Wednesday, October 21, 2009

All About Parsnips

While many CSA farms are winding down their season and tucking away their farm for the winter, at Harmony Valley Farm we are still hard at work harvesting and packing vegetables! It’s always exciting to be a part of the fall harvest….the culmination of a season’s worth of work to produce a crop. But there’s also some nervousness as this time of year can be rather unpredictable. Richard tells stories about the year they got 3 feet of snow on October 29. Just two weeks ago, we scrambled to get the sweet potatoes harvested and put covers on lettuce, fennel, chicories, and mini-sweet peppers before the frost arrived. The weather turned cold quickly with freezing temperatures over the weekend and we were fearful that the daikon, turnips and other crops would be damaged, but thankfully they were not. The cold snap was followed by more cold along with rain. It’s hard to harvest roots in slippery mud; it just doesn’t work. How many more days do we have to get everything done? You never know so you just keep forging forward—you can’t wait for the perfect day. On the flip side, we could get a couple more weeks of nice, dry days with moderate temperatures. We aren’t counting on it this year, but there have been years when we’re able to harvest salad greens until the end of October/first of November!
We still have daikon and turnips that need to grow, but they’re growing slowly in the cool weather. We have parsnips that are getting too big, but the forecast for the rest of the week is for rain so we’re not sure we can get the rest out of the ground. We still haven’t harvested the sunchokes and we are only in the middle of garlic planting. We’ve never missed a garlic planting, but we have planted into mud just to get it in the ground before it’s too late. The beauty heart and black radishes need to be dug as do the rest of the rutabagas. In the meantime, we can’t forget about the cabbages or the rest of our responsibilities. We’ve had to change our strategies along the way. Instead of relying solely on our FMC (the machine typically used for harvesting roots), we’ve brought the old potato digger and another piece of machinery into the picture along with a lot of hand harvesting. We had a digger breakdown yesterday and we are down two tractors right now…we are praying we don’t have any more breakdowns. The coolers are filling up fast….where are we going to store all these veggies until they are washed and packed for their final destination!?
Since this is the first week you have parsnips in your box this fall and this is “parsnip push” week here at the farm, we thought perhaps you might enjoy learning a little more about this interesting white root. Parsnips are one of our major crops—this year we planted 8 acres. Since they have a long growing season, it’s important to plant them early. If you miss the window of opportunity, you miss having a crop for the year. The parsnip seed is very interesting—a small, flat disk referred to as a winged seed. Don’t cough, sneeze, or stand near a fan while you are dealing with these seeds, they are so lightweight they can easily blow away. It’s important to plant them into moist soil at just the right depth—1/4” deep. Plant them too shallow and they might just lay there. Plant them too deep and they might not be strong enough to push through. It takes 2-3 weeks to germinate a parsnip seed, partly because the soil is still cold at that time of year. In the meantime, a blanket of spring weeds can sprout up all around the little seeds. One of the first methods of weed control we use for this crop is called flaming. We literally burn off the weeds in the bed to get rid of them. But you have to do this right before the parsnips pop from the ground. Do it too early and more weeds will grow up, do it too late and you burn your crop as well. This year we had a field of parsnips planted on one of our newly acquired fields. What a nightmare of weeds! The weeds seemed to grow three times as fast as the parsnips! We mechanically cultivated as much as we were able and then sent a hand weeding crew through twice. We debated if it was even worth investing the time and effort into to save the crop. In the end we decided to keep it, and invested the labor to remove the weeds to improve the land for future years.
We won’t harvest all the parsnips this fall—just enough to hold us through January. We will leave two acres to overwinter until the spring. Not only do parsnips tolerate the colder weather, but they actually improve in flavor and texture after a freeze. Our sweetest parsnips, in fact, are the overwintered parsnips that are left in the ground throughout winter, and dug in the spring. Don’t get me wrong, they are pretty tasty right now. Before refrigeration, parsnips were a wintertime staple that could be stored for months in a root cellar or packed in a mound of sand. So, if you find yourself accumulating parsnips throughout the upcoming deliveries, don’t worry—they won’t spoil quickly. Store them loosely wrapped in a plastic bag with some moisture and they will hold just fine for several weeks in your refrigerator. Parsnips may lose moisture over time and become shrunken and rubbery, but this is no reason to discard them. Go ahead and add them to your next soup, and they will perk right up.
Like the other members of the Umbelliferae family we have featured this year (such as celery and celeriac, fennel, carrot, etc.), parsnips originated in the Mediterranean basin and have been cultivated for several thousand years. They have been a fixture of European cuisine, particularly the northern countries with cooler climates and shorter growing seasons.
Parsnips are closely related to carrots, with an arguably more complex flavor. They can be prepared in many of the same ways as carrots, although eating raw isn’t nearly as common. Parsnips need not be peeled, but depending on the usage you may wish to, if the skin is thick or stringy. With their high sugar content, parsnips caramelize well. Roasting them at a high temperature, then reducing heat slightly and finishing cooking with a lid will create a chewy, browned exterior and a soft interior. Steaming is also a good way to retain and concentrate all of the parsnip’s flavor and create a soft, smooth consistency. Besides for soups and stews, boiling isn’t recommended because the parsnip will lose flavor (and nutrients) into the cooking water. In American cuisine, the most common uses of parsnip are in purees and root mashes, either alone or with other roots and tubers, and simmered with soups, stews, and roasts. In her book Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini, Elizabeth Schneider notes that although American recipes from the 19th and 20th centuries have tended to use parsnips in rich, heavy preparations such as creaming and frying, the versatile parsnip really shines in more complex preparations as well. Records of ancient Roman recipes show that parsnips were sometimes combined with white wine and olive oil, fresh coriander and pepper, cumin and chives, celery seed, honey, and nuts, among other things.
So whether you jazz it up with exotic spices, or simply toss it in the pot with the Sunday roast, it’s hard not to enjoy the sweet flavor of parsnip.

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