Parsnips are an underappreciated vegetable in the U.S. Depending on where you are, they can be difficult to track down, and many Americans have only a vague notion of what a parsnip actually is. In my opinion, however, they are delicious and well worth the hunt.
For this recipe, we turn to ancient Roman gourmand Apicius and his De Re Coquinaria (On the Subject of Cooking). Apicius included an exotic spice in this dish—the peppercorn! When Egypt became a Roman province under Octavian (the future Roman emperor Augustus) in 30 B.C.E., the Romans opened up new Red Sea ports and improved trade with India. Spices (among other things) began pouring in, and the Romans could not get enough. Spices eventually became so common that people began pointing out when pepper was not used. 1
Apicius’s recipe for parsnips is a simple but tasty one:
Sphondyli elixi ex sale, oleo, mero, coriandro viridi conciso et piper integro.
Boil the parsnips in salt water [and season them] with pure oil, chopped green coriander, and whole pepper2
Experimenting with this dish, food historian Patrick Faas added measurements to the ancient recipe. 3 For BAR’s recipe, I modified Faas’s recipe by reducing the portion from six to four parsnips, increasing the amount of water, and adding more liquid in the form of wine (idea taken from another of Apicius’s parsnip recipes). It is unclear whether the recipe calls for fresh coriander (cilantro leaves for the Americans among us) or ground coriander. I chose ground coriander seeds, but I think it would have been equally tasty with fresh leaves.
Finally, a note on the wine. I used an Italian white wine (a pinot grigio) because I was trying to be as authentic as possible (Rome, Italian wine … it was as close as I could get). If you do not want to use wine, you could easily replace it with chicken or vegetable stock or white grape juice.
I hope this Roman dish will help give parsnips the credit they deserve!
4 whole parsnips
Enough water to cover parsnips
2 tsp olive oil
¼ cup white wine
1 ½ tsp coriander
A few peppercorns
2 tsp olive oil or butter
(1) Clean and peel the parsnips
(2) Cut into pieces—long “fry” shapes work well here.
(3) Put Parsnips in a pan.
(4) Add olive oil, white wine, coriander, and peppercorns.
(5) Add water, bring to a boil, then simmer gently for 10 minutes or until parsnips are tender (use a fork to check).
(6) Drain and serve with olive oil (as shown here) or butter. Enjoy!
Based on Strata: “BAR Test Kitchen” from the November/December 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
1. Patrick Faas, Around the Roman Table: Food and Feasting in Ancient Rome (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), p. 20.
2. Apicius, De Re Coquinaria 18.104.22.168–2.2. English translation by Joseph Dommers Vehling in Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome, 1st ed. (Chicago: Walter M. Hill, 1936).
3. Fass, Roman Table, p. 34.
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