Parsnips Shine in Marica’s Purée

The little-known root vegetable adds winter flavors to the menu.


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Parsnips are chock-full of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients, particularly Vitamin C, potassium, and magnesium.

Photo by Lori Eanes

Ah, the poor, overlooked parsnip. It has the shape of a carrot and the color of a potato, yet lacks the cachet of its more celebrated root veggie cousins.

“It’s not an extremely popular vegetable,” said Carrie Sullivan, culinary programs manager for the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, which runs farmers markets in Jack London Square and San Francisco’s Ferry Building. “They’re not as familiar as potatoes and not as sweet as carrots—I think people just aren’t quite sure what to do with them.”

That (ahem) second-banana status is unjustified in Sullivan’s mind, who says parsnips are just as flexible as potatoes or carrots—they can be roasted, boiled, and mashed, or grated into salads—but with a more nuanced, sweet-nutty flavor.

Christopher Cheung, owner and executive chef of popular Rockridge mainstay Marica Restaurant, became enchanted with that flavor when he was experimenting with a purée to pair with his restaurant’s signature seafood and meat dishes.

“They have a distinctive aromatic taste that’s very perfume-like,” he said. “I’d compare it almost to rose water.”

He found they made a perfect complement to carrots, which offered sweetness but little else flavor-wise. Thus was born his carrot-parsnip purée, which has been a staple on the menu from the beginning of Marica’s now 17-year run. 

Much like his formula for longevity—good food, good service, good prices—Cheung’s recipe is pretty straightforward. The carrot-parsnip mash is simply mixed with cream that’s been steeped with star anise, adding velvety richness and a faint licorice backbone.

That richness and robust flavor makes it a good complement to some of Marica’s heartier, crowd-pleasing mains like filet mignon and Maine lobster. It also makes it popular in the winter months when the weather is cooler (and parsnips and carrots are plentiful). In fact, Cheung said that for his customers unfamiliar with parsnips, his purée has been a pleasant surprise and somewhat of a gateway dish to exploring the vegetable themselves.

And they’re worth exploring, said Sullivan, especially if you’re already partial to root vegetables. They’re chock-full of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients, in particular vitamin C, potassium, and magnesium, dietary fiber, and folic acid. And even if you’re hesitant to eat them on their own, they make a great accompaniment to other vegetables.

While not as prevalent as carrots or potatoes, parsnips can be found in most farmers markets from fall through spring, although common wisdom maintains that they tend to be sweeter when harvested later in the year after the first frost. When picking one out, look for firmness and avoid any that appear flaccid, split, or shriveled.

Parsnips are often peeled, but Sullivan said they don’t necessarily have to be. Like most vegetables, much of their flavor resides just under the skin. So if they’re organically grown, and especially if you’re planning on boiling and mashing them, you might just scrub the surface vigorously while leaving the skin. Late-season varieties can have a harder core that you may want to remove.

 

Marica’s Carrot-Parsnip Purée

 

2 cups of heavy whipping cream 

12 star anise pods

2 large carrots, peeled and rough chopped

1 medium parsnip, peeled and rough chopped

1 pinch of salt (to taste)

1 pinch of white pepper (to taste)

 

Simmer star anise with the cream for 10 minutes in a pot. Using a fine-mesh strainer, sift out the anise and pour the anise cream into another pot. Boil carrots and parsnip in water until soft (about 20 minutes). Using a blender or immersion blender, puree the anise cream and vegetables together. Add salt and white pepper to taste. Makes 4 cups or 6-7 servings of purée.

 

Marica Restaurant, 5301 College Ave., Oakland, 510-985-8388, MaricaOakland.com.

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