Nicola Miller applauds the simple parsnip and treats us to a hearty, all frills removed winter pottage to warm the cockles
I love a 15-ingredient pomegranate seed-encrusted melange of spiced root vegetables as much as the next person; after all our British meals are built around a centrepiece dish and it is hard to break free from this mindset. And food writers, cooks and chefs tend to deploy bright garnishes because they look good in photographs, especially when the food isn’t especially lively in colour. (An example: a lot of British restaurant tacos seem to come adorned with pickled red onions whether they suit the tacos’ other flavours or not.) But sometimes I want to eat something that is purely the essence of itself, stripped of frills, and this is where a good parsnip soup comes in, even though it is not that visually exciting.
A soup, or in this case, a pottage, is a recipe as old as time, a staple of the medieval diet in fact. At its most luxurious, a pottage might contain meat, fruit and costly spices, but at its simplest, think of it as ‘things boiled in water or milk sometimes thickened with crumbs or grains’. So, this month I am going back to the parsnip’s roots with a gently rounded bowl of beige pottage-y sweetness made with parsnips harvested from frozen fields. The very best time to eat them is after it has snowed because this is a vegetable which fully embraces the cold instead of merely surviving it, a root whose starches turn into rich sugars as the winter intensifies its grip and the fields empty of crops. “I’ll learn to love the fallow way. When all my colors fade to white,” wrote Judy Collins; two lines that remind me of fields of creamy-shouldered parsnips; the polar-opposite of a plate of sliced summer tomatoes which need a few short weeks of heat to ripen. Tomatoes will not wait for you; their taut swollen juiciness demands our attention via the immediacy of eating – or processing to get them through the autumn and winter. Time and age will wither fruit on the bush but in the case of the field-bound parsnip, ageing imbues it with depth and resonance. They endure.
It’s good to see familiar or old things in a new way and to embrace the natural inevitability of winter, a season we don’t traditionally associate with ripening. In Parsnips in Love, a short story by Porochista Khakpour, we meet an ageing farmer from Iran and his wife whose relationship is thrown for a loop when the farmer unearths an unusually shaped root from his field. Two parsnips have grown together like entwined lovers and in their creamy flesh he sees the swell of a buttock, the soft curve of a thigh, and the parsnip lovers grow more human by the minute. The tenderness of their union is reflected in the gentle way he wraps the root in a silk handkerchief, hides it in a drawer and visits it regularly, growing more enraptured by the root as the days pass. The farmer fears the parsnip’s eventual decay, divorced as it is from the frosty safety of the field, and he yearns for the long-gone intimacy and passion of his own marriage and mourns his own lost ripeness.
Eventually, the farmer shows the parsnip to his wife and Hamid, his friend, who suggests they photograph the parsnip lovers and place the image online. The story goes viral, bringing men and women to tears, and visitors to their humble home. “We need it to endure in real life,” the farmer tells Hamid as they discuss how to preserve for posterity its marble-like beauty whilst noting daily how the flesh of the parsnip softens and yields beneath their touch. The farmer fears what time has in store for the parsnip. This is a story about the premium we place on youthful sexuality and the perfection of form, the loss of both as we age, and our enduring need for intimacy and connection in all its manifestations. “Usually, it would be thrown in the other pile, with the other vegetables that featured aberrations of some sort, to be consumed by his family or other locals – in other words, those who were not paying for them.” The farmer tells us. “These days more than ever, how a vegetable looked mattered almost as much as how it tasted. It could be the best tasting of all vegetables, but if it looked a certain bad way it was of no use. No one would pick it up to buy it.” Yet it is an old and physically diminished farmer who gives life to the parsnip lovers and reignites interest in a root that has been around since Roman times, turning its quiet and unobtrusive longevity into something to be admired and aspired to. “They were getting older. He was getting older. He wished, with everything he had, he and his wife, Hamid and his animal energy, the love of the parsnips, all that was good in the world, that they could endure.”
This is a creamy soup, bordering on a purée yet it contains no dairy at all. If you prefer a thinner consistency, add more stock. I also like to eat it super-thick as a dip with toasted flatbread, or as an accompaniment to bacon or pork chops. I am slightly embarrassed to admit that I too have deployed a garnish in the form of dukkah, but in this case, it is more for textural contrast and flavour and not for the brightness of its hue because dukkah, a middle eastern blend of nuts, chickpeas, seeds and spices is nearly as comfortingly beige-brown as this soup. A night in the fridge will really benefit its flavours; in medieval times a pottage would last for days, often supplemented by extra ingredients that were thrown into the pot and left to simmer over a fire. I don’t go this far but if you are a LARPer (Live Action Role Player), this might be right up your street.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1kg parsnips, topped and tailed, skins left on and cut into dice-sized cubes (about four large parsnips)
2 teaspoons smoked garlic paste (I use Barts)
1.2 litres hot vegetable or chicken stock (use a good quality one)
Large pinch of dukkah
Flatbreads of your choice, one per person
Add the olive oil and the diced parsnips to a large, heavy-based soup pan, then give the parsnips a good stir so they are covered in oil before putting a lid on and cooking over a low heat. Stir regularly to prevent them from catching, replacing the lid each time until the parsnips are soft around the edges. Don’t let them burn; add more oil if necessary. This will take about 20 minutes and by this time, when you remove the lid, the parsnips will smell very fragrant. Now add the smoked garlic paste, stir, and cook for two more minutes over a low heat, giving the pan a stir to stop the garlic from catching.
Make up your stock and pour it into the pan of parsnips, stir and bring the pan to a simmer. Cook with the lid on until the parsnips are tender; this should take another 15 to 20 minutes. Taste and adjust salt levels if you think it needs more and if it is too thick for your taste, add more stock.
Remove the pan from the stove and blitz its contents with a stick blender until they are smooth and lump-free. Pour into bowls, scatter over the dukkah and serve with flatbreads.
Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale
Winner of the Guild of Food Writers Online Food Writer Award 2020