I can remember when it was uncommon to find broccoli in French supermarkets, especially in the hinterlands. Then about twenty years ago broccoli imported from Italy began to appear on grocery store shelves everywhere in France, even in the small town where I used to live.
I predict the next vegetable to make the leap from being found only at public markets or good maraîchers to counters everywhere will be parsnips, or as the French call them, panais.
On the list of forgotten vegetables, the once popular parsnip was dethroned from its reign on French tables by the potato in the 18th century. French culinary interest in the ivory tap root, rich in fiber, minerals, vitamins and antioxydants, however, is picking up. It can be prepared in any way that carrots or potaoes can be, imparting a subtle, sweet flavor half-way between that of a carrot and a turnip. A native to southern Europe, ancient Romans considered it to be an aphrodisiac. Eat accordingly.
A star again. . .
- Look for firm, unblemished small- to medium-sized parsnips, which only need to be washed and scrubbed before preparing. (I prefer to peel them, however.)
- Avoid large-sized parsnips which tend to be tough and stringy; these should be peeled as well as have their woody centers trimmed out if using.
- Parsnips can replace carrots in most recipes; they can be roasted, boiled, steamed, puréed, fried or grated raw for salads. (France's most well-loved young and talented chef, Cyril Lignac, does amazing things with panais and gambas. ) Parsnips also team well with potatoes; a délice when the two are interspersed in a gratin.
Gratin de panais
Peel equal quantities of parsnips and potatoes and slice into rounds. Parboil separately and drain. Lightly grease a glass oven dish with olive oil or butter. Alternate layers of parsnips and potatoes, sprinkling each layer parsimoniously with minced garlic (optional) and grated swiss cheese, salt and pepper. Add enough light cream so that only the bottom two-thirds of the layers are covered. Top with a last, light layer of cheese and bake in a medium to hot oven for 20 minutes.
Maraîcher, -ère: market gardener; truck farmer
Text & photo ©2011 P.B. Lecron