All winter the parsnips slept, cushioned by dirt and snow inside their “square-foot gardening” box. Late in the fall, I had dug the last of the carrots, pulled up the tomatoes and hung them in the cellar for a bit of extended summer (yes, they ripened on the vine down there, the little cherry tomato darlings), threw the spent bean and squash plants into the compost bin, and mourned a bit the passing of the growing season. I had, however, one last gardening experiment to enjoy–overwintering parsnips. I had read somewhere that the long, white root vegetable actually improves in flavor if left out through the winter. I had planted four squares with sixteen parsnips seeds each back in May. All fall I resisted digging them, deciding to test the old-timer gardening wisdom for myself. How long could I, if necessary, extend the harvest?
Early spring is known as the lean season. In our more locavore past, we ate seasonally. In late spring, you would find dandelions and harvest your first arugula greens. The chickens started laying again after resting through the darkest months, so you could also pair your peppery, nutritious greens with fresh eggs. These early spring delicacies were soon followed by rhubarb, asparagus, strawberries, peas, early lettuce, maybe some cucumbers. By mid-summer you would have yourself a fine meal of beans, zucchini, and cukes and tomatoes. Autumn was the season for the root and storage veggies that would get you through winter: squash, pumpkin, potato, carrots, onions, beets. When the weather turned cold, you slaughtered your pig, hung your venison, and stuffed your turkey for Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts. By March, though, the potatoes would be growing soft and wrinkled, maybe even sprouting eyes. The apples you stored were pretty well gone–the backbone of many a fine pie or a nice dish of sauce on a chilly winter evening. You were down to a few carrots, maybe some last jars of tomato sauce, canned beans, shell beans, jams and pickles. The chickens had stopped laying, some switch in their brains flipped off when the days grew too short. By late March you were maybe a little bit hungry and more than likely craving something, anything, fresh from the garden.
And then you remembered the parsnips!
Of course, I don’t live in the past. If I want lettuce salad in January, all I have to do is mosey on down to the local market and pick some up in the produce section. However, there is something magical and satisfying about growing and harvesting my own food, and I have a decent imagination. If I were living and eating locally out of necessity–not experimentally or fadishly–those parsnips might just mean the difference between getting through the winter or not. By mid-March I was anxious to see how the parsnips fared through what turned out to be a fairly mild winter.
We had some unseasonably warm weather here in Maine this spring. On March 19, the sun had completely defrosted the garden boxes. With trowel in hand, I ventured out to the brownish garden area (post-snow, pre-grass) and began digging. Pulling up that first creamy white, crooked, dirt-crusted parsnip delighted me. It was firm, looked edible, was not in the least bit rotted. I dug my eager trowel and fingers into the dirt and found parsnip after parsnip, some bigger than others, and quickly filled my plastic bowl. Washing them out in the sink, I wondered if they really would taste sweeter for having lived through the frosts of a Maine winter. Apparently, the starches in the root vegetable are turned to sugar when exposed to cold temperatures (University of Illinois Extension web page). Then the big question: How would I cook them?A friend of mine recently brought the makings of a roasted veggie dish to my house for one of our impromptu pot-luck dinners. She threw the vegetables onto a flat pan, drizzled them with oil, sprinkled on some salt and other spices, and baked. Ambrosia! I decided that I could not find a better dish for my lovely, lovely parsnips, so I began cutting up some butternut squash and carrots (the last of those from my garden)and some asparagus to add some complimentary flavors and colors. I liberally doused the veggies with olive oil, salt, pepper, curry powder, coriander, and a bit of tumeric (supposed to be a good anti-inflammatory spice, by the way) and threw the whole bunch in a 400 degree oven for forty minutes, stirring and turning about halfway through the cooking process. The result was fabulous. The squash and root veggies were tender and sweet. The parsnips, I swear, tasted like honey which melded very well with the spicy curry flavor. The asparagus was a little overdone, so when I served this dish at Easter dinner, I used sweet potatoes in the roasted vegetable dish and simply steamed the asparagus instead.
I wonder how turnips would taste prepared this way?
Looking back over my garden journal, I see that I began planting on May 30 and harvested these last parsnips on March 19. Not bad for a beginner! This year, as soon as the parsnips were dug, I mixed some organic blood meal into two of the garden boxes and planted arugula, claytonia, and mache. The claytonia and arugula have poked those first miniscule leaves through the soil already. I didn’t have much luck with the greens last year–the rainy June didn’t help–so I’m interested to see if I can do better this season. Since I have a fairly shady plot of land around my house, greens may be the one crop I could grow enough of to share with others. I want to get some kale in earlier this year as I waited too long in 2009. I’d also like to experiment with growing shiitake mushrooms.
What are you trying new in your garden this year? Have you planted anything yet? Have you ordered your seeds? Drop me a line and let me know . . . Outside the Box.