I languished at home, the very picture of a glamorous but troubled 1950’s movie star, (think Grace Kelly or Elizabeth Taylor, thanks) cradling my wailing child and weeping to my husband that we hadn’t tasted anything that wasn’t tinned and steeped in sugary tomato sauce for 84 years now.
“Well – just go to the bloody shops. You’re still allowed, you know”, was his unsympathetic response.
“I can’t just go out”, I snapped back, “I’m social distancing. No, this is it for us – a diet of spaghetti hoops, Marmite, and that jar of chutney my mum gave us back in 2012. Oh, cruel world, why must things be this way…” My husband had already walked off.
‘How rude’, I thought, and went and got a bag of crisps.
Later, he told me he’d booked delivery of a veg box from a local farm shop that was due to arrive in two days. You just got what they had in, so I awaited its arrival with mounting excitement.
Finally the day came and the veg box arrived – overflowing with carrots, onions, potatoes, swede, courgettes, apples and oranges. I’d post a picture, but you all know what a carrot looks like. Also, there were rather a lot of parsnips. In fact, without wanting to sound ungrateful, there was an almost obscene number of parsnips. You know that nursery rhyme about the magic porridge pot that won’t stop cooking porridge until it overflows and engulfs an entire village? It was like that, but with parsnips. I checked with my husband that he’d not asked for so many of them, or inadvertently ordered the delivery under the name ‘Parsnip King’, but he hadn’t. It seemed that whoever packed our box just really wanted to spread the parsnip love.
No matter, though, I was sure there was a historical recipe to be found somewhere. And there was. Lots of them, in fact. It would seem that the humble parsnip has quite a longstanding history of its own. I hope you’re ready.
The story of the parsnip
It’s not really a sexy vegetable, is it? (Okay, bad example. Although, I am a bit worried if humorous root veg does it for you.) Lumpy, wonky and with enough crevices for dirt to get really stuck in, the parsnip isn’t a veg celeb like its sleeker, more colourful cousin the carrot. In fact, it’s almost like the parsnip doesn’t want us to like it; the leaves of the parsnip can exude a sap that is toxic to humans and the flowering part of wild parsnip looks incredibly similar to the violently poisonous water hemlock – which can be lethal to humans. The parsnip’s anti-social personality hasn’t gone unnoticed in the world of showbiz, either; in 2018 Aldi’s successful Christmas mascot, Kevin the carrot, battled an ‘evil’ parsnip called Pascal.
And yet throughout history the parsnip has been lauded as a king of vegetables (or at least a courtier of vegetables.) The Roman emperor Tiberius had wild parsnips specially imported from the banks of the Rhine as part of the tribute owed to Rome by Germany and in 1288, the writer Bonvesin da la Riva spoke about the parsnip as being one of the delightful foods enjoyed by the people of Milan in his work Marvels of Milan. The golden age of the parsnip took off in the Middle Ages, before Europeans became aware of the potato and that flashy bastard, the carrot, thanks to its unbeatable sweet flavour and versatility. As well as providing bulk and nutrients to stews and soups, mashed parsnip was added to sauces as a thickener and to puddings for sweetness when sugar or honey wasn’t readily available.
Parsnips were introduced to North America during the 16th century, predominately as a root vegetable, but the Americans knew they had a good thing in their own homegrown spuds and the humble foreign parsnip failed to take off on a huge scale. Unfortunately for Pascal and his parsnippy pals, things were about to get worse as demand for parsnips dwindled thanks to falling sugar prices during the 17th and 18th century and potatoes (which, let’s face it, are so much better) became available on a global scale. Today, parsnips are mainly eaten in northern Europe in soups, as accompaniments to roast dinners and as the disappointing bits of vegetable crisps.
That’s enough parsnip history, thanks
So what was I to do with my unexpected glut of parsnips? For inspiration I turned to Dorothy Hartley’s Food in England. Hugely acclaimed from the moment of its publication, Food in England is both a cook book and a history of English food from the middle ages to the 20th century. As testament to its popularity, it has remained in print since the first edition and has been called a classic by both food critics and chefs alike.
Reading through the book it was clear to see that Hartley loved what she did. The recipes were littered with her own opinions and comments and at a whopping 676 pages long it was far longer than a cookbook need be, suggesting that the author was enjoying researching and writing about as many foods as possible. Many of the recipes that Hartley states as being ‘historical’ aren’t cited, which is a bit frustrating for someone trying to uncover the history of a dish, but rather are recorded by Hartley in the tradition of oral history; she travelled along England collecting old family recipes from far flung communities that had been passed down through generations. Sometimes she could pinpoint the origins of a recipe, such as a 1615 recipe for ‘Eggs and Bacon’, but mostly it was just a record of ordinary people’s meals, carefully collected and curated under appropriate titles with vague time periods such as ‘To Pickle Mackerel (a very good, old recipe)’.
Parsnip pie is one such vague recipe, which is why I’ve stuck with the publication date of Hartley’s book. There are literary references to it from 1810, but no definitive recipes for it that I’ve found.
I began my pie by peeling and boiling three of the largest parsnips I had. This still left plenty of parsnips over for a roast dinner and more than enough for anyone who cared to glance into the veg drawer of my fridge to exclaim in honesty, ‘gosh, that’s a lot of parsnips!’ Parsnips naked, I chopped them and boiled them until they became very soft – the goal was to be able to push them through a sieve.
While the parsnips were boiling, I enlisted my husband to make a shortcrust pastry for the pie case. I am fortunate that my husband is a man blessed with above average intelligence, so I was astounded when he replied that he didn’t know how to.
“What do you mean? Use a recipe – it’s just flour and butter?”
He tentatively began mixing. Then he paused. “It says to add some water.”
I waited, but it appeared he had finished speaking.
“So? Add some!”
“How much? What water?”
I gestured towards the thing called the tap. “Enough to make it stick together.”
He brought the bowl over and stood looking at it for a long time. I have never seen someone more petrified by a sink.
“You do it – I’ll add too much.”
I know it’s learned helplessness, but I was so bemused by the sight of a grown man so utterly unable to mix flour and water into a dough that I did it for him. He began to mix it together as if in a trance and I turned back to the parsnips, with a lot to think about.
Once they had boiled into a semi mush, I attempted to sieve them. This was a bloody pain in the arse and I wondered if Dorothy had included this but as part of her witty approach to recipe writing – was she laughing at me from cookery heaven, like I’d laughed at my husband? I really couldn’t see much difference between the small mound of parsnip I’d managed to push through the sieve and the great mass still in the sieve that I’d mashed up with the back of the spoon so, checking that my husband wasn’t watching my momentary lapse of culinary superiority, I tipped it all in the bowl.
Hartley suggested adding one tablespoon of honey to each pint of parsnip which by my estimates was about two tablespoons, and a good deal of ground ginger and allspice. To this I added an egg yolk and the zest and juice of two lemons and then rolled out the finally finished pastry to cover a pie dish. Long time readers of this blog (hi, mum!) will know that when it comes to pastry, I don’t believe a pie to be a pie unless it has a pastry base, sides and top. I’ve said it so much that it’ll probably become an epithet on my tomb when I die, but: A pie without a pastry case is just a stew with a lid.
I was so close. Dorothy Hartley was so close. We had a full pastry case with a filling neatly contained inside it – no faffing about. And then she suggested a lattice work crust. The barest, most meagre pastry top a pie could have. A pastry top that only covers approximately 50% of the pie, leaving 50% open to the elements and thus creating an unholy pie/flan combination.
I couldn’t work out what I was more disgusted by: a stew masquerading as a pie under a puff pastry crust, only to reveal its true self in all its charlatan misery once broken into, or an almost-pie with no sense of mystery that spilled its delicious secrets before even being cut into, thus ruining the anticipation. In my distress both options seemed equally devastating. All I knew was that my admiration for Ms Hartley had evaporated, much like the moisture and intrigue in a pie with a lattice work crust.
Stoically I continued, cutting strips of pastry slightly thicker than was necessary to compensate for the abominable holes in the crust and laying them in a lattice. It will come as no surprise to you to learn that the skill of lattice work was an evil magic I had no prior experience of and I actually found it quite tricky to start with. In fact, I had to restart it a couple of times to get the overlapping and underlapping just right.
Lattice work completed and brushed with egg yolk, the ‘pie’ went into the oven at 180 degrees for 30 minutes while I started on the meringue.
Oh yes. Parsnips and meringue – don’t say I don’t treat you.
Hartley’s meringue wasn’t cooked in an oven. She described it as being beaten sweet egg whites with lemon rind which was piped onto the edges of the completed pie and then returned “to the cool oven to set.” The absence of an oven, or mention of cooking the egg whites in any way led me to believe the recipe meant an Italian meringue, since this version of meringue held its form best and did not require any cooking other than boiling sugar syrup.
Once the pie was out of the oven and sufficiently cooled, I piped my meringue in very fetching 1950’s rosettes along the sides. I was so pleased with my piping skills I got a bit carried away and added unnecessary dots of meringue around the rosettes, which sort of ruined the look to be honest. I let it sit for an arbitrary amount of time, since the meringue was good to go anyway, before cutting a slice for me and my husband.
Straight away, my husband dived in for a bit of the pastry, ignoring the filling.
“This pastry is delicious!” He cried. “It’s the best pastry I’ve ever tasted. It’s so buttery and rich. Well done you. Except, I suppose well done me, really. Who knew I’d be a natural?”
I resisted the urge to hurl my plate at him and bit into a forkful of my own pie. It was…disappointing.
Because it looked very similar to pumpkin pie I had hoped for buttery sweetness. What I got was a weird mix of sweet and sour, because of the amount of lemon juice in the mixture. The sweet wasn’t all that sweet, either. Either my measurements were off with the honey, or Dorothy didn’t try all her own recipes, because I had to search very hard for the honey at all. The flavour of the parsnip wasn’t wholly unpleasant, but it was somewhat lost with the acidity of the lemon and the two flavours together seemed to fight rather than complement one another.
I didn’t get much of a ginger hit, either. The spices were too subtle against the two warring flavours of parsnip and lemon, so other than a residual heat from the ginger, there wasn’t much to indicate any seasoning at all.
The meringue was great, though. It provided much needed sweetness to balance out the filling. The only trouble were the ratios – there was far too little meringue to filling so after one pleasant forkful it was back to parsnip and lemon gruel.
I will, grudgingly, admit that the pastry was also good. That’s because it was a BBC good food recipe for basic shortcrust pastry I’d found by googling a ‘really easy shortcrust pastry recipe – like, really really easy’ for my husband to follow after his kitchen meltdown. There was no way it could have gone wrong. Still, there he was sitting gleefully on the sofa still sampling the delights of the foolproof pastry without having tried any of the weird sour filling. I had an idea.
“You’re right, the pastry is great,” I told my husband, sneakily scraping my serving into the bin. “I’m actually going to try and cut down on my carb intake while we’re indoors so the rest can be for you. Thank you so much for helping me make it. This one’s basically like a joint effort!”
“Yeah, and it couldn’t have turned out better.” He bit down on more pastry. “I’d be happy to help you next time too, if you want?”
“Yeah. That’d be great. Enjoy the rest of it.”
Four hours later and he’d eaten every bit of the pie. Every bit, that was, except the filling which had been carefully scraped out, dumped into a bowl and pushed to the back of the fridge along with my mum’s homemade 2012 chutney to be rediscovered next lockdown.
I went back to the veg box. I could still see at least four parsnips nuzzled in amongst the broccoli. Dorothy Hartley also had another recipe for Parsnip Cakes. I considered it for all of one second before cutting them into chunks for a side dish to our roast dinner – king of the veg they may have been and no matter how much Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall would love me to embrace the ‘snip, for me they’re best as a side dish to a roast dinner. With carrots. Thank god for carrots.
3 large parsnips
2 tablespoons of honey
Zest and juice of 2 lemons
2 large eggs
225g plain flour
100g cold butter, diced
100g caster sugar
- Peel, chop and boil the parsnips.
- While parsnips are boiling, rub flour and butter together until it resembles sand. Add in a little water to form a dough and roll out to cover a pie dish.
- When parsnips are soft, push them through a sieve, or mash until very fine.
- Add the yolk of an egg, honey, lemon zest and juice and spices to the parsnips and combine thoroughly.
- Smooth parsnip mixture over pastry case evenly.
- Cut remaining pastry into strips and cover parsnip mixture in a lattice work pattern. Brush with egg yolk.
- Cook at 180 degrees for 30 minutes or until pastry is golden.
- While pie is cooking, begin on the meringue. Weigh out 50g of egg whites into a bowl.
- Into a saucepan, weigh 100g of sugar and 25ml of water. Heat until boiling and sugar is melted.
- Whip the egg whites with a handheld mixer until foamy and then pour boiling sugar syrup into the mix. Pour down the side of the bowl to avoid splashing yourself with hot sugar.
- Whip the egg whites and sugar syrup until peaks form.
- Once pie is out of the oven and cooled, pipe meringue around the edges.