In Praise of Parsnips, the Humble Heroes of the Vegetable Drawer

I’m rooting for the parsnip, and you should, too.

Photo: Photo by Jennifer Causey / Food Styling by Torie Cox / Prop Styling by Lydia Pursell

Low-key and pale (not unlike myself, come wintertime), the parsnip would never presume to inspire the cult-like excitement that folks feel towards, say, ramps, or heirloom tomatoes. But confusing its humility for blandness is a mistake: capable of packing sweetness, starchiness, and a touch of bitterness into every dish, I've never seen the parsnip's versatility celebrated quite as joyfully as it is at Francie, the Brooklyn brasserie from hospitality veterans John Winterman and Christopher Cipollone.

MAKE: Layered Parsnip Cake with Candied Kumquats

To start, there's crispy, perfectly rotund bomboloni stuffed generously with gooey parsnips and topped with black truffle shavings; for dessert, a delicate parsnip cheesecake manages to be both indulgent and delicate — 'tis the parsnip way. But my heart truly stopped as soon as I tasted the puréed parsnips served aside Francie's dewy skinned dry-aged crown of duck, which also comes with sweet sopressata jam and sauteéd swiss chard. This fairly simple accoutrement of diced green apples (for tart, mouth-watering acidity), parsnips (for a mashed potato-esque texture) and brown butter (for the soul). I found myself savoring the surprise of how its flavor evolved atop a slightly smoky slice of duck breast, or a crunchy bite of greens.

Confusing its humility for blandness is a mistake.

The portion was generous enough for me to bring some home, where I found it made for a scrumptious sandwich topping alongside sprouts and carrots. I rationed out spoonfuls of it on top of Cape Cod potato chips, beneath a little caviar. I'm convinced that heaven is a place where parsnips are permitted to shine in all of their glory, and this purée is a rousing endorsement of all this little root vegetable can do.

The origins of my parsnip infatuation dates back years ago to a dinner I enjoyed at Hemlock, the now-shuttered restaurant helmed by Diego Moya, whose appreciation of underdog veg now shines through on the menu at June wine bar. I wasn't even living in New York City at that point, and if I'm being honest, my now-husband and I popped into the New American spot on something of a whim –– it was the kind of freezing December night that makes the lower east side feels like a massive wind tunnel, and the prospect of a warm meal and full-bodied red wine sounded magical. The parsnips were listed as a side dish towards the bottom of the concise menu, and I tacked them onto our meal purely because there was brown butter and sage involved; when they quietly landed on the table, I was two glasses of wine deep, and had all but forgotten we'd ordered them. One bite turned into two, after which I pushed aside my main course (I don't even remember what it was) and simply devoted my time and attention to this bizarre little plate of root vegetables. It was the start of something beautiful.

On most of my trips to the grocery store, I'll grab a few loose parsnips and toss them in my fridge, knowing they'll survive if I instead opt for Chinese takeout or a simple bowl of pasta in the week ahead. After all, the parsnip, unlike a flighty tub of spring mix or bunch of scallions, is patient; It isn't looking to guilt you into meal prep, and it's perfectly willing to make the lowest-effort meal known to humankind (read: chopped, tossed with olive oil and rosemary, and roasted in the oven at 400 degrees for 25 minutes) an absolute occasion.

It's comforting to know that I'm not alone in my reverence. "Parsnips are the root vegetables of all the root vegetables. If I see it in the store, that's what I'm grabbing," says 2019 Food & Wine Best New Chef Caroline Glover. "At Annette, we use them in all kinds of ways. They make the creamiest purées that go perfectly with gnocchi and brown butter, or the sweetest, crispiest chips on a lentil salad." Glover even likes to end a meal with them, in the form of an upside down fennel and parsnip cake with a scoop of ice cream.

I learned that Sabrina Rudin, founder of the delightful new Spring Café Aspen in New York City, is also prone to singing the parsnip's praises: "I especially enjoy using them in place of more traditional vegetables like cauliflower and potatoes. I love to make a vegan Shepherd's Pie with stewed vegetables and pinto beans and top it with a creamy parsnip mash." Rudin also suggests crispy parsnip and sweet potato fries, which, as a person who firmly believes that every meal can stand to be improved by the addition of a side of fries, I'm very much on board with.

Will the parsnip be your bridge to Instagram fame, followers, and fortune? No. Will it bring you health, immunity, and a new lease on life following the most chaotic years in modern history? I've not found this to be the case, but do let me know if I'm wrong. If you're looking for that style of bravado, though, you're probably in the wrong place — this is the parsnip we're talking about, a steadfast dinnertime companion during the bleakest months of the year, politely waiting its turn in your crisper bin. Give parsnips a chance, won't you? I daresay you'll be pleased.

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