Getting to the Root of Parsnip’s Unlikely Magic
by Tami Ganeles-Weiser
Long, thin, bumpy and oh-so-plain, the parsnip isn’t exactly winning any beauty contests. But a survey of cookbooks from the 19th century through today shows that the homely parsnip may be the magic that makes chicken soup the quintessentially Jewish elixir.
Parsnips are a root vegetable from the Umbelliferae family, which also includes carrots, celery, fennel and parsley. Wild parsnips, tough and bitter, have poisonous leaves and problematically invasive roots; their delicate yellow flowers line the roadsides of Denmark and Germany. But for some two thousand years, parsnips have been cultivated, resulting in a long, cream-colored tuber with wrinkled skin and a mild, slightly sweet, slightly nutty flavor.
Parsnips may have been harvested by the Minoans on Crete in the first millennium BCE. In his first-century encyclopedia The Natural History, Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder wrote that Emperor Tiberius Caesar loved the root vegetable so much that he had it imported each year. In the third century, Roman culinarian Apicius offered parsnip recipes and called the parsnip by its Latin name, pastinaca, in his cookbook De re Coquinaria. (The Eastern European surname Pasternak, which means parsnip in Yiddish, derives from pastinaca.)
Valued primarily for their sweetness in desserts, parsnips even served as the foundation for a rustic wine. They also doubled as animal feed: In the 4th-5th-century Jerusalem Talmud, Rav Mana says that cattle—not people—ate parsnips. By 1542, parsnips were so beloved that they were the subjects of German illutrations, where they were known as pestnachen.
Cold temperatures have always brought out the best in parsnips. Their sweetness comes from their time spent underground, and gardeners are encouraged not to harvest them until after at least one frost. This made the chilly climates of northern and eastern Europe ideal for growing parsnips. Varieties sprang up throughout Europe, moving east to Poland, modern Belarus, and the Caucasus and west to France and England.
Like many European foods, parsnips made the transatlantic journey to the New World; they were a common colonial food in the United States, brought by the Pilgrims, who were parsnip-mad Brits. Native Americans embraced the new vegetable, as evidenced by historical records found by horticulturists at Texas A&M University, who note that “in 1779 General John Sullivan, in his forays against the Iroquois destroyed stores of parsnips…in Western New York.”
But parsnips were largely cast from the table by another starch: the potato. Historian John Chapman, in History Magazine, says that there were many reasons for the potato’s triumph. At first the lower classes were suspicious of the tuber, but decrees from Prussian rulers and acceptance among the upper classes in England and France boosted the potato’s image, and by the late 18th century the spud was widely eaten. In addition to being filling, they were resistant to both disease and poor weather. By the 1850s, the potato had replaced the parsnip in most recipes. Those that kept the parsnip were “lowly” dishes such as Alsatian peasant soup, dense Russian krupnik soup, Ukrainian borscht and Danish fried root-vegetable pancakes.
Somehow, though, this demoted vegetable became a cornerstone of Jewish cuisine. The iconic Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem describes his mythical shtetl, Kasrilevke, and its bustling town square, filled every morning with the “produce—fish, onions, horseradish, parsnip…” of the country folk. He implies that parsnips are among the “necessities of life.”
Etymological confusion may have led to the parsnip’s popularity among American Jewish immigrants. There has long been uncertainty over the Yiddish words petrushka and pasternak, which have been used somewhat interchangeably to mean parsley (the green herb), parsley root and parsnip. Food blogger Chanie Apfelbaum speculates that her foremothers likely used the parsnip by mistake when they came to America. “My mom and grandmother always used petrushka, parsley root [in soup]. I suspect that’s what everyone used until it got phased out because people mixed it up with parsnips,” says Apfelbaum. (It doesn’t help that the root vegetables look very similar.) Indeed, Ken Albala, professor of history and director of food studies at University of the Pacific in San Francisco says that parsnips and parsley root are “confused a lot in the historical literature, and in final effect the difference is pretty subtle, unless you’re eating them on their own. You can just roast parsnips on their own and eat them, but parsley roots are not always so tender or edible. In a soup the difference is less pronounced.”
By the mid-20th century, the versatile parsnip was relegated to chicken soup alone. But today, the parsnip is reemerging and can be found in many a latke or kugel-like dish whipped up by innovative cooks. It regularly appears on fine-dining menus as a purée along with its old nemesis—the potato. Famed pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini has offered a parsnip dessert at the celebrated restaurant Jean-Georges in New York and roasted cylinders of parsnip are served at nearly every farm-to-table restaurant. Recipes for maple and parsnip cakes are becoming popular, and some online sources provide urban foragers with recipes and tips on making parsnip wine.
Still, chicken soup remains the American parsnip mainstay. It simply “wouldn’t be chicken soup without” parsnip, says Ronnie Fein, author of the just-published The Modern Kosher Kitchen. Adds Albala, “It makes everything sweeter. And historically, I think it’s the magic ingredient.”
Chicken Soup with Parsnips
by Tami Ganeles-Weiser
3 medium yellow onions, top and bottom removed, skin on, halved
2 leeks, white portions only, split lengthwise and well-rinsed
6 large parsnips, peeled and roughly chopped
6 large carrots , peeled and roughly chopped
2 celery bunches, leaves and stalks, roughly chopped
8 quarts low-sodium chicken stock, cold
3 kosher chickens (total of 12 pounds of chicken), cut into parts
2 kosher chicken carcasses, raw or cooked
1 pound chicken gizzards
2 large bunches fresh flat-leaf parsley, stems and leaves, approximately 3 cups
2 large bunches fresh dill, stems and leaves, approximately 1 cup
3 bay leaves
2 fresh thyme sprigs
2 tablespoons kosher salt (or more to taste)
12 black peppercorns
In the bottom of a very tall pot, layer the onions, leeks, parsnips, carrots and celery. Pour in the cold chicken stock. Carefully place the chicken, carcasses and gizzards on top. Add all of the remaining ingredients. Cover the pot, place over high heat and bring to a boil.
Immediately reduce the heat to low. Leaving the lid slightly ajar, simmer for eight to ten hours, skimming the fat and scum every hour.
Remove the pot from the heat and set aside to cool for two hours before straining.
Line a fine-mesh strainer with a double layer of dampened cheesecloth, and place over a sturdy bowl or large pot. Working in small batches, slowly ladle the soup through the strainer. Discard the solids and the used cheesecloth.
Re-line the strainer with clean dampened cheesecloth and re-strain the broth in order to get a clear amber potion. Discard the cheesecloth. Allow the soup to cool completely before transferring to smaller storage containers. The soup can be refrigerated for use within three days or frozen for up to six months.