In the past, whenever I found myself with a surfeit of parsnips, I’d turn to my standby technique: a giant roast with carrots, red onions, and leeks, liberally coated with olive oil and strewn with slivered garlic and fresh thyme branches. The ghostly pale parsnips, cut into thin batons and roasted into oblivion, transformed into a crisp-edged, caramelized tangle with a deep, earthy sweetness that almost belied their humble origins. This is a perfectly acceptable and delicious way to cook most vegetables, but after years of making the same recipe, I was ready for a change.
Kinpira, a simple Japanese preparation for root vegetables, is just the solution for roast-induced boredom. Although kinpira is traditionally prepared with carrot and burdock root (gobō), other root vegetables can also be used. (Indeed, the next best thing besides kinpira gobō is renkon (lotus root) kinpira.) This dish came about, in part, due to a happy confluence of root vegetables in my CSA share: slender carrots, creamy parsnips, and a gnarly looking burdock root that had been abandoned to the “swap box.” Yet the inspiration for this kinpira is also due in large part to my recent experience working at a very unique restaurant.
After returning from Japan last winter, I was foundering, unsure of my next steps. I knew, based on limited prior experience, that working in a restaurant kitchen was something I enjoyed, despite the mental and physical toughness it required. But I also knew that there were certain types of kitchens I wasn’t well-suited to. Thanks to this blog, I had also learned that Japanese home cooking was something I was passionate about and wanted to explore more deeply. After reading about Family Recipe in the New York Times, I immediately realized it was the sort of place I could see myself working. Thanks to a spontaneous e-mail and a lucky series of events, I began working a few days a week in the kitchen. As it happened, one of my primary tasks was making kinpira gobō, which required julienning mountains of carrots and burdock root. Like any kitchen task, it was far from creative work. Yet the sameness of the steps, the sense of progress as my knife tore through the perfectly planed carrots, the sputter and smell of vegetables hitting hot oil — all of this was deeply satisfying, perhaps even comforting. Although I’ve now moved on to other things, these lessons learned in the kitchen – discipline, focus, levelheadedness — matter equally in any line of work.
I cooked this kinpira up on the eve of the recent hurricane, both as a practical matter (that burdock was looking ever-gnarlier in the fridge) and in honor of the folks at Family Recipe. Served alongside some homemade gyōza and steamed white rice, it was as simple and comforting as Japanese food can be.
Parsnip Kinpira – パースニップのきんぴら
The proportions listed below are merely guidelines — feel free to play around with the seasonings to suit your tastes. I prefer kinpira that is just on the salty end of the sweet-savory spectrum, with the tiniest hint of heat from the shichimi.
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 medium parsnips, peeled and julienned
1 medium carrot, peeled and julienned
1/2 small gobō (burdock root), peeled and julienned
2 tablespoons shōyu (Japanese soy sauce), plus more to taste
2 tablespoons mirin, plus more to taste
1 tablespoon agave nectar (or substitute sugar)
Kosher salt, to taste
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon shichimi tōgarashi, plus more to taste
Heat the canola oil in a saute pan over medium-high heat. Add the parsnips, carrot, and burdock and saute until beginning to wilt. Add the shōyu, mirin, and agave or sugar, and continue cooking until the liquids have reduced and the vegetables are almost cooked through but still retain some crunch. Season to taste with salt, and stir in the sesame oil and shichimi.