily cut with a wooden spoon, 20-35 minutes. Err on the side of overcooking.
- Remove vanilla bean, scrape out the seed and add back to the pot. Discard the bean.
- Purée parsnips in a food processor until completely smooth. For a coarser texture, mash with a potato masher or a wooden spoon.
This dish can be made in advance and rewarmed in a covered pot over medium low heat stirring frequently (microwave works well too for small quantities).