Fine Words Butter No Parsnips


Ever since discovering parsnips I’ve been enchanted by this ivory colored carrot look-a-like that 
has a subtle sweet flavor not unlike its orange cousin. But even more interesting to me is the nearly 400-year old proverb―origin unknown―fine words butter no parsnips. The first example, dated 1639, is given in the big Oxford English Dictionary: “Faire words butter noe parsnips”.

Were parsnips featured in the proverb early on because they were common in the English diet and were typically buttered before serving? Perhaps so as the English are known for buttering just about everything before serving. Apart from origin unknown, there is not a lot more said about this proverb―rather remarkable in today’s information-hungry web world. But very humbling, leaving the mind to wonder about this ancient root vegetable and its proverb. 

One chilly night on our way back from a show many years ago, Nick and I spotted a quaint and attractive façade with an English style awning on a bustling downtown street. We stepped down to enter Restaurant 2110, a welcoming little eatery with a combination of French and English interior design. The short menu echoed the French-English surroundings with familiar French classics like Coq Au Vin, Beef Bourguignon, Escargot, Croque Monsieur, and with well-known English dishes like Beef Wellington, Popovers and Shepherd’s Pie. I ordered grilled rosemary-infused lamb chops that lay on a bed of creamy mashed potatoes with pureed parsnips swirled in. 

The meal was superb and the memory lingers today of the hot, creamy, buttery, slightly sweet taste gliding down my throat.

Only on a few occasions during my upbringing do I remember eating parsnips, although I’m sure my mother snuck them into casseroles and soups―probably disguising the nutrient-rich addition so as to squelch the possible “ewww” and “yucks” from around the family table. Chunky disks were among the customary vegetables that made up her many winter pot roasts and they wound up in hearty beef stews as well.  

When caramelizing became popular, I began caramelizing all sorts of vegetables. On one such occasion while testing parsnips caramelized on the stove-top, I added some garlic and salty toasted pecans. Nick taste-tested and invited me to join him. In no time at all, we had finished the parsnips before we sat down for dinner.

This is a delicious recipe you may come back to again and again, but don’t limit yourself to just caramelizing. In my recently published cookbook, Tasting the Seasons, there are recipes for gingered parsnip and coconut and soup, buckwheat parsnip waffles and parsnip baby cakes with ginger icing. In addition to these recipes, whenever parsnips are in season―beginning in autumn (before the first frost) ―until spring, add these distinctive root vegetables to enrich soups, stews and casseroles. Parsnips can be boiled, pureed, roasted, fried or steamed and baked thin disks can be turned into crispy chips. 


The wonderful sweetness of the parsnips comes out when caramelized. This simple side dish is a great accompaniment to baked chicken, pork and lamb.

  • 3–4 tablespoons neutral oil
  • 1 pound parsnips, peeled and sliced about ¼-inch thick
  • 4–6 cloves garlic, sliced
  • ¼ cup roughly chopped pecans, toasted and salted

Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large skillet over moderate heat. Add and sauté parsnips for about 10–15 minutes, stirring often. Add additional 1–2 tablespoons oil and sliced garlic and cook for another 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Cook until parsnips are slightly blackened and cooked through. Toss with pecans and serve immediately.

4 servings