Salsify is an ‘Almost’ Forgotten Treat

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Sometimes you remember a sight, smell or taste from when you were a kid and want to re-visit it, but find out it has slipped through the pages of time. This is my story with the vegetable salsify.

I remember digging these ugly roots in the spring and then enjoying the most fantastic “vegetable oyster” stew on cold nights. Planting the garden this year, I longed to try some of these root vegetables. I soon learned that this popular vegetable in the not-so-long-ago was now hard to find. I searched online and finally found some seed. Now I am waiting for fall and, hopefully, a bumper crop.

Salsify has been dubbed “vegetable oysters” or the “oyster plant” because its taste is similar to that of oysters. Or not, depending on your palette. Belonging to the dandelion family, it is a root vegetable and is similar in appearance to a long, slim parsnip with creamy white flesh and a thick skin.

It is usually planted in spring as early as the ground can be worked and then allowed to grow all summer and fall. The first frost actually brings out the flavor and makes them sweeter. Some people actually plant them in the fall. Any time there is a thaw during winter or when the ground thaws in spring, they can be dug and used. As with any crop, they are best eaten fresh, but they can also be cooked, frozen in water and used later.

They aren’t your prettiest vegetable with their shaggy roots and side roots or “hairs” growing out of the main taproot. However, peeling them reveals the tender white flesh. They are a great 2-in-1 crop. The leaves and roots are both edible and tend to nourish in different ways. The light colored part of the leaf, the bottom six inches or so, is tender and delicious like the bottom of leeks. After washed, they can be sautéed in butter.

As for the roots, there are differences of opinion on how is the best way to consume these delicacies. OK, there is even a difference of opinion on whether they are a delicacy! Some people peel and then steam the roots for 10 or 15 minutes until they are tender. Then they brown them in butter, much like you prepare parsnips.

Photo: Fotolia/Joanna Wnuk

Salsify, like other taproot vegetables, tends to bring up minerals from deep below the soil so it is important to keep them mulched with compost. This, of course, also helps to retain moisture during dry spells.

My favorite method of preparation is to cook them until tender, then add a little milk, butter, salt and pepper and eat like a soup. Of course this is how I was raised eating them and it is the taste that I fondly remember from childhood. It’s one of those things you pass down from generation to generation. We always raised them as did my Uncle Don. He and I could hardly wait until that first taste of them in the spring. So, this year when I got ready to try some on my own, I asked Aunt Sharlene for some pointers. She wrinkled her nose and politely said she couldn’t help me. Not only did she not like them, she holds such a disdain for them that she never harvested or cooked them. Obviously, Uncle Don and I have always enjoyed one of the best kept treasures that she has yet to discover!

I hope this isn’t a case of the memory being sweeter than the actual taste of a food from the past. Each day I wait in anticipation as I watch the seedlings grow. I also tried some kale plants this year because being adventurous makes gardening fun and can lead to new favorites. Or not!