The parsnip is native to the Mediterranean region, but also Asia. It used to grow in the wild, and has always been eaten for its root, which is rich in carbohydrates and so provides energy.
No-one really knows when it was first cultivated, especially since it was often confused with the carrot. In fact, it was only in the 18th century that the naturalist Linnaeus stated the botanical difference between the two vegetables, when he established a system of plant classification.
In the past, parsnips were widely consumed. It was a staple vegetable in medieval cuisine: it is found in recipes for soups and stews in the collection Viandier de Taillevent (published in the 15th century). This was not only true of France, but also the countries of Eastern Europe and England (where it is still widely consumed).
The potato then took over. As a result, the parsnip has gradually fallen into the famous arena of "forgotten vegetables", only to reappear fifteen years ago. It is now found on markets in winter.
It was introduced to North America by settlers, but has not been a great success.
Medium-size parsnips are best. Too large and they are very fibrous, too small and they dry out quickly.
They must be firm and creamy white, without any marks. Bright green tops are a sign of freshness. When the tops are yellow and droopy, the parsnip must be discarded.
Fresh parsnips are sold by weight.
Parsnips are also available chopped, blanched, and frozen.
Parsnips should be washed and scrubbed, but not peeled.
It is included in soups, stews, couscous dishes, tagines, and pot-au-feu. It is used to add flavor to broths, and can be roasted, mashed, or cooked in a gratin, either alone or with other vegetables, and can be served as an accompaniment to meat, poultry, game, and fish.
Young, thin parsnips can be grated raw and seasoned with a vinaigrette. Its small leaves, when very fresh, can be chopped into a salad, or used to add flavor to a sauce, pasta, or other grains.
Parsnips can be stored covered in a cold room or refrigerator for one to two weeks.
Parsnips are rich in carbohydrates, fiber, minerals and B vitamins, especially folic acid (vitamin B9).
They also contain vitamin C, vitamin E, and various other antioxidants. This means that this vegetable is particularly good for you.
Different varieties of parsnips are cultivated, each of different shapes and sizes:
Round parsnip: it looks like a spinning top and is 12–15 cm in diameter.
Half-long parsnip: it is shaped more or less like a carrot. The Guernsey (the most commonly grown) is rather stocky, the Javelin is thinner, the Lancer is tapered, and the Turga a little longer with more developed leaves.
Long parsnip: 30–45 cm long.
Parsnips are available in winter.