January – Parsnips
One of my favourite things about winter are being able to harvest sweet parsnips to go with my filling and hearty roast dinners! I certainly believe these delicious roots have a place in every allotment or veg patch!
A short history of parsnips!
Parsnips have long been high regarded as a food source and are thought to have been eaten since ancient times. By the time, the Romans were on the scene, parsnips were widely cultivated throughout Europe.
Parsnips were originally used as a sugar source in bread, cakes and jam before the introduction of sugar cane and sugar beet and were the main starch source in people’s diet until the wide culitvation of the potato by the mid-19th century. As well as a food source, the parsnip was thought to have medicinal propertoies too with the root often being used to treat stomach upsets, toothaches and swollen testicles!
Unfortunately with the introduction of sugar and the potato, the cultivation and use of the parsnip has greatly declined!
Why should we eat parsnips?
Parsnips are sweet succulent roots which are closely related to the carrot. It has a relatively high sugar content compared to other vegetables with 75 calories per 100g. This is similar to some fruits such as bananas. That being said parsnips are an excellent source of soluble and insoluble dietary fibre which can help to reduce cholesterol. Adequate fibre in your diet will help with any constipation probelms you might have!
Parsnips are also a source of anti-oxidants such as falcarinol, falcarindiol, panaxydiol, and methyl-falcarindiol which have been shown in scientific studies to have anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory functions.
Overall parsnips have good levels of vitamins C, K, E and the B vitamins as well as a good dose of a variety of minerals including manganese, copper, iron, calcium and phosphorus. The high level of potassium in parsnips acts as a vasodilator and reduces blood pressure and stress on the heart which is key to a healthy cardiovascular system.
And whilst there is a higher sugar content than other vegetables, it is still a low calorie alternative to potatoes and can aid with weight loss. They also help to prevent the release of ghrelin which is a ‘hunger’ hormone keeping you feeling fuller for longer!
How to grow parsnips
Pasrnips seeds have a short viability so when growing parsnips you should use fresh seed every year and they are best sown straight outside between April and June. Parnsips like to be sown into well-prepared ground that doesn’t contain large lumps. Like carrots, if the roots hit a stone or large lump the root is likely to fork. If you add organic matter to the soil, it might be worth sieving it first to remove the larger lumps. Germination can be slow and can take up to 28 days but this can be dependent on the temperature and the time of sowing.
When the seedlings are large enough to handle, normally when their first true leaves come through, thin out the seedlings within each row to 7cm apart or 10cm apart if you want larger roots. Once the parsnips have germinated, I find that they don’t require much attention except to ensure that the soil is kept moist by watering regularly. Keep the bed free of weeds to prevent competition for nutrients.
Parsnips can be harvested when the roots are big enough but if they are left until the first frosts, the roots will be sweeter. Parsnips can be left in the ground until needed but after winter they will start to regrow leaves (and flower) and the roots start to become woody!
Problems with parsnips
There are two major problems with parsnips. The first is carrot fly which causes the same damage to parsnips as they do to carrots. The carrot fly lays eggs on the soil near carrots and parsnips and the larvae burrow into the root until they pupate. The best way to tackle carrot fly is preventative. Thin parsnips in the evening to avoid the scent of parsnips attracting the little flies and put up barriers to stop the flies reaching the crop in the first place.
The other problem with parsnips is canker. Canker is caused by a variety of fungi which causes the parsnip to rot. The rot starts at the crown and is often caused by damage to the parsnip. You can buy canker resistant cultivars. Remove and destroy affected material and rotate your parsnips every year to avoid build up of this problem.
How to cook parsnips
Parsnips are a versatile vegetable and can be used in a variety of ways not unlike potatoes. They can be eaten roasted, boiled, mashed and can be added to stews, soups and casseroles. They are often relegated a s a side dish but can easily be made the highlight of any meal with the right recipe. I recommend the salted caramel parsnip recipe below!