All About Root Vegetables: Turnips, Rutabagas and Parsnips

With recipes for

  • Mashed Parsnips with Roasted Leeks and Nutmeg
  • Roasted Winter Vegetables with Basil Oil
  • Turnip, Potato and Parsnip Gratin
  • Clay Pot Curried Winter Vegetable Stew

Mashed Parsnips with Roasted Leeks and NutmegRoasted Winter Vegetables with Basil OilTurnip, Potato and Parsnip GratinClay Pot Curried Winter Vegetable Stew

There was a time when asparagus wasn’t available in December, lettuce in January and zucchini in February. It was a time – and this is most of recorded history in temperate climates – when people had to stock up on the earth toned vegetables of fall to last them through the winter. No greens, few reds, but a lot of whites, browns, yellows and oranges.

These are root vegetables for which a special place was made: the root cellar. We’ll talk another time about other root vegetables – potatoes, onions and the like – but this space is reserved for those hard-core root vegetables that aren’t quite as glamorous – turnips, rutabagas and parsnips.

Root vegetables are often referred to as lowly, more of an indication of their status than of their location. When someone questions your intelligence, the appropriate response might be, “Hey man, I didn’t just fall off a turnip truck.” And then there are the stories of families so destitute they are reduced to eating turnips.

James Beard said that parsnips were one of our “most neglected” vegetables, though he personally loved them and preferred them to sweet potatoes for Thanksgiving.

But root vegetables are experiencing a kind of renaissance. Not long ago, Joel Patraker, the Special Projects manager of the Greenmarkets in New York City was waxing poetically on the radio about rutabagas. And one of the signature dishes at the Union Square Cafe, one of New York City’s best restaurants, is creamy mashed turnips (they actually use rutabagas) with crispy shallots. Chef Michael Romano says he also likes to make parsnip pancakes as a side vegetable with roast venison.

So it looks like those subterranean Rodney Dangerfields are finally getting some respect. As the authors of the fine book “The Essential Root Vegetable Cookbook,” Sally and Martin Stone, put it “…we forget that the most expensive, glamorous, exotic, rare and idealized foodstuff of all, the truffle, is truly a buried treasure.” Treasure, indeed. I hope this article on root vegetables is the shovel to help you dig up your own.


Before there was agriculture, there was the turnip. That’s how old the turnip is. Turnips were cultivated some 5,000 years ago and may have been eaten as long as 5,000 years before that. Turnips were as important to the Romans as potatoes were to the Incas. But while turnips are still used often in Europe, one would hardly call them important today.

The history of the rutabaga is much shorter. In the early part of the 17th century, Swiss botanist Casper Bauhin crossed a cabbage with a turnip and got a rutabaga, sometimes called a yellow turnip. It became popular in northern Europe and, in fact, derives its name from the Swedish rotabagge. (Rutabagas are sometimes called swedes.) But the rutabaga hasn’t yet found similar success in the United States. Nor is it universally liked in Europe. The French, for example think the rutabaga is not much better than animal feed.

Regardless of where the parsnip originated – there are estimates from the Eastern Mediterranean to Northern Europe to Asia – it became a popular vegetable with ancient Greeks and Romans, the latter often preferring them for dessert with honey and fruit. The popularity of parsnips spread to the rest of Europe and it remained a mainstay of the European table until the potato supplanted it in the 18th century. Parsnips came to America with English colonials but never reached the kind of widespread appeal it once achieved in Europe.


The major turnip and rutabaga producing states are California, Colorado, Indiana, New Jersey, Ohio, Oregon, Texas and Washington. A significant amount of both is imported from Canada. Parsnips are also grown in Canada as well as in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin.


turnips are root vegetablesBoth rutabagas and turnips are members of the mustard family. All turnips have a snowy white flesh. The differences in varieties mostly involve outside coloring and size. Some have reddish rings around the crown of the vegetable, others purple. Flavors are essentially the same although larger turnips (3 or more inches in diameter) which appear later in the winter tend to be more pungent than the smaller (11/2 to 2 inches) turnips that appear earlier in the season. Major turnip varieties include Purple top, White Globe, White Egg, Golden Ball, Amber and Yellow Amberdeen.

rutabagas are root vegetablesInstead of white flesh, rutabagas have a yellow-orange flesh that, like yellow-flesh potatoes, give an impression of richness or butteriness. They’re also sweeter and denser than turnips with less moisture. On the outside rutabagas are half yellow-orange, while the other half is burgundy or purple. To increase their shelf life, most rutabagas are waxed. Commercially available rutabagas tend to be larger than turnips. The three main rutabaga varieties are American Purple Top, Laurentian and the Thomson Strain of the Laurentian.

parsnips are root vegetablesIt’s no coincidence that the parsnip resembles a carrot that has seen a ghost. The pale yellow parsnip and the carrot are in the same family. Parsnips, however, are more irregular in shape though they generally follow the same carrot tapered look with lengths varying from 5 to 10 inches. Some have likened them to sweet potatoes, but I think parsnips have a taste all their own, somewhat starchy like a potato, sweet like a carrot and a little nutty as well.


Turnips and rutabagas are available year round with peak supplies from October through March. Parsnips generally run from fall (usually after the first frost) into spring.


Turnips: Select small to medium turnips that are heavy for their size (indicating good moisture content), with good color and firmness and no bruises, soft spots or shriveling. The stem end may be somewhat flattened. Winter turnips may be larger with tougher skin, so choose carefully during that time of the year. If greens are attached, they should be bright and fresh looking. Turnip greens are nutritious and delicious. Remove them immediately if they come attached to the turnips and store them separately in plastic bags. They’ll last 3 or 4 days.

Rutabagas: Rutabagas should be medium-size, about 4 to 5 inches across, because exceptionally large ones can be a bit much to handle. And they should be heavy for their size. Lighter ones may be woody. The wax on the surface of some is merely applied to prolong shelf life.

Turnips and rutabagas like cold (as low as 32 degrees) and moist surroundings. In plastic bags in the refrigerator, turnips will last as long as 2 weeks. If waxed, rutabagas need not be in plastic. They’ll last even longer, up to 2 months under proper conditions.

Parsnips: Choose parsnips that are firm with a good creamy color and no spots, blemishes, cuts or cracks. They should have a good, uniform shape (about 4 to 5 inches long) and should not be limp or shriveled. Avoid those that are particularly large since they may be woody, and those that are particularly small since they are not as economical and require more preparation time. Parsnips like cool temperatures. Store them in plastic bags in the refrigerator and they’ll last up to 2 weeks.


A 3.5 ounce serving (100 grams) of turnips has 30 calories, 6 grams of carbohydrates, 1 gram each of protein and dietary fiber, 60% of the Daily Values (formerly the RDA) for vitamin C, 2% for iron and 3% for calcium. Turnips are also a fair source of potassium and folic acid.

A 100 gram serving of rutabagas contains 46 calories, 11 grams of carbohydrates, 1 gram each of dietary fiber and protein, 11% of the DV for vitamin A, 43% for vitamin C, 6% for calcium and a small amount of iron. Rutabagas are also a decent source of potassium and folic acid.

The good news is that because turnips and rutabagas are in the same family as cabbage and other cruciferous vegetables, they have many of the same health benefits, particularly as cancer fighters. The bad news is that like other cruciferous vegetables, they too produce a fair amount of gas.

A serving of parsnips ( 100 grams, 3.5 ounces) contains 76 calories, 17 grams of carbohydrates, .5 grams of fat, 1 gram of protein, 2 grams of dietary fiber, 26% of the DV for vitamin C, 5% each for calcium and iron. Parsnips are a good source of potassium.


A pound of parsnips (about 4 medium) will yield about 2 cups, peeled and chopped. A pound of turnips will yield about 21/2 cups chopped. Rutabaga yields will be a little less because of the waste from waxing.


Turnips are normally peeled before being used, but if the turnips are small and young and the skin is thin, treat them like a potato and roast them unpeeled after a good scrub.

In other ways you can treat turnips like potatoes. For example, quarter, then roast or steam them. Or boil and mash them. Rutabagas likewise, except I think they are superior to turnips mashed. But before any cooking you’ll need a sturdy vegetable peeler (like the ones with fat handles) to get through the wax and skin of rutabagas.

Seasonings for turnips include garlic, parsley, and dill. For rutabagas, seasonings lean more toward those used for sweet potatoes – nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, and mace.

Parsnips are usually peeled, unless you get your hands on a particularly pristine organic bunch. Although James Beard said he rarely peeled parsnips, preferring just to scrub them before cooking. Parsnips roast well accompanied by carrots and perhaps turnips and rutabagas. They puree marvelously with potatoes or other root vegetables. Steaming and microwaving are also good ideas. And don’t overlook the possibility of sautéing small chunks, slices or julienne strips of parsnips.

Carrot seasonings are appropriate for parsnips. That means nutmeg, parsley, dill, and orange flavoring. Roasted garlic turned nutty and sweet is also a good seasoning.



Root vegetables mash nicely by themselves or in combination with other root vegetables. Try them instead of the usual mashed potatoes.

  • 1 1/2 pounds parsnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 1/2 pound potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
  • Olive oil spray
  • 1 large or 2 small leeks, white part only, halved lengthwise and washed thoroughly
  • 1/2 to 2/3 cup skim milk, warmed
  • 1 tablespoon butter, softened
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • Kosher Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1) Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Put parsnips and potatoes in large saucepan, cover with water. Bring to a boil and boil gently, about 12 minutes, or until very tender.

2) Meanwhile, spray a cast iron frying pan with olive oil spray. Halve leeks again, crosswise, if using only one large one. Add to pan and put in the oven. Cook about 15 minutes until nicely browned all over. Turn a few times to cook evenly. Remove, chop and set aside.

3) When parsnips and potatoes are cooked, drain well and return to the pan over low heat. Mash, adding milk as you do. Add just enough milk to give the texture you prefer – and leave a few lumps if you like. Fold in leeks and season with nutmeg, salt and pepper. Serves 4 to 6.


This dish is so substantial it could be the main part of the meal. Feel free to substitute with other winter vegetables.

  • 3 medium red-skinned potatoes, washed but unpeeled
  • 3 small turnips, peeled
  • 3 medium parsnips, peeled
  • 3 medium carrots, peeled
  • 1-1/2-pound butternut or other winter squash, peeled and seeded
  • 8 to 10 small onions, peeled
  • 1/4 cup chicken or vegetable stock
  • 2 tablespoons basil oil or extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • Olive oil spray
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil or 1 teaspoon dried (omit if using basil oil)

1) Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut potatoes, turnips, parsnips and squash into 11/4 to 11/2-inch square chunks. Cut carrots into-11/2-inch lengths. Mix stock with half the oil and half the salt and pepper. In a large mixing bowl, pour mixture over vegetables and toss.

2) Put all vegetables except squash in a large roasting pan greased with olive oil spray. Roast 15 minutes. Add squash and cook 30 to 35 minutes longer, stirring a few times, until nicely browned and easily pierced with a fork. Toss with remaining oil, salt and pepper. Serves 4.

Sam’s Cooking Tip: One of the great ways to get intense basil flavor when fresh basil isn’t in season is to use basil oil. (Yes, fresh basil is often available year round these days. But winter basil doesn’t have the intensity of flavor that summer basil has.) I like the one made by Consorzio best, but Loriva also makes a credible one. If you use either, eliminate the dried or fresh basil


Gratins, like mashed potatoes, can be vehicles for lots of fat. But this one uses defatted chicken stock, skim milk and a minimum of butter.

  • Butter flavored spray
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1/2 cup defatted chicken stock
  • 1-1/2 cups skim milk
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
  • 1 pound turnips, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1/2 pound potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1/2 pound parsnips, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 2 medium leeks, white only, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan
  • 1/2 cup bread crumbs
  • 2 tablespoons chopped parsley

1) Preheat oven to 350. Spray gratin dish with butter-flavor spray and set aside.

2) Heat butter in a saucepan until the foam subsides. Add flour and whisk a few minutes. Add stock and stir vigorously until well incorporated. Add milk and whisk until mixture returns to a boil. Simmer a few minutes. It should have the consistency of a thin white sauce. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg.

3) Arrange half the turnips on the bottom of the gratin dish. Sprinkle with 1/3 of the leeks. Add parsnip slices. Then 1/3 more leeks. Then potatoes and remaining leeks and turnips, seasoning each layer with salt and pepper.

4) Pour sauce over, cover and bake 30 minutes. Mix cheese, bread crumbs and parsley. Sprinkle on top and bake 30 minutes more uncovered. Serves 8.


Curry is a blend of spices made into a convenient single yellow powder by the British during their occupation of India. Most Indians would make their own blend, as you can too for this dish, if you have the time and inclination.

  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 large onion, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon curry powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground, toasted cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 16-ounce can tomatoes, seeded and chopped, with juice
  • 2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 3 medium parsnips, peeled, and cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 3 medium to large carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 1 medium rutabaga, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 3 medium turnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 1 pound wedge winter squash, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 1 bulb fennel, trimmed, and cut into sixths, lengthwise
  • 1 pound can chick peas, rinsed and drained
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint or parsley, for garnish
  • 1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds, for garnish

1) Soak the clay pot in cold water 15 minutes. In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil and sauté onion until it just starts to turn color. Add garlic, curry, cumin and cayenne and cook a few minutes, stirring, so that garlic does not burn. Add tomatoes, stock and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil and simmer 10 minutes.

2) Meanwhile, in a large bowl, toss vegetables with salt and pepper. Fold in chick peas and put in the clay pot. Pour stock mixture over. Put in a cold oven and turn the heat to 450 degrees.

3) Bake, covered, 1 hour or until all vegetables are tender. Garnish with parsley and sesame seeds and serve in soup plates with good, country bread or over couscous or basmati rice. Serves 4 as a main course, 8 as a side dish.

Sam’s Cooking Tip: The clay pot is a great way to seal in juices for roasts, stews and any number of braised meats or vegetables – you can even make an apple pie in it. The three most important things to remember when using a clay pot are: 1) soak it before you use it, 2) put it in a cold oven, and 3) make sure the cover is always secure.

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