I realized something after it was decided I would write about parsnips this week. I began my usual writing process which includes going to the library and taking out three books that have nothing to do with my subject. Lately they have been books about New England spanning the time from when the New World explorers began to land here, around 1600, to books critiquing private schools written in 1910. I had forgotten how many times people failed to settle here before they succeeded. How many ships landed on the east coast only to have all those who tried to take refuge here for a winter fail time and time again. I read stories about sunny skies that were darkened by swarms of doves as thick as a quilt, fish so thick in streams that you could walk across their backs and not get your feet wet when crossing, wolves so fierce that bounties were put on their heads while their howls kept people awake at night. I never read a single thing about parsnips and doubt if the word is even used once in any of these three thick books.
I also realized that I have never grown parsnips. How could I write about something I don’t know how to grow? My father usually grows parsnips (I heard a rumor that I may be getting a special delivery of them tonight from Cackleberry Farm). I have never had the desire during my growing days to find a suitable spot in the garden in the springtime where I can plant parsnips and tend to them for at least eight months. Parsnips are finicky and do not like the heat of the summer, preferring the cool nights of spring to set their roots. Once established and mulched, parsnips should do well in most healthy soils, continually growing throughout the summer and into the late fall before they begin to develop any sweetness. The general rule for most growers is to wait until the second deep frost to harvest them — a good way to ensure a crop that is fully developed in flavor and has an almost maple sweetness to it.
Ralph Sherman is an old-school home grower. His garden plot is larger than his home and includes everything from asparagus beds to apple trees to beach plum bushes for his wife Ethel’s jam, to rhubarb plants so strong and healthy they probably span six feet in some cases from one side of the plant to the other. Ralph grows parsnips, and usually by this time of the year we have had at least two frosts and he has dug them already, but I suspect his are still in the ground leaving Ralph nothing else to do but chop more wood for his immaculate wood piles which he uses to heat his house. Otherwise he is in the house helping his wife make jam (which has lately meant him making the jam while she bosses him around). Then they eat dinner in front of the Celtics game on a good night. Ethel is a huge fan and told me recently about the get well card she sent to one of the Celtic players who was sidelined with an injured knee. She and Ralph both helped our Island’s agricultural traditions carry on to this day by moving to the Vineyard to resurrect the SBS grain store, a feat felt by all of us who were lucky enough to have been able to learn from those who learned with them.
Ralph is a master gardener and was an accomplished angler in his day, as well. His introduction to the Island was from trips he took here from the mainland to fish for stripers, mostly at Squibnocket point. He would put his camper on the back of his truck and sleep in it for a few days before heading back home with hundreds of pounds of striped bass and some beautiful memories with friends like David Flanders. Ralph was mostly a chicken farmer before he moved here and I would like to think he learned from Island growers and farmers and helped to stock his store with exactly what they needed at the right time of year. It was a give and take relationship in which Ralph could take his customers’ knowledge while also helping them expand on their success by bringing in new and beneficial products for their farms. The education Ralph has acquired over a lifetime is incredible and almost completely unique in its own right. He brings produce to sell at the farmers’ market that is so uniform, vibrant and perfectly ripe that it looks like a seed catalog photo shoot. When he grows peas, they are almost the size of small marbles, yet each is perfectly ripe and tender. Ralph is the only person I know who grows iceberg lettuce. He brings it to market in a cooler and places the whole thing on his display table with the lid shut and only a piece of paper taped to the lid identifying what is inside, on which he has written “iceberg.”
It goes without saying that Ralph’s parsnips are a miracle. They are something I look forward to each year. Ralph’s garden is well organized, his rows are so straight with no weeds, it looks German. I wonder if it is a coincidence that parsnips were most widely-grown by the Germans on the Rhine river during the Middle Ages. During a period of time before potatoes were brought back from the New World, parsnips were grown as a primary part of the European diet. They were prized for their healthfulness and were even considered medicinal. I can understand this sentiment. Parsnips are best at this time of year when the sky is dark much longer than it is bright. Nourishing ourselves with rich, hearty foods like roasted parsnips topped with some simply braised beef feels right. The sweetness of the parsnip giving us happiness from the inside out.
Parsnips Braised in Chicken Stock with Garlic and Thyme
6 cups parsnips, peeled and cut into one-inch pieces
2 tablespoons salted butter
3 cups high-quality chicken stock, preferably homemade
6 cloves garlic, peeled
3 stems of thyme
salt and pepper
a big pinch of dried chili flakes
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a heavy roasting pan add the parsnips and salted butter and place in the oven while preheating to melt the butter. In a large pot bring the rest of the ingredients to a simmer over medium heat. When the oven is up to temperature and the butter is melted, remove the parsnips from the oven and pour the contents of the pot into the roasting pan and toss well to coat all the parsnips. Place back in the oven and braise for approximately and hour and fifteen minutes or until the chicken stock has reduced completely, tossing a few times throughout. Serve alongside braised beef.
Steamed Parsnips with Hot Sauce and Vinegar
6 cups parsnips, peeled and cut into one-inch pieces
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons canola oil
Sriracha hot sauce
Bring half an inch of salted water to boil in a pot fitted with a steaming basket. Place the parsnips in the steaming basket and cover the pot with a lid. Hold the lid tight and give it a good shake to mix up the parsnips after about four minutes. Steam another six minutes, making sure to check the water level and refreshing as needed. When the parsnips can be pierced easily with a fork, remove them from the pot into a mixing bowl with the rice vinegar, soy sauce and canola oil and toss very well. Serve warm with Sriracha hot sauce.