The humble parsnip doesn't seem like the kind of vegetable that one should get excited about. This root vegetable, which looks like a fatter, beige-colored version of a carrot, was totally unbeknownst to me until a couple of years ago. But my parsnip love affair began the minute that Luis and I ate a purée de panais as an accompaniment at one our favorite Montmartre restaurants, 16 Rue Tholozé. I had no idea what panais was in English and the waiter couldn't tell me either, but the caramelized, buttery taste of that purée was just incredible. As soon as we got home, I looked up panais in my French-English dictionary, and low and behold there it was...parsnip.
Though parsnips resemble carrots, they have a sweeter and slightly spicy taste when cooked. Even if roasted parsnip is a traditional part of Sunday roasts and Christmas dinners in England, the vegetable is not necessarily well-known outside of Europe and North America. But interestingly enough the parsnip, along with other légumes oubliés ("forgotten" vegetables) such as Jeruslaem artichokes, rutabaga, butternut squash and others are making a definite comeback here in France as well as elsewhere. Parsnip is great roasted, mashed or pureed, in soups and stews and even fried or made into chips. Even better, parsnips are richer in nutritional value than carrots, particularly in potassium and dietary fiber.
It's true that parsnip season is definitely not now...like most root vegetables, they peak in the late fall and early winter. However, we had stocked up months ago, chopped into chunks and stored in the freezer. Today, I decided that even though parsnip is definitely foreign to Indian cuisine, a creamy parsnip soup would be just perfect with some classic South Indian flavors - namely black mustard seeds, ginger, green chili and curry leaves. Luis was skeptical, claiming with his occasional European traditionalism that a vegetable such as parsnip wasn't made for Indian tastes. But guess what...he was wrong and actually loved this soup! Try it when parsnips are in season or if you are lucky enough to find some now.
CREAMY PARSNIP SOUP WITH SOUTH INDIAN FLAVORSServes 8-10
1 tablespoon canola or olive oil
1 tablespoon black mustard seeds
1 medium yellow or white onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1-2 green chili(s), split lengthways
2 tablespoons ginger paste
2 sprigs curry leaves, washed and in tact
3 medium parsnips, washed, peeled and cut into large chunks
5 cups water
Salt to taste
2 tablespoons crème fraîche or heavy cream
Chopped coriander, for garnish
1. Heat the oil in a large pot. When the oil is warm, toss in the mustard seeds.
2. Once the seeds start to pop, add the onion and stir well. Saute until translucent. Then add the ginger paste, green chili and sprigs of curry leaves, mix and saute for a couple of minutes more.
3. Mix in the parsnip chunks and water. Add salt to taste.
4. Once the soup begins to boil, reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and simmer for 15-20 minutes or until the parsnip is cooked and soft. Remove the curry leaf sprigs and discard them (curry leaves are an important part of South Indian cuisine - they add great flavor and aroma - but they will impart a bitter taste if mixed in a blender for a creamy soup such as this one).
5. Working in batches, liquefy the soup in a blender or food processor.
6. Return to the pot, stir in the crème fraîche or heavy cream and additional salt to taste, if needed.
7. Serve with chopped coriander and slices of lemon (the tang of the lemon juice complemented the slight sweetness of the soup and the spicy flavors perfectly).