This Holiday Season, Pass the Parsnips

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We have a friend who is a big, big fan of some strange root vegetables that most of us couldn't identify if our lives depended on it. To prove that point, take this simple test: Close your eyes and describe a parsnip. What color crayon would you pick up if you had to draw one?

Despite that for almost 4,000 years parsnips were considered a staple food (until potatoes took their place in the 19th century), most people don't know that parsnips are shaped much like carrots, but heavier on top and very narrow at the root end. Without the beta carotene of carrots, they range from a pale yellow to ivory in color and have a mild fragrance, something like celery.

Parsnips are quite high in vitamin C and folacin; three and a half ounces provide 28 percent of the adult recommended daily allowance (RDA) for vitamin C and about 35 percent for folacin. They are high in dietary fiber, low in calories (75 calories per three and a half cups raw parsnips) and, of course, contain almost no fat of their own.

Many holiday recipes feature parsnips, so if you've avoided them before, you might want to give them a second look.

Some parsnip growers plant in the spring and then leave the crop in the ground until after the first hard frost. This converts more of the starch into sugar and gives the parsnips a sweet, nutty flavor. Commercial producers usually pick their crop in the late fall and then put them in cold storage for a couple of weeks, which has the same effect as leaving them in the ground until winter. You can get parsnips pretty much year-round, but they are most plentiful in the fall and winter months.

Although parsnips can grow to almost two feet long, the most tender ones are picked when they are about the size of a big carrot (around eight inches). If they get to be too big, they are likely to have a tough, woody core. Look for firm, smooth parsnips, without a lot of little rootlets. If they are soft and withered, they will probably be fibrous and tough. Don't be afraid of the ones that are strangely shaped -- they're just as good.

If the leafy tops are still attached to the parsnips, they should be fresh and green. If the parsnips are available only in plastic bags at your store, take a good look through the wrapping, especially if the bag has thin, white lines printed on it. This kind of packaging is often used to make the parsnips look better than they are.

Once you get the parsnips home, keep them in the crisper in a perforated plastic bag. They should last for three or four weeks. But do take the tops off to keep the parsnips from getting dried out and losing some of their flavor.

Because they are so high in fiber, parsnips are almost always served cooked. Bake them like cut-up sweet potatoes, with fruit juice, brown sugar and sweet spices, such as cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg. To get a different kind of flavor, substitute various types of stock and savory herbs. Another good idea is to serve carrots and parsnips together as a hot side dish or as a cold potato-like salad. Or try steaming them in a small amount of water, which preserves the most flavor and nutrients. If you steam them whole, allow 20 to 40 minutes; if they are cut up, they will become tender in five to 15 minutes.

Peel parsnips either before or after cooking. If you want them to cook for a shorter period of time or are adding them to a stew, take the skin off before cooking; but don't drop them in until the last 15 to 20 minutes -- that keeps the parsnips from getting mushy.

Take off as little of the skin as possible to preserve the nutrients. If you purée the parsnips, leave the skin on until after cooking. This keeps in more of their texture and flavor. If you cut parsnips lengthwise, you may find a fibrous, woody core that should be pried out with a paring knife.

Natural Way Publications, Inc.

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By Sheldon Margen and Dale A. Ogar

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