Cape Town - This was not the sort of conversation you wanted to have with the food manager at your local branch of Woolies.
“Hi, could you tell me if you have parsnips in stock please?”
“No, not parsley. Parsnips.”
“Pars… pars… sorry?”
“Parsnips. It’s a vegetable,” I said, snippily.
“Pars… could you spell that please?”
“P.A.R.S.N.I.P.” (I thought of saying, “It looks like a white carrot” but that would have bordered on the patronising.)
“Um… hold on…” (Lots of shuffling and muffled conversation.)
“Sorry sir, we don’t have that.”
It’s late winter. (Okay, it’s s’posed to be spring.) Parsnips are in season. I’ve been looking for them in supermarkets for a month and until yesterday had not seen a solitary one. Thanks, then, to the Cape Quarter Spar in Somerset Road, Green Point, which so often comes up trumps. That, a couple of years ago, was where I found dragon fruit, and where they invariably have interesting vegetables and fruits among the tomatoes, potatoes and onions.
And don’t get me started on the Food Lover’s Market in Newspaper House in St George’s Mall, which has all of my colleagues agog but which I find attractive yet limited. I had hoped I could pop in there for the ingredients for supper every evening before I go home, but that would work only if we went mad and declared ourselves vegetarians, as they have no fish or meat whatsoever.
As for their selection of vegetables, they seem to be strictly limited to all the obvious items – the onions, potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, spinach, butternut and the like – but not once have I spotted anything remotely out of the ordinary. Great bakery, though, and food stations such as the salad bar, fruit and muesli bar and pizza slice station are fattening up some of my colleagues like turkeys preparing for Christmas.
It’s not as if a parsnip is an Egyptian walking onion, a manioc, a dulse, a yardlong or even samphire, all of which exist but none of which I would expect to find between the carrots and the cabbage at Pick n Pay.
Yet a parsnip is the most wonderful tuber. It has a perfect crunch if you cook it al dente, caramelises beautifully when roasted, makes the creamiest mash, and is way more delicious than a turnip, with which it is often likened although the comparison is odious.
The ones I found at the Cape Quarter Spar were fat and perky. I bought some lean beef mince, too, and some black calamata olives, garlic and tomatoes, and plucked several rosemary sprigs from the garden. Rosemary is at its best right now, the sprigs freshly sprouted after the woodiness of the leaves only weeks ago. The Spar even had some plump globe artichokes – more about them next week.
You could fling a savoury mince sauce together in half an hour if you just sautéed the onions and the garlic and cooked that up with mince, tomatoes, wine and flavourings. But roast your onions and garlic first and you have much more depth of flavour.
Cottage pie with a parsnip topping
1 large onion, quartered
4 garlic cloves, whole but peeled (slice them in half if they’re fat cloves)
1 celery stick, sliced
1 regular can chopped tomatoes
2 fat tomatoes (or 3 medium or 4 small), chopped
12 black olives, pitted
1 glass dry white wine
500g lean beef mince
4 large parsnips or more smaller ones, peeled (judge it, Daisy – you want enough to cover the top of an oven dish the size of which only you know because it’s the one you’re holding)
Salt and pepper to taste
Use the same dish that you’re going to use when you bake this version of a cottage pie. (Yes, cottage pie, Daisy. Beef mince gives you cottage, lamb mince gives you shepherd’s.)
Pour in a little olive oil and add three or four rosemary sprigs. Quarter one large onion or two smaller ones, peel whole garlic cloves and put them in. Roast in a very hot oven (about 220ºC) for 20 to 25 minutes. Watch it and remove the garlic if they start to brown too much.
Slice a celery stick thinly and sauté in olive oil. When it’s softened, slice the roasted onion, mash the garlic and add to the celery. Stir over heat and add 1 can chopped tomatoes, 2 large (3 medium or 4 small) chopped tomatoes, 12 black olives, deseeded, and three sprigs of rosemary and cook, stirring, for five minutes. Add a glass of dry white wine, heat through, then crumble the beef mince into it. Season. Simmer, stirring now and then, for about half an hour for the beef to cook thoroughly.
Let the mince settle off the heat and skim off any oil that rises to the surface. Oiliness is death to a mince sauce. Ladle into the oven dish, removing any stray rosemary stems.
Meanwhile you will have peeled your parsnips, cut them into big chunks and steamed them over boiling water for about 20 to 25 minutes until softened. Alternatively, you could boil them, but steaming is better as you lose no nutrients. Use a chef’s hand-held blender to blitz them to a smooth mash, season with salt and pepper and enrich with a knob of butter, and spread it out on top. Drizzle olive oil over the top so that it goes golden while in the oven.
Keep one of the parsnips aside to take to your local Woolies to show the food manager. - Weekend Argus