Going back to our roots

Because customers of Blue Fox Farm can hardly wait for local growers markets to open, Chris Jagger and Melanie Kuegler plan early — almost a year early.

"We start most of our overwintered things in late August, early September," Jagger says. "It's basically all grown up to full size, and then it just hangs out all winter."

Snug in the soil, potatoes, carrots, onions, turnips, parsnips and beets withstand winter weather until March when Blue Fox sets up shop at the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market in Ashland and the Growers' Market in Grants Pass. The markets' first few weeks are the prime time, Jagger says, to give root vegetables — particularly unfamiliar ones — a try.

"Vegetables produce sugars to protect themselves," the Applegate farmer says.

"They get really super sweet, especially like carrots and parsnips; this is the time of the year where they're the best."

Arguably the sweetest of the sweet, parsnips are beloved by chefs but often obscure in the home kitchen. However, the root vegetable that looks like a pale, top-heavy carrot has a centuries-old history in America, where it was once a staple as common as the potato. Mashed, roasted, boiled, fried: Almost anything that can be done with a potato was done with the parsnip.

The introduction of the potato pushed aside the parsnip, which fell out of vogue by the mid-19th century. Yet parsnips retain one characteristic that no potato can replicate: a sweet and distinct flavor, as well as an aroma that inspires the culinary elite.

Caramelized and then pulverized, parsnips make a wonderful soup. Roasted, they are a perfect accompaniment to beef and pork. Sliced and fried into chips, they become a crisp and unexpected topping for mashed potatoes. Pureed, they can elevate a serving of duck or lamb. Cut into chunks, they bring extra flavor to stews.

There's no mystery in handling and storing them: Treat parsnips the same as carrots. Peel before using, and cut as you please. Parsnips with really fat root ends tend to be too starchy. Either avoid the chubby ones or simply quarter each parsnip and cut away its starchy center.

The uninitiated should start with roasting. Toss parsnip pieces with some oil, salt and pepper and place in a hot oven; roast until tender and browned. If you're into quick cooking, try glazing them on the stove top. Their earthiness makes them a good match with other root vegetables and with mushrooms and asparagus; their sweetness complements roasted salmon and other fish.

Available year-round, parsnips are especially plentiful in stores now.

Reach Sarah Lemon at 776-4487 or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com.

The Washington Post contributed to this story.

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