IN THE KITCHEN, CARROTS AND PARSNIPS are culinary chameleons. Their natural sweetness emerges when simply roasted, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with chopped fresh herbs like thyme, rosemary, or dill. But their versatility allows for both savory and sweet applications—from cakes and muffins to chips and purees.
Closely related to parsley and fennel, the modern carrot we all know is not the same root vegetable our ancestors once enjoyed. First domesticated in Afghanistan about a thousand years ago, yellow or purple varieties of carrots were eaten in Europe until the seventeenth century. The Dutch eventually developed the orange variety most common today. In the US, the long, thin, tapered Imperator is the most widely available variety, but for a change of pace look for thicker Danvers and Chantenay, or cylindrical Nantes.
As the iconic Bugs Bunny taught us all as children, carrots are delicious raw, and they add a sweet, rich flavor to stocks, soups and sauces. They can really shine, though, when cooked briefly alone or with only a few other vegetables.
The parsnip is a close cousin of the carrot, though its thick, long, ivory-colored root cannot be eaten raw. Cooked, though, its rich, sweet, nutty flesh adds variety and sweetness when mixed with other roasted vegetables, and it’s invaluable as an addition to vegetable purées. Parsnips also pair well with hearty winter dishes like braises and stews.
There are hundreds of parsnip varieties in existence, but the Harris Model variety is most commonly grown and found here, followed by the All-American and Hollow Crown varieties.
Both carrots and parsnips can be found year-round at grocers, but late fall and winter are peak seasons for parsnips—they develop their richest and sweetest flavors when left in the ground until after a frost or stretch of cold weather.
When shopping, look for firm, crisp carrots with smooth, undamaged skin. If the tops are still attached, they should be bright green and not wilted. Since most of the sugars are stored in the carrot’s core, larger carrots (with larger cores) may be sweeter. The same is not true for parsnips, however: Large parsnips may be woody in the center—so look for medium-sized, fresh parsnips that are firm and smooth.
These unassuming root vegetables pack a delicious nutritional punch, too. Carrots are very high in Vitamin A—one cup of raw carrots supplies more than four times the minimum daily requirement—and they contain small amounts of all essential minerals. Like carrots, parsnips are a good source of fiber, and parsnips are especially rich in vitamin C, B6 and E, and they have high levels of potassium, calcium, magnesium and iron.
Lisa Karvellas, owner and culinary director of Cedar Lakes Estate in Port Jervis, likes to make a rich, creamy puree with parsnips sourced locally from the Black Dirt Region. “Root vegetables like parsnips are sweet, delicious, hearty and healthful. They are also so versatile when it comes to cooking—we roast, boil, and sauté them—but our favorite way to eat them is whipped with potatoes for a sweeter, lighter version of standard mashed potatoes.”
At The Twisted Oak in Tarrytown, chef/owner Michael Cutney’s menu changes frequently as he sources much of his ingredients from local farms, such as Blooming Hill Farm in Monroe. A favorite fall dish, roasted carrots and beets take on a delicate Middle Eastern flavor when served with lentils spiced with black peppercorn, chili and cumin.
- The key is good olive oil and high temperature.
- Lightly toss the vegetables with olive oil. Salt and pepper to taste.
- Spread vegetables evenly in a single layer in a shallow pan.
- Place in a preheated 400˚ to 425˚F oven.
- Cook until vegetables reach the desired doneness and have caramelized. Remember: The vegetables will continue to cook after you take them out of the oven.
—Michael Cutney, The Twisted Oak