Recipe below: Parsnip and Apple Soup with Sage and Parsley Oil
I worked at Restaurant Florent in the mid-eighties. It was my first cooking job. The place was, as you might think, kind of wild and much of the time fun, but it required more physically and emotionally hard work than I was trained to take on. At times I experienced uncomfortable levels of anxiety and exhaustion—meaning the job turned out to be just about perfect for me. I worked under a lunch chef named Renée, who initiated me into that complex world as gently as she could, and I’m grateful to her.
Renée had a close friend who often stopped into Florent for lunch. One of that friend’s favorite foods was parsnips, and when there were parsnips in the house (we included them in our couscous royale), Renée would try to work them into her friend’s meals. I remember making gratins, soufflés, and soups all perfumed with the lovely root vegetable. Before working at Florent I hadn’t had many encounters with parsnips. They weren’t part of my Italian-American vegetable heritage. I did grow up with a lot of unusual vegetables, such as zucca lunga, with its long tendrils used for pasta, escarole, broccoli rabe, electric-green Roman cauliflower, Italian frying peppers, dandelion, and real wild arugula. Those were all foreign things my father grew in his little backyard garden. But I never gave much thought to parsnips. If as a kid I noticed them at all, I probably thought they were some kind of pale carrot (which they’re related to). To my knowledge my parents or grandparents never bought them, and I never even smelled one. But at Florent I grew to love their odd perfume and their creamy yellow hue. They were earthy and sweet when raw, and sweeter and stronger-tasting when cooked, with a slight background flavor of parsley, which they’re also related to. (If you buy parsnips with their feathery tops still attached, you’ll notice that the leaves look much like flat-leaf parsley leaves.)
One thing about parsnips, unlike, say, carrots, is that when you cook them, the dish you get will shout parsnips. I find that enthralling. When I cooked parsnips at Florent, I learned that roasting them let off their complex sweetness, and quickly sautéing thin slices was rewarding, but what I loved best was putting hot boiled parsnips into a food processor and whirling them to a smooth, golden purée. The aroma that shot up from the hole in that industrial machine was magical. It’s one of the best of the many food memories from my hundreds of days spent in that tight, hot restaurant kitchen.
I’ve been finding big wintered-over parsnips at my Greenmarket lately. Here’s a soup I made the other night. It’s sweet and smooth and filled with the essence of parsnip.
Parsnip and Apple Soup with Sage and Parsley Oil
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 medium shallots, chopped
1 good sized carrot, peeled and chopped
1 small celery stalk, chopped, plus a handful of leaves, chopped
5 medium parsnips, peeled and chopped
1 sweet tart apple, plus ½ an apple (Cortland or Macoun have a good sweet-acid balance that works well here), peeled, seeded, and chopped
½ teaspoon quatre épices*
About 5 large thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped
A splash of sweet vermouth
2 cups chicken broth
A few drops of Spanish sherry vinegar
1 heaping tablespoon crème fraîche
For the sage and parsley oil:
⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil
10 sage leaves
About 10 large sprigs flat-leaf parsley leaves
A pinch of sugar
*Quatre epices is a blend of four spices used in both sweet and savory French cooking. I make mine with a more or less equal blend of black pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, and ginger. Some versions replace the nutmeg with clove or allspice. I occasionally do that if I want a more forceful blend.
In a large soup pot heat a tablespoon or so of olive oil and the butter over medium heat. Add the shallots, carrot, celery plus leaves, and parsnips, and sauté until the vegetables start to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the apple, the quatre épices, and the thyme, and season with salt. Sauté a minute or so longer to release the flavors of the seasoning. Add a splash of sweet vermouth, and let it boil away. Add the chicken broth and enough water to just cover the vegetables. Bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat a touch. Simmer at a low bubble, uncovered, until everything is very tender, about 15 to 20 minutes.
While the soup is cooking, make the sage and parsley oil: Place all the ingredients in the bowl of a food processor, and purée. Let the oil sit in the bowl for about 5 minutes, so the flavors can meld. Then pour it through a fine sieve into a small bowl, pressing on the herbs to extract all their flavor. Set aside.
Purée the soup with an immersion blender until smooth. Add a few drops of sherry vinegar and the crème fraîche. Taste for seasoning. The soup should have the consistency of a very heavy cream, maybe a little thicker, but if it’s too thick, add a little water.
When you’re ready to serve the soup, reheat it if necessary. Ladle out bowlfuls, and give each one a generous swirl of the sage and parsley oil.