A favourite sweet, hearty root vegetable. Plus a recipe for Sri Lankan Curried Parsnip Soup.
Welcome to ingredient, where once a month I take a deep dive into some of my favourite seasonal and store cupboard ingredients. This month I’m focusing on parsnips: the bland looking root vegetable that disguises a wonderful sweet, earthy flavour.
Additionally, at the bottom of this post you’ll find my recipe for Sri Lankan-inspired Curried Parsnip Soup - a slightly milder, more aromatic version of the British classic - plus the recipe I use to grind my own roasted Sri Lankan curry powder.
If you’re a paid subscriber, I’ve got a parsnip gnocchi recipe for you in production, as well as some experiments going with both mashes and salads ready to appear in your inboxes later in the month!
To receive these recipes, plus access all of the recipes from past newsletters as well as my Kitchen Cupboards interviews, you can upgrade your subscription here. And, if you fancy exploring the archives for more inspiration, last January I took a look at everyone’s favourite hot sauce, Sriracha (spoiler alert: there are better brands out there than the Californian classic!):
Happy New Year! I hope all of you had a peaceful and relaxing festive period, whatever that looked like for you - even if you only had a quick moment to grab with friends, family, or simply something tasty.
I was going to focus on something completely different to ring in the New Year, but recently I’ve been cooking with so many sweet, earthy parsnips I just knew I had to sit down and sing their praises. And, typing this as the first snowfall of 2024 is starting to settle out the window and everything else is deadly silent except for the sound of the dishwasher in the kitchen next door, there is no other ingredient I’d rather be writing about.
The parsnip - or the pastinaca sativa if we’re going to get technical about it - has a special place in my vegetable drawer. Partly I think this is because it is something we still designate as seasonal veg - in a world where red strawberries sitting in plastic tubs are advertised for Christmas, and imported Peruvian asparagus can be purchased practically every month of the year, like it’s fellow root vegetables swede, celeriac and the dratted turnip, it thankfully never occurs to the home cook to present them in summer - a parsnip’s dense texture, propensity to appear roasted, and concentrated sweetness firmly root it as a winter vegetable.
Parsnips also happen to be one of J’s favourite vegetables (it’s a competition between parsnips and leeks), meaning they not only exist in our vegetable drawer on a pretty much permanent basis when it’s chilly out, but I’ve also sown the seeds for them in my meagre kitchen garden raised beds a couple of times. Doing this I’ve discovered they’re not as easy to produce as they look, and by this I mean you have to keep an eye on them: whilst right now being steadily blanketed I have heirloom carrots and leeks hanging out waiting for when I remember to pull them, leave a parsnip in too long - as I have done on too may occasions - it will still taste fantastic, but it will be a real sod to get out of the ground, and will have grown to frankly Franken-parsnip sized proportions.
That being said, there is something to the tradition that if you leave parsnips until they’ve sat under the first frost, they’ll intensify in flavour and sweetness: the same effect can be created by simply placing bought-in parsnips outside the back door when you know you’re in for a particularly frosty night: but to be honest, buy locally grown parsnips rather than supermarket varieties and you’ll already have a parsnip packed with flavour ready for cooking.
In our house parsnips most often appear alongside our Sunday roasts from around October to the end of March (I simply peel them, baton them, boil them and roast them alongside the potatoes) but the sweetness and carrot-like structure of a parsnip when raw lends them to so many other delicious applications.
Over the break I once again boiled them with potatoes, this time to make a mash to form the base of a delicious plateful of gnocchi - my version of which paid subscribers will be receiving later in the month. They mashed beautifully, accentuating their sweetness in a way that was nowhere as near cloying as when you give a carrot or a swede similar treatment. Elsewhere on the mash front, I’m keen to try Diana Henry’s Parsnip & Roasted Garlic Mash (pg 69) from her re-issued edition of Roast Figs, Sugar Snow I unwrapped from beneath the Christmas tree.
With our Boxing Day rib of beef (prime rib, for my American readers) my mother and I roasted a mixture of parsnips and carrots in a harissa, honey and cumin glaze as suggested by the Honey & Co. duo in December’s Waitrose Food magazine - the flavour was good, but the recipe itself involved too many steps - all a parsnip needs is some fat and heat to really sing when roasted, though like my own recipe for Maple, Walnut & Clementine Glazed Parsnips the recipe served to highlight that curious thing about parsnips: how their natural sweetness actually lends itself to yet more sugar being added when their own sugars are concentrated by the roasted process.
On New Year’s Day to go alongside a recipe for barbecued lamb steaks I’ve been working on we even smoked a medley of carrots and parsnips in the Kamado1 over oak chips. The carrots were a sublime triumph, but we were disappointed how little of the smoke flavour the parsnips retained. However, I’m told by my friend Hannah who is my personal authority on all things barbecuing, par-boiling is the answer to getting the parsnips to soak up all that delicious flavour - pecan chips preferable also.
Grated parsnips are also popular for adding moisture and sweetness to cakes and bakes, again taking the place of carrots, but providing a much more subtle result, usually backed up by careful spicing. I’d love to try baking a parsnip cake for you all this month, but the loan oven sitting in the place of mine that has gone off for repair (it seems all the festive cookies it baked in December proved too much for it!) only has a dial with three numbers on it (!) - even with my oven thermometer sitting inside, I simply refuse to entrust any baked goods to it at the moment!
Instead, I plan to experiment with the few contexts where raw parsnips are not only delicious, but preferable. Looking back to the start where I lumped it in with other ‘winter only’ root veg like celeriac, I feel a couple of remoulades might appear in my immediate future, and if they prove successful, that of paid subscribers also.
Just as parsnips are one of J’s favourite vegetables, one of his favourite soups is a quintessential British classic: Curried Parsnip. However, I’ll never stop believing that British ‘curry powder’ is a culinary abomination (if it’s also a cultural one I’ll leave up to you: Sejal Sukhadwala’s The Philosophy of Curry is excellent reading on this topic) so up until I became seriously enamoured of Sri Lankan food and cooking and started grinding my own Sri Lankan curry powders we’d found ourselves at an impasse.
Most curry powders in Sri Lankan cooking come roasted or unroasted: where the spices are roasted in a pan before cooling and grinding, or where the spices are simply dried of residual moisture before grinding in a cool oven (as our Western replacement for sun drying!) I’ve gone for a roasted curry powder here as I think having a jar of it at home will be the most useful for other recipes past this soup - I reach for it more often than I do the unroasted when following Sri Lankan recipes - and because I’d never ask you to make this just for this recipe, and I have a recipe for a Sri Lankan chicken curry using it coming on my blog in the next few weeks. You can of course order some online, but I can’t speak to the quality of what you’ll find because I’ve never done so, and just like with Ras el Hanout2, recipes and blends vary from region to household.
The recipe below is adapted from the cookbook (also from the restaurant) that introduced me to Sri Lankan cooking and flavours: Hoppers the Cookbook: recipes, memories and inspiration from Sri Lankan homes, streets and beyond to suit a beginner in spice roasting and grinding, which is what I was the first time I followed it.
Sri Lankan Roasted Curry Powder
Makes: 1 jar, Preparation time: 15 minutes (plus cooling time), Cooking time: 30 minutes
25g crumbled cinnamon sticks
12g green cardamom seeds (try to buy these loose as de-shelling them is the most laborious part of this recipe!)
25g basmati rice
3g whole cloves
75g coriander seeds
40g cumin seeds
25g fennel seeds
7g black peppercorns
5g fenugreek seeds
Roast the cardamom seeds, cloves and cinnamon stick pieces in a heavy bottomed frying pan set over a medium heat for 2-3 minutes until fragrant - but whatever you do, don’t let them burn! A cast iron skillet is perfect for this.
Stir in the rice and cook for a further 12 minutes, stirring often until it is nutty and light brown. Remove everything from the pan and set aside to cool.
Add the rest of the ingredients to the pan and cook for a further 12 minutes. Again, set side to cool.
Once everything is at room temperature (whatever you do, don’t grind warm spices as their oils will release and you’ll get a spice paste instead!) grind into a fine powder with either a spice grinder, mini chopper (I use this one for my spice blends, but I warn you I burn out the motor on mine every year or so and have to replace it!) or mortar and pestle. Store in an airtight jar.
In parsnip soup, Roasted Curry Powder yields a milder, subtler, more aromatic flavour than the ubiquitous stuff, and does not colour the curry a violent yellow or orange either. I think it allows the parsnip to sing a little better with something less pungent to compete with, but if you’re a dedicated fan of the original I’ll leave it up to you which you prefer. It’s also worth nothing this is not a spicy soup as it would be if you’d usually reach for hot curry powder: this can easily be rectified (if you believe this is a deficit in need of fixing of course) with a good pinch of cayenne.
Sri Lankan-inspired Curried Parsnip Soup
Serves: 4, Preparation time: 10 minutes, Cooking time: 20 minutes
This speedy curried parsnip soup recipe is perfect for chilly days and also freezes beautifully: I like just a dollop of creme fraiche, a warming pinch of Aleppo pepper sprinkled on top and some chewy sourdough on the side, but if you want to lean in to the Sri Lankan spicing an aromatic tarka of sizzled fresh curry leaves (I buy big bunches of these and use them from frozen), cumin and coriander seeds would be a welcome addition if you’d like to go to a little more effort - don’t be tempted to sprinkle a little of the curry powder on top of each bowl, however, as it is a little too pungent eaten raw and will leave an unpleasant aftertaste.
1 tbsp light oil
1 brown onion, chopped
2 large garlic cloves, crushed
1 tbsp Sri Lankan Roasted Curry Powder (see above)
600g peeled and chopped parsnips (approx. 6 medium parsnips)
800ml vegetable or chicken stock
1 tbsp creme fraiche, plus extra to serve
Heat the oil in a large, lidded, heavy bottomed saucepan or casserole dish over a medium high heat. Once the oil is shimmering, add the onion with a very generous pinch of salt. Cook the onions until they’re both soft, and they’ve got a good bit of colour.
Stir in the crushed garlic and cook for a further minute until aromatic. Do the same with the curry powder before adding the parsnips and stock to the pot.
Turn up the heat to bring the soup to the boil, before reducing to medium low, clapping on the lid, and simmering for 15 minutes, or until the largest parsnip pieces are tender.
Blitz, then add the creme fraiche and blitz again. Season to taste with salt (you’re adding salt to make it taste more savoury) before serving in warm bowls topped with more creme fraiche, and any other sprinkles you may fancy.
An almost identical barbecue to the Big Green Egg - just a lot cheaper!
A warming, heady North African spice blend that can feature any number of combinations and proportions of warming spices. It roughly translates from Arabic as ‘head of the shop’, meaning it is a blend of the very best spices any given establishment has on sale, their signature blend if you will.