Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Salsify

There are some vegetables that are so homely you can sort of understand why they aren’t more popular with the masses. Celery root, rutabagas and salsify come to mind as misunderstood, less-than-attractive root vegetables that, when cooked properly, are truly delicious. So don’t let salsify’s uninviting appearance turn you off. If you can get your hands on this delicious – but sometimes elusive – veggie, you will not be disappointed! 

A Brief History

There are two different plants, with different origins, that are commonly referred to as “salsify.” White salsify (also known as simply “salsify”) is native to the Eastern Mediterranean. In her book Roots, Diane Morgan tells us that white salsify was first cultivated in the 16th century in Italy and France, then later in central and northern Europe. Morgan explains that the root was first brought to North America in the 18th century, where it became fairly popular and was nicknamed “oyster plant.” In a wonderful essay on salsify from American Heritage Vegetables, the author notes that salsify became “a monument to the people’s insatiable desire for oysters,” the root’s flavor somewhat resembling the bivalve – although just how much is up for debate. From the same essay:

Only a 19th-century Midwesterner, haunted by elusive memory and residing far from the railroad depots where barrels of eastern oysters were dispatched, could possibly delude themselves into detecting the briny succulence of an oyster on his tongue when savoring salsify.

(Don’t fret: the essay goes on to note that the root vegetable has its own delicious virtues, independent of its supposed resemblance to oysters! And it’s true.) In addition to the root, Americans also once savored the young, tender leaves as a vegetable, although both have long since fallen out of favor. 

Black salsify, also known as scorzonera or Spanish salsify, is native to a wider area of Europe and Asia (as far east as Siberia, according to the Oxford Companion to Food). Morgan notes that black salsify’s cultivation began a little later than white salsify – around the 17th century, when it was first grown in Spain. 

Factual Nibbles

  • You may see salsify growing wild; it has spread to most US states. Its cousin, yellow salsify (Tragopogon dubius) is considered invasive in some areas.
  • According to Edible: an Illustrated Guide to the World’s Food Plants, until the 1500s, black salsify was thought to be effective against “toxins” and the plague.
  • In Sicily, a dessert ice was once made with salsify, jasmine and cinnamon; called scursunera, the salsify has long since been dropped from the mixture.
  • White salsify’s genus name, Tragopogon, means “goat’s beard,” which probably refers to the seed heads of the plant; they resemble giant dandelion clocks (and goats’ beards, natch).

Cultivation

Both black salsify (Scorzonera hispanica) and white salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius) are in the daisy (Asteraceae) family, which means that they are related to lettuce, artichokes, sunflowers and many ornamentals (like dahlias, daisies and mums). Both types of salsify are annuals or biannuals grown from seed, with very lovely, edible flowers: white salsify has bright purple flowers and black salsify has bright yellow ones. If you’re growing your own, you’re in luck, because the roots can withstand a hard frost and can even be stored in the ground over winter.

Seasonality

Salsify is usually harvested starting in the late fall – the roots are said to be better tasting after a hard frost – through mid-winter. You’re unlikely to see salsify at a conventional grocery store, so search the veggie out at your local farmer’s’ market or specialty store. 

Environmental Impact

Salsify is still a very rare veggie in the US, making its environmental impact negligible. If you have questions about how your salsify was raised, ask your local salsify farmer about his/her growing practices. (*Check out our Real Food rule of thumb for more information.)

Characteristics

White salsify roots range from slender to slightly thicker and parsnip-like, with ivory to light brown skin. Black salsify roots tend to be much slimmer, with dark black skin. Both have creamy white flesh. White salsify is supposed to resemble oysters in flavor (although I don’t really get this), while black salsify is said to be the tastier of the two roots. I find their flavor sort of parsnip-y/ carrot-y/potato-y, but try them for yourself and see what you think! 

What to look for

Salsify goes bad very quickly if broken or pierced, so look for intact roots with little to no blemishes or mushy spots. The roots should be firm and not springy. 

Nutrition

Salsify is not exactly a nutritional powerhouse, but the root veggie has decent amounts of fiber, Vitamin C, Vitamin B6, folate, potassium and manganese. It even has a little bit of protein, calcium and iron. Not too shabby.

What to Do with It

Young salsify roots can be eaten raw if sliced thinly or grated (but see the Pro Tip, below about the root’s tendency to oxidize), but more commonly both types of salsify are boiled, steamed, fried, baked or pureed into soups. Salsify pairs well with dairy (like butter, cream and cheese) and with strong herbs and flavorings (think garlic, onions), as well as with pork and chicken. Both the young shoots and the flowers can be eaten. Note that both black and white salsify can be used interchangeably. 

Cooking

If you’re lucky enough to get your hands on salsify of either variety, there are a surprising number of lovely recipes to try. Like this one for salsify provencal (excerpted from Diane Morgan’s book), which pairs the root with tons of garlic and parsley, or this little salsify gratin number. Here are a few delicious-sounding salsify recipes from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, including salsify fritters, salsify tempura and a salsify gratin with kale (yum!). Hank Shaw over at Hunter, Gardner, Angler, Cook has a couple of great salsify recipes, including Salmon with sorrel and salsify or salsify fritters with oyster mushrooms and oysters (he calls it “Oyster, Oyster, Oyster” – get it?). The Chicago Tribune has a couple of great salsify recipes, including salsify slaw and salsify pancakes. And the New York Times serves up an awesome-sounding cream of salsify soup (truffle oil optional). Finally, should you have an abundance of crickets on hand, check out this recipe for fried crickets with salsify salad (don’t gag – we wrote about the advantages of insect eating earlier in the year). 

For more salsify recipes, I urge you to check out Diane Morgan’s book, Roots, for a treasure trove of ideas, including Scorzonera Wrapped in Crisp Proscuitto, Scorzonera Fettuccine in Mushroom Cream Sauce and Salsify Oyster Stew, among many others. 

Storage

If you can store salsify at around 32 degrees (F) in high humidity, the roots will keep for as long as a month or two. In the crisper drawer in the fridge, it will keep for one to three weeks.

Pro Tips

Salsify oxidizes very quickly when cut, so you must drop it in acidulated water (water that has a bit of acid – like lemon juice – added to it) immediately after peeling or slicing the root. The Chicago Tribune posted even more tips, including:

  • Wear rubber gloves when preparing, as both types of salsify can discolor your hands.
  • When boiling or parboiling salsify, stir in one tablespoon each flour and lemon juice to prevent the roots from turning gray. 

Stretching your fresh food dollar though preservation

Salsify can be lacto-fermented, like in this mixed-veggie ferment that includes salsify. The roots can also be pickled

Recipe

Baked Salsify with Breadcrumbs and Milk

The American Heritage Vegetables website, from the University of South Carolina, is an amazing resource that, in their words: “documents cultivation practices, popular varieties, and cookery of vegetables found in American kitchen and market gardens before the twentieth century.” For many of their vegetable entries, they include historical recipes from before the twentieth century. As you may know, historical recipes are frequently lacking in explanation or measurements, as it was generally expected that a cook would know basic (and even advanced) cooking techniques. I’ve taken the recipe below from an 1874 recipe in the American Heritage Vegetables entry on salsify, but I’ve tested and refined it for modern kitchens.  It’s a bit like a salsify gratin – perfect for a late fall night.  

1 lb. salsify or scorzonera (unpeeled)

1 cup dried breadcrumbs4 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, finely chopped

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

12 cup whole milk (preferably grass-fed)

  1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.
  2. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Drop the unpeeled salsify in the water and boil until tender, 10-15 minutes (this may vary depending on how large your salsify roots are. Pierce with the tip of a paring knife to test for doneness – they should be fairly soft when cooked through, but not mushy). 
  3. Drain and let cool slightly, then remove the salsify skin (discard skin).
  4. Smear the bottom of a 9x13 baking or gratin dish with a bit of the butter. Place a layer of cooked salsify in the bottom of the dish, then top with breadcrumbs and a few small knobs of butter, a sprinkling of chopped fresh thyme, a pinch of kosher salt and a grinding of fresh pepper. Repeat, ending with a sprinkling of breadcrumbs. 
  5. Pour in the milk. 
  6. Bake for 40-45 minutes, or until browned on top and bubbling.  

(*Real Food rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them – agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)

Responses to "Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Salsify"

  1. Nathalie Ryan

    Very interesting. I've never seen salsify before. Will have to keep an eye out for this one at farmer's markets next fall.

    Kristen
    01.22.2014

    Definitely - dear readers, have any of you seen it where you live?

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