an american in parsnip: a love story
As I insist on keeping myself at the mercy of the seasons via my bi-weekly CSA box, I am constantly in problem-solving mode in the kitchen. Whether it's dealing with ingredients I don't know or actively dislike (kohlrabi and fennel, respectively), or ones I am truly sick of eating (beets and yams for 9 months out of the year, until they are replaced by a three month biblical flood of peppers), I have to do something about them.
Most of the time this results in exciting and delicious discoveries, like kohlrabi fritters (better than latkes!), or discovering that I can make fennel edible by caramelizing it in a cast iron pan. I also tend to make a lot of pickles and consult my shelves of cookbooks for new techniques and pairing ideas. And in times of desperation, lack of inspiration, or throwing down the gauntlet at yet another gnarly sweet potato the size of my face, I have been known to chop up the offender and throw them out into the yard for the birds. They act like it's Christmas and I act like the kind, benevolent ruler of their grassy kingdom that I am. (Side note: this morning I saw a grackle dig a worm the size of my thumb out of the neighbor's freshly mowed yard and smack it repeatedly against her driveway, WWE style.)
So: parsnips! They're earthy and sweet in the same mysterious way as their root vegetable contemporaries, and the ones I get look like a slender bunch of skinny, cream colored carrots (a mistake I only had to make once). Sure, you can puree them like potatoes, though that is hardly a meal, and...well, that's really the end of list, isn't it? It's not a vegetable that we are used to seeing in the produce section, and it has no great American food traditions to support its existence (see also: celeriac). Which is a shame, really, because I found them a delight to work with and a most welcome flavor base for this soup, which is closest in character to a velouté but without the roux. The parsnips are cooked with a few potatoes in some stock and not much else, and somehow this coarse, homely mix becomes something fabulous--an ugly, beige duckling transformed into a velvety, caramel colored swan. It's substantial enough for a meal while still feeling appropriately fresh; this soup is not so heavy that it must be relegated to the realm of dinners appropriate after a day of felling logs in the snow, or working all day in a maple sugaring shack (activities I learned about from TV, as I am admittedly not of a lumberjack's build or constitution). In fact, it deftly marries the still-spring-not-yet-summer angsty El Nino vibe that most of us across the country are still dealing with: nature's version of the seminal Britney Spears classic, 'I'm Not a Girl...'. The parsnip is a vegetal Crossroads, and all it needs is time.
On that note, get thee to a store with parsnips and get down on this soup while you still have (seasonal) time.
spring parsnip soup
recipe c/o Christian Etchebest; adapted from Bistronomy, by Jane Sigal
- 2 Tbsp unsalted butter
- 1 onion, halved and thinly sliced
- sea salt
- 1 lb. parsnips, peeled and finely diced regardless of size*
- 4 oz./3-4 small Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and 1/4" diced
- 4 cups water or no-salt-added vegetable/chicken stock
- 3 Tbsp heavy cream (as needed)
- 1 Tbsp marcona almonds, coarsely chopped
- snipped chives, for garnish
- creme fraiche, for garnish (optional)
*If you're using larger parsnips instead of my wispy carrot-sized ones, you'll need to discard the woody cores (throw them to the birds! compost! save in the freezer for parsnip stock!). Regardless, I recommend dicing the parsnips and potatoes on the smaller side so they'll cook faster.
While I'm giving rough timings below, keep in mind that, just like every oven, stove tops will vary in their temps as well as the 'power' they put out. While my current gas stove is much better than my last electric oven, it's still nothing to write home about. Conversely, when you watch a chef on TV turn on their restaurant burner, it's not uncommon to see a terrifying vertical column of fire erupt around the sides of the saucepan. In the case of home stoves, you can generally assume they're going to be under-powered, but my point is you have to know your equipment and learn to trust your judgement.
In a large saucepan (I use my 3 qt. Le Creuset dutch oven), melt the butter. Add the onion with a pinch of salt and saute over medium heat, stirring occasionally for about five minutes, until they soften and are starting to hint at translucence (don't let them color). Add the parsnips with a sprinkling of salt, lower the heat to medium-low, cover, and cook for about 15 minutes until they begin to soften.
Add the potato and water or stock, bring to a boil, and partially cover. Simmer this way until the potato is completely tender; the parsnips won't be as tender as the potato, but they should still be a long way from where they started. This can take as little as 20 minutes for thin parsnips or twice as long for the bruisers carried by my grocery store. Working in batches (crucial with hot liquids!!), puree in a powerful blender; a food processor or immersion blender will work but won't give you that velvety texture that makes this soup so elegant.
Return the soup to the saucepan and stir in as much cream as you need, adjusting the salt as needed, and gently reheat. Because I use an industrial Vitamix (the acquisition of which is a story full of sheer, highly discounted dumb luck), I only add little more than a splash to round out the flavors. If using another appliance, you may need to add more cream to get the same body and smoothness.
To serve, ladle into bowls and garnish with chives, creme fraiche, and marcona almonds. The original recipe also adds 1/2 oz. finely diced Spanish chorizo, which is lovely but totally fine to omit.