Salsify – the vegetable that manages your expectations!

“Scrape and wash the salsify, cut them into small even-sized pieces, throw them into boiling water, and add a little butter, lemon juice, and salt. Boil gently until tender, and then drain well. Heat up in a little well-seasoned good white sauce.”

Isabella Beeton, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management

I can’t now remember how it was that I came to decide to investigate salsify. I’d never heard of it before and then suddenly it seemed to be on everybody’s lips and appearing on all sorts of hip restaurants’ menus. Then in November 2018 it became mainstream when Waitrose began to stock it.

In fact, it isn’t so new-fangled. Mrs Beeton was a fan…she cooked it, as described above, with butter, lemon juice and salt.

Not a beautiful vegetable….

I admit I was dubious. It’s at the other end of the food beauty spectrum from Romanesco being, quite possibly, the most ugly vegetable of all – if you look at it end on it’s positively obscene. There’s no doubt that one approaches this brown, gnarled root somewhat with trepidation… certainly not with expectations.

What does salsify taste of?

I conducted my experiment with a couple of friends and we were all amazed. “Mmmm – it’s delicious!” we chorused in surprise. Hard to describe the taste exactly – ‘rooty’ of course, better than a Jerusalem artichoke, better than a parsnip but along those sorts of lines. It is apparently a member of the dandelion and endive family, and it’s sometimes known as ‘oyster plant’ as some people (none of us, but apparently mid-western Americans, homesick for seafood) think it tastes a bit of oysters.

Is salsify good for you?

Seemingly so. Julia Enders, in her wonderful book, Gut: the inside story of our body’s most under-rated organ, tells us:

“And it is not even very hard to do yourself and your best microbes a favour with prebiotics. Most people already have a favourite prebiotic dish that they would not mind eating more often. …. my sister can’t resist asparagus or black salsify in a creamy sauce. Those are just a few dishes that Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli love to eat.”

What to eat salsify with

It would go well with ham, with chicken, or with white fish. If you serve with ham, Hugh Fernley-Whitingstall suggests dressing them with a garlicky, mustardy dressing and I think that would be rather good.

Jane Grigson suggests gremolata (lemon zest, garlic, and parsley).

Or simply with some good sea salt (try some NORÐUR salt – go to this post for how they make this beautiful salt).

What can you substitute for salsify?

Try scorzonera, sometimes known as black salsify – darker, crisper, less sweet. Peel it and rinse it in water. Cut it into slices and put it into milk (this also stops discolouration). Fry (maybe with a sliced onion) for about five minutes. Snip over a few leaves of parsley and serve.

If you can’t find scorzonera either, try a parsnip…. but really it’s not the same.

When is salsify in season:

Salsify is in season from October to January

Thinking of growing salsify?

It’s easy to grow, but takes time – about four months – and it likes frost. The most common variety is Mammoth Sandwich Island. And Russian Giant is a good scorzonera.

How to cook salsify – roast, boil and batter 

Raw

Michel Roux Jr suggests eating it raw in a coleslaw.

One way to cook it – in batter, and fry

In his A Year Of Good Eating, Nigel Slater suggests coating cooked salsify by dipping it, once cooked (see below) in beaten egg and then rolling in a breadcrumb, lemon zest, dill and paprika mix. Then fry and serve with the lemon.

Roast

You can roast salsify in olive oil for about twenty minutes – and that makes sense if you are roasting something else at the same time. Good with lemon and garlic.

Boil

Otherwise this boiling method worked a treat.

Three roots (about 300g/10 oz) is enough for about two people.

  1. Boil a saucepan of water.
  2. Meanwhile get ready a bowl of water into which you have added some lemon juice – it needs to be immediately to hand as it is incredible how quickly salsify turns brown when it’s peeled core meets the air.
  3. Using a potato peeler, peel the skin and cut either into rounds, or into lengths. It gets quite sticky – perhaps a type of sap?
  4. Put in cold water with some lemon juice and bring to the boil. Simmer for about eight minutes (or you could steam for about twenty minutes. The advantage of steaming is that by boiling the root can become mushy).
  5. Caramelise in a frying pan with a couple of knobs of butter for about five minutes. Chef Pierre Koffmann (aka ‘the bear’ – whose first restaurant was Tante Clair) then adds 500ml/2 cups of cider per 400g/14 oz of salsify, and reduces the cider to syrup. 
  6. Serve immediately (it will keep in the fridge if necessary – in which case you can just heat up in the frying pan). A sprinkling of parsley goes well.
How to cook salsify
It doesn’t look much – but it’s incredibly good!
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