Monday, March 31, 2008

Ode to Parsnips

March is going out like a lamb.

There's a steady, moist breeze out of the South, promising fecundity. The frogs are happy and sing to tell you so. The temperatures have jumped into 70s today and we're having one of those weird inversions that characterize how spring arrives in the Midwest: yesterday morning we had the wood stove fired up to counteract the overnight frost; today we have the doors wide open so that the outdoor warmth can heat the house!

If the calendar and thermometer were not enough to suggest spring, this past weekend we experienced two sure signs at the dinner table: the last of the potatoes and first of the parsnips.

To be sure, we still have potatoes held back for seed (most years we can get some in the ground before Easter, but that holiday came early this year and the warm weather didn't), but there won't be any new ones available before June. There's sadness in that, yet the new crop tastes more delicious for being seasoned by a few months of privation. And besides, now we have parsnips!

March and early April are the best times to harvest these unpretentious beauties, just when you can discern their location by the surging growth of their green tops
(after that they get too starchy and woody). While you can dig them in the fall, their flavor and tenderness are much enhanced by winter's cold (and March is when you are most interested in fresh food; in November the larder is full to overflowing).

Sweetness and peak flavor are unique to each crop. Parsnips are like persimmons, Brussels sprouts, and peppers—it's better to wait and let them fully mature. This is in sharp contrast with the best strategy for corn, peas, and beets—crops where it is optimum to pick them just when they reach adult size. For okra, zucchini, and asparagus it's best to pluck them while they're still adolescents—by the time they're adults it's too late.

As a child growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, we obtained our food at the local A&P. Parsnips there were pale, tapering roots sealed in wax. We never bought them and I couldn't understand why anyone would. But that was before I moved to Sandhill Farm and we started growing our own. Few things are so startlingly different in taste as freshly picked tomatoes, lima beans,… and parsnips. Sliced thin and fried in butter they are ambrosial. All the more so because they are the very first of our 2008 crops.

Winter is now officially over.

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