Potatoes & Parsnips — Wedded Bliss

December 14, 2009

For ….we can make liquor to sweeten our lips
Of pumpkins and parsnips and walnut tree chips.

~Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Another seasonal dish that poses noël well on a family table. This year, I may even bow to the temptation of offering a merry, merry menu for the upcoming fête. That festive notion almost attains Martha-like disquietude. Chalk it up to another one of those poorly intuited late night passing thoughts which so often fall well short during saner deliberations over a sunrise cup of joe.

Speaking of darkness, the other night it was hard to overlook a gaudy, flashing front lawn display across the street from a recent between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve meal. Eerily splayed across the yard were santas, sleighs, reindeers, angels, snowmen, et al., all mechanically flickering in red and green yuleish disunion. More disturbing was the inexorable xmas dirge droning from the yard speakers to all the neighborhood until late into the night…as if they assumed that everyone would jollily join lockstep in their personal plastic fantasy. What have we done to render these holidays so dysfunctional?

On to food (a convenient escape). A root vegetable closely related to the carrot but even richer in vitamins and minerals, parsnips (Pastinaca sativa) indeed look like a pale colored, fat, broad-shouldered version of their brethern. Native to the Mediterranean basin, parsnips have been relished for centuries and may have been cultivated in ancient Greece. The word parsnip derives from the Latin pastinum, a kind of fork, because they produce short tine-like roots. The ending was modified to -nip as it was incorrectly assumed to be botanically related to the turnip which is actually a member of the mustard family.

Choose parsnips that are firm with a good creamy color without spots, blemishes, cuts, or cracks. They should have a good, uniform shape (about 4″-8″ in length) and should not be limp or shriveled. Avoid ones that are particularly large since they may prove to be tough.

Parsnips have a similar sweetness to carrots and impart a lovely nutty flavor to the potatoes. The sage lends an earthiness.


3 lb russet potatoes, peeled and roughly cut into chunks
1 lb parsnips, centers cored out, peeled and roughly cut into chucks

8 whole sage leaves, finely chopped
6 T unsalted butter

1/2 C milk, warmed
1 C heavy whipping cream, warmed
4 T unsalted butter
Freshly ground white pepper
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Place potatoes and parsnips in a large pot, cover with water and bring to a rapid boil. Reduce heat to a gentle boil and cook until tender, about 20 to 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a small sauce pan over medium high heat, melt butter. When it stops foaming, add chopped and whole sage leaves. Cook until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Set aside.

When done, drain potatoes and parsnips well, return to pot, add milk, sage butter, additional butter, salt and peppers, mashing vigorously until almost smooth or smashed until slightly chunky—whatever is your preference. The butter, milk and cream amounts may need to be adjusted to suit the texture of your liking. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve.

Pourboire: For an even finer and spry texture, finish these off with a hand held (not mechanized) dough hook.

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