Did you know that if you wanted parsnips while you were in Italy, you’d have a really hard time finding them? The vast majority of Italians don’t even know what a parsnip is. I have been a great fan of parsnips since I moved to England. I find they make harsh British winters sweeter, more varied and a little more bearable. Excited as I am about unknown ingredients, I wanted to spread the love of parsnips in Italy too. Last spring, I sent my dad some parsnip seeds. He planted them in what is probably the only bit of garden that never gets any sunlight, being stuck between the neighbours’ wall and the northern-facing side of our house. He was afraid it wouldn’t work because of the lack of sunlight, obviously underestimating the resilience and adaptability of this hardy winter crop. In the end, the only two things that reduced our chances of having cumin roasted parsnips on Christmas Eve were slugs and last summer’s drought. Even so, we managed to dig out a good bunch of them. During our traditional family dinner, everybody had a hard time guessing what they were eating, none succeeded, but everybody liked them.

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It’s definitely time for a repeat performance. Last week it was my dad’s birthday. I gave him a call and told him I might make a cake in his honour at the weekend. Instead, I decided it was time to make this lovely parsnip soup. Here’s to the hope that next winter he’ll be making this soup with the roots of the parsnip seeds I sent him as a present! This soup, an adaptation of a classic Crank’s recipe, has been a revelation to me. The combination of parsnips, cumin and lemon is definitely one to bear in mind. I first made it over a year ago after B.’s grandma had a clearout of her bookshelves and gave us the recipe book. I used red split lentils instead of yellow split peas and tweaked the recipe here and there to suit my taste and to use what I had in the house. Over time, it’s become a recipe that’s more of a non-recipe: these are the rough quantities I would normally follow, but I’m the first to break the rules. Good job it’s a forgiving recipe, then. There’s only a couple of points you should follow to avoid having to compromise on the delicious taste of the finished product. The first is to keep an eye on the cumin seeds when you fry them. Once I forgot them while I was peeling and chopping the parsnips and their burnt taste could definitely be tasted in the finished product. The second is to add the lemon juice after the soup is ready and you have turned the heat off. Do you like parsnips? Do you thing Britain underestimates them? Have you got a trusted parsnip recipe?

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Parsnip and lentil soup, with lemon and cumin

Adapted from Cranks Soups & Starters. Makes quite a bit, but you can freeze it.

1 carrot
1 celery stick
2 medium onions
knob of butter, and a little olive oil
pinch of salt
2 tsp cumin seeds
4 medium/big parsnips, about 550 gr
130 gr red split lentils, rinsed in a sieve under plenty of cold water
1.6 lt vegetable stock (or, 3 stock cubes and 1.6 lt water)
juice of 1 lemon
chopped parsley (optional)

Finely chop carrot selery and onions. Add them to a large pot along with the butter, olive oil and a pinch of salt. On a low heat and with the lid on, let them soften up for about 10 minutes. Add the cumin seeds and cook for a couple of minutes more, with the lid off and stirring every now ad then to avoid them burning. In the meantime, peel and chop the parsnips. Add them to the pot after the cumin seeds and stir for a minute or so. Then add the lentils and the stock (or stock cubes and water). Stir, put the lid back on and leave on high heat. When the soup starts boiling, boil for ten minutes, then leave it to simmer on a low heat for about 15 more minutes. The soup should be cooked by then, although this depends on how small you chopped the parsnips. Have a try. Take off the heat and cream it with a hand blender. If you think the consistency needs a bit more liquid, add a little bit of water. Likewise, if you think it’s too runny, put back on the heat until reduced to the desired consistency. When you’re ready to serve, add the lemon juice and parsley, if using. Stir and serve.