Monday, January 24, 2011

Meatless Monday: Salsify Makes a Comeback

Happy Monday everyone.

In 2010 celeriac (aka celery root), the chubby root vegetable with a pale and hairy visage, made the jump from farmers’ markets and specialty food shops to the produce bins of large supermarkets (at least here on the East Coast). Perhaps 2011 will be salsify’s year to make a comeback.

Only in Eataly have I tasted this root vegetable. It was early in November, the height of salsify season. Batons of Salsify was the only item that my cousin and I could not identify on the description of the antipasto plate. Rather than admit our ignorance, we decided to go for it. We were not disappointed.

The batons looked like baby carrots, only paler and not quite as plump. They had been braised until firm but not crunchy in texture and had a deliciously subtle taste. We could not imagine what form they had assumed when they were whole, but it was fairly apparent that salsify was a root vegetable.

Let me tell you the story of salsify, gleaned from cookbooks and googling. 

Salsify is indeed a root vegetable — long and tapering. Thomas Jefferson is said to have grown it. Scorzonera has a black skin; there is also a lighter-skinned variety with a grayish tinge. 

Salsify’s season is Fall to Winter. Late last year it could be found at a few green grocers in the New York boroughs, but this formerly favored root has not yet found its way back north and east to New Haven.

James Beard's American CookeryRenowned chef James Beard included salsify in his magnum opus American Cookery (1972): “Salsify was a popular root vegetable for many generations and then suddenly seemed to drop into disrepute. It was originally called oyster plant because it was said to have the flavor of oysters— so much so, says Mrs. Rorer [author of a 1902 cookbook often referenced by Beard], that vegetarians made Mock Oyster soups. The claim for its flavor I have never found to be true.” I would agree with chef Beard. I did not taste the oyster. Beard suggested scraping and boiling the roots (in “acidulated water” because the roots turn color almost immediately after peeling), and then provided three suggestions for serving: dressed with butter; sliced in a cream casserole; or puréed, combined with beaten eggs into salsify cakes, and then fried. James Beard is long gone, but his memory lives on at the foundation named after him. On this page of the foundation's blog you can learn more about salsify and see some celebrity top chefs featuring it in their recipes. 

Joy of CookingThe Joy of Cooking (1973 edition) urged readers to plant seeds for scorzonera if they plan to grow their own and advised that the roots taste best after being stored for several weeks at a temperature “just above” 32°. Once again there was advice about ways to avoid discoloration, including a suggestion to cook the salsify before peeling it. The Joy offered two recipes — one for salsify in cream sauce, the second for salsify fried with a cornflake coating.

A third cookbook in my collection — Fannie Farmer (1981 edition) also gave a brief reference to salsify. In this case salsify was described as a good accent in stews and meat pies and as a vegetable accompaniment to a variety of meat dishes. The recipes are basic — boiled and served with butter, or mashed with cream and butter. Fannie described the flavor as being “a little like oysters.” That’s more credible. 

None of the post 80s cookbooks in my collection made any mention of salsify. I did find this contemporary (in time and in taste) recipe for Damon Wise’s Pan-Roasted Salsify online. It actually sounds quite like what I ate at Eataly.

Now all I need are some roots. It has been suggested that salsify is a gardener’s plant — and that the best way to ensure a supply is to grow your own [or perhaps to get someone with a garden to grow some for you.] Heirloom seeds can be found at a number of sites such as this one. The variety in each case seems to be Mammoth Sandwich Island Salsify. 

The smell of dirt and spring is such a nice thought today. [It’s  2 PM. It’s under 13°. This is way too cold for the Connecticut shoreline…] 

Check back next Monday so I can tell you about my mushroom farm.

I try to blog on food or food issues each Monday in support of Meatless Monday, one of several programs developed in the Healthy Monday project, founded in 2003 in association with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. Meatless Monday’s goal is “to help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal health and the health of our planet.”

1 comment:

  1. I have had deep-fried salsify in Genoa . Yummy...
    I also had it in a Greek restaurant & liked the way they prepared it so much I wheedled the recipe out of the waitress. One thing to keep in mind--- you not only have to peel them, you have to core them, There is a woody, inedible strip down the center of the root which has to be excised either before or after cooking depending on the recipe.