In Harvest

Photograph:; parsnips  ©neil langan
Above: The earthy parsnip is a unexpectedly versatile spring treat.

Parsnips, a cream-colored root vegetable that bear a striking resemblance to the carrot, are popping up in farmer’s markets this time of year. That’s because there is no better time to be eating them than right now. While their peak season runs from fall through early spring, parsnips harvested post-winter, once the ground thaws, are candy-like. The winter frost converts the vegetable’s starches to sugars.

“Parsnips are a quiet carrot with a real beautiful layering of flavors,” says Chef Brian Lewis, owner of The Cottage in Westport. “I say ‘quiet’ because they are unassuming. They look like carrots, but there’s a clear sweetness to them.”

But sweetness is only one advantage. “Parsnips have a beautiful, pure flavor with a dense texture and you could work with them a lot,” he adds. “They have quite the versatility.”

When shopping, avoid large parsnips. Typically, they are woodier and tougher than small ones, which are sweet and tender. Also, avoid any tipped with lots of tiny, feathery threads. This indicates that they were grown without sufficient water and will burn easily when roasted. When you find good ones, stock up—parsnips keep well for weeks when stored properly.

CHEF BRIAN LEWIS offers three tips for parsnips

Chef Brian suggests introducing parsnips in a Shepherd’s Pie by layering the braised meat with a parsnip purée instead of a potato one. Speaking as a dad, he says, “I have young boys, so parsnip purée would be a beautiful introduction to gourmet food.”

Parsnips can be roasted, puréed, sautéed or fried. However, be warned, says Chef Brian. “There’s so much sugar in parsnips that you have to be careful not to burn them.” When frying them, in particular, make sure to keep the oil lower than 325 degrees and take them out as soon as they are amber brown.

When preparing parsnips, Chef Brian suggests adding layers to the sweet base with flavors like vanilla and cinnamon. “I tend to have a sweet tooth, even in savory cooking, so it’s a nice challenge to lift it from one-dimension of sweetness and add more layers with acids, crunch, aromatics and nuts.”