On foraging walks I almost always, when introducing cow parsnip, say that I love it, but that it’s not to everybody’s taste–and then people always seem to love it. It’s definitely one of my favorite wild vegetables; with a handful of foraging friends around here, I’m an enthusiastic member of the cow parsnip fan club. Now that I’ve started using the seeds as spice as well, it’s a plant that I can taste in some form through most of the year.
Heracleum maximum, as its fabulous Latin name suggests, gets huge–bigger than everything but ragweed you’re likely to see in South Central Wisconsin. Big leaves, tall stalk, wide umbelliferous flower–everything about it is big. There’s also some big fear about it–like common parsnip (Pastinaca sativa), its sap can give people pretty nasty blisters if their skin is exposed to the sun following contact. The phototoxic effect can also be found in more familiar, domesticated members of the Apiaceae; when I worked in a produce department, several fair-skinned co-workers found that, if they went outside for lunch on a bright day after plunging their arms repeatedly into a sinkfull of water and celery, they’d end up with some nasty burns. As with parsnip, though, the fear of Heracleum is a little overblown. Nobody gets rashes simply by brushing against a leaf or stalk. It’s not a difficult plant to harvest carefully, and it won’t hurt you on the inside.
I do keep the warnings in mind, though, when I’m tempted to lie down among the early greens of cow parsnip and rub my face around on its soft, fuzzy surfaces. Those early greens taste like a cross between celery and fennel, but far better than either, with a hint of citrus and a flavor that’s perfume-ey, in a good way. I like them a lot as a raw nibble. In a soup (especially a classic chicken soup, with spring-dug wild parsnip roots and ideally a big handful of chopped wild leek greens), they’re just fabulous. Samuel Thayer reports that this plant is so widely used in traditional European cuisine that its name is the generic term for soup vegetables in many cultures (“borscht” is its Russian name, for example).
As the leaves grow, so do their stems, and then the big flower stalk gets going. These are my favorite parts of the plant–crunchy and wonderful, with an amplified flavor that offers more sweetness, and a soothing aspect I particularly enjoy, and that’s common to some other plants in the family. The stems and stalks taste different from one another; both need to be peeled (the skin is pretty fibrous), and the stems are a little trickier, so I end up eating more flower stalks out of laziness. The stalks also get nice and thick just before the plant flowers (after which they’re too tough to eat). They’re hollow, and I’ve come to love slicing them in half lengthwise, stuffing them with goat cheese, and drizzling honey over them. Here, as in many other applications, I’d switch them out for celery; their flavor mellows with cooking. Tip: peel them right away, or they’ll become much more difficult to deal with quickly.
I have yet to work much with the unopened flower buds, though I absolutely will, this year, try making fritters (here, as with the use of the seeds, ForagerChef Alan Bergo is again a fantastic resource). I’ll also try fermenting the stalks, which Alan says is repulsive–but I have to try–and I need to see what happens if I make a jelly and a vinegar from the flowers. They’ll probably be weird.
Over the last year I’ve begun using the seeds as a seasoning. On their own, they’re the part of the plant that people on my walks are not likely to enjoy. They’re definitely strong and kind of soapy, but that doesn’t disqualify them from use; ever had a dish with too much rosemary, or too much fennel? It’s just a matter of balance. Cow parsnip seeds (called golpar in Middle Eastern cuisine), as Mr. Bergo observes, go well with other carrot family spices, especially cumin. For the market, I’ve made a couple of weird things in which they really shine: a kumquat and sour orange-based marmalade in which the golpar brings out the subtle hint of fennel in the kumquats, and a jalapeno hot sauce with numerous wild Apiaceae seasonings.
Ecologically, it’s a great plant to harvest around here. We have a lot of its favorite habitat–woodland and grassland edges, near water, as well as wide, deep ditches–and, in those spots, it’s incredibly abundant. Carrot/parsley family plants tend to produce huge numbers of seeds; in areas where we’ve harvested pretty heavily for years, the cow parsnip population has only grown, probably because of seed bed that will most likely last for decades, and maybe because of all the garlic mustard we’ve removed from the patches every season. removal we’ve done every season.
I can’t wait for this spring’s first cow parsnip! Like so many wild plants, there’s nothing really to compare with it at any grocery store or farmers’ market, at least in this country. If you don’t learn it this April and May, look for it later, when its Herculean stature becomes its best identifying feature, and take a nibble of this wonderful plant.