Real Food Encyclopedia | 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. 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!
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.
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.
Fun Facts about Salsify:
- 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, obviously).
What to Look for When Buying Salsify
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, while black salsify is said to be the tastier of the two roots.
Salsify goes bad very quickly if broken or pierced, so when shopping, look for intact roots with little to no blemishes or mushy spots. The roots should be firm and not springy.
Sustainability of Salsify
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.
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 for the veggie out at your local farmers’ market or specialty store.
If you can store salsify at around 32 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.
Cooking with Salsify
- Salsify oxidizes very quickly when cut, so you must drop it in acidulated water (water that has a bit of acid, such as lemon juice, added to it) immediately after peeling or slicing the root.
- 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.
Young salsify roots can be eaten raw if sliced thinly or grated, 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.
If you’re lucky enough to get your hands on salsify of either variety, there are a surprising number of lovely recipes to try. This recipe for salsify provencal pairs the root with tons of garlic and parsley, and this one adds nice caramelization to the vegetable with the gratin technique. Other ideas include salsify fritters, salsify tempura and cream of salsify soup.
For more salsify recipes, we suggest you check out Diane Morgan’s book, “Roots,” for a treasure trove of ideas, including Scorzonera Wrapped in Crisp Prosciutto, Scorzonera Fettuccine in Mushroom Cream Sauce and Salsify Oyster Stew, among many others.
Salsify is not exactly a nutritional powerhouse, but the root veggie has decent amounts of fiber, Vitamin C, Vitamin B-6, folate, potassium and manganese. It even has a little bit of protein, calcium and iron.