Parsnips are root vegetables related to carrots and have served as a good source of starch for 4,000 years. In Europe and colonial America, parsnips were a nutritious and ubiquitous staple until the 19th century, when potatoes replaced them. Unjustly neglected by many of us today, parsnips are easy to prepare and offer a healthy replacement for potatoes or as a side dish. It also makes an excellent addition to soups and stews, and indeed as a soup in its own right, try making cream of parsnip soup and garnish with crispy bacon and blue cheese.

The vegetable resembles a top heavy, ivory coloured carrot, but it has a mild celery like fragrance and a sweet, nutty flavour. Unlike carrots, parsnips contain no beta carotene but they are a good source of vitamin C. Their flavour is best in winter when they are most abundant. Planted in the spring, they take a full three to four months to mature. They are left in the ground until a hard frost occurs in late autumn that initiates the conversion of the starches in the vegetable to sugars, giving parsnips their pleasantly sweet flavour. Some gardeners and farmers leave parsnips in the ground over the winter believing that parsnips dug up the following spring are the sweetest.

Commercial growers harvest parsnips in late autumn and place them in cold storage for at least two weeks to allow for the conversion of starch to sugar. (Parsnips properly stored at between 32°F and 34°F will be just as sweet as those left in the ground for two months of cold weather.)

Parsnips range in colour from pale yellow to off white. Although they can grow up to 20" long, they are most tender when about 8 inches roughly the size of a large carrot. Very large parsnips are likely to have tough, woody cores. The characteristic "broad-shouldered" shape is not a sign of overmaturity, but the wide top should taper smoothly to a slender tip.

The roots should be firm and fairly smooth and not have an abundance of hairlike rootlets. Soft, withered parsnips are likely to be fibrous. Irregularly shaped parsnips are acceptable, but wasteful, as they require extensive trimming to prepare the vegetables for cooking. Parsnips with moist spots should also be avoided.

Most parsnips are sold "clip-topped," but if the leafy tops are still attached, they should look fresh and green. When buying parsnips , be sure to take a close look at the vegetables through the wrapping; the bag may have fine white lines printed on it in an effort to enhance the appearance of the parsnips.

Like carrots, parsnips keep best in a perforated plastic bag in the refrigerator. They can last for up to three to four weeks. If the green tops, or parts of them, are attached, remove them before storing, or they will draw moisture from the roots.

Unlike carrots, parsnips are almost always eaten cooked, as they tend to be quite fibrous. Be careful not to overcook them, however; their flavour is sweetest when just tender. Brief cooking also helps to preserve nutrients. Just before cooking, cut off the root and leaf ends; trim any major rootlets or knobs. Either scrub or peel the parsnips, depending on how you plan to serve them.

Parsnips can be peeled before or after cooking. Peel them before if you're going to cut them into chunks for a stew, or if you simply want to shorten the cooking time. Peel as thinly as possible with a paring knife or vegetable peeler. (If the skin is thin, it can be scraped like a carrot.) Then cut the parsnips as you wish: Halve them crosswise and then quarter each half lengthwise; dice them; or, cut them into "coins" or julienne strips.

Peel parsnips after cooking if you puree them; this technique helps to preserve their colour and flavour, and also saves nutrients since you'll remove a thinner layer of peel. Make a lengthwise cut through the skin down one side, then pull the peel off with your fingers. Halve the cooked parsnips lengthwise; if you find a fibrous, woody core, pry it out with the tip of a sharp paring knife.

If the tops of the parsnips are much thicker than the bottoms, halve the vegetables crosswise and cook the top halves for a few minutes before adding the bottom halves for even cooking.

Whenever you cook parsnips in liquid, save the liquid for making a gravy or adding to a stock or soup; the liquid contains many nutrients leached out in cooking.