One Pound, Eight Ounces of Parsnips

The parsnip seeds were about three dollars, purchased from a bulk bin at the hardware store. I’d bought them, along with some carrot and kale seeds, late in the summer for a second planting in the garden I shared with my dad. He spent hours tilling it, and then—with a little help from me, but not much--erecting a tall and sturdy fence to keep out the deer that gleefully munch at any blooming plant, decorative or not.

Dad and I share the garden because, here at my house across town, there’s not much of a yard, and I wanted more planting space than our small raised bed afforded us. Dad planted black-eyed peas and onions; I planted a ton of greens, along with peas and beans. The collards did well, as did the black-eyes, but nothing else thrived. In years past, my parents had multiple plots, in the largest size available, in a Columbus, Ohio community garden. They enjoyed bumper crops, which my mother canned in between nursing me and making healthful snacks for my older brother, who was a toddler at the time.

Decades later, I had spotty luck in my own past gardens prior to moving back here to Ohio, but I always got enough to feel it was worth my time and effort. I’m not sure what happened, but I do know we will do a soil test well before planting next spring.

The aforementioned parsnip seeds did nothing last year. This spring, I planted the remainder of the seeds in a row with the carrot seeds, to Mom and Dad’s objections. Why waste valuable garden space on pedestrian root vegetables? But I love parsnips, and at an average of $1.99 a pound at the grocery store, I don’t make a practice of buying them. I dreamed of the culinary possibilities of growing lots and lots of parsnips, which I would roast or puree. Parsnips to add to a white mirepoix, parsnips to grate and fry in non-conformist latkes, parsnips to add to simmering pots of braising meats. They are curious vegetables, at once mellow and sharp, at once creamy and fibrous. This dual nature amuses me. I enjoy how they keep me on my toes.

Lo and behold, both the parsnips and carrots grew. The carrots I harvested in August—they were petite things, and it took about half an hour for me to liberate them from the firm clay of Southeast Ohio gardens—but the parsnips I kept in the ground, imagining them growing into hearty, club-shaped things.

This weekend I dug them up. All one and a half pounds of them, and they had the willowy builds of runway models rather than the sturdier, more robust figures I’d been dreaming of. Smaller parsnips tend to taper off dramatically at their tips, quite unlike carrots, and so it’s challenging to get a consistent cut on them (important especially when roasting, for those narrow pieces tend to burn and shrivel rather than brown and crisp.) It took me about half an hour to wash, peel, and chop them into the 2-inch sticks I was planning to serve alongside our pot roast.

And a few of the parsnips I had to toss altogether, because they had a noticeable petroleum smell; most parsnips have a hint of this, but in older ones it’s especially prevalent. And parsnips often have woody cores running through their centers, so it’s best to cut those out and discard them. My yield from the initial 1.5 pounds was a generous handful of prepped root veg.

After roasting them at 400 degrees F for about 20 minutes, I pulled them out of the oven and chewed a sample. And chewed and chewed. It seems I’d made parsnip jerky. Gamely, I still heaped them on our dinner plates—I’d have been better off simmering the roots with the lovely red wine and onion broth that bathed out delicious pot roast—and I masticated through a few roasted parsnips batons.

My gardening know-how is low, mostly because I approach it in a very impulsive, slapdash manner. This is the way many people cook, so I can’t hold it against them. I don’t imagine I’ll have the time or drive to become a master gardener, or even a fluent one, but I’ll keep on trying, because it’s fun to see things grow…when they actually do. The parsnips were more like pets or amusements than anything else. Some people knit, some play Worlds of Warcraft, some go to NASCAR races. I grow edible plants, and badly at that. But I may even plant parsnips again, just to see if I can do better next year. The goal? Harvesting two pounds.