Salsify: The Vegetable You've Never Met

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Ask most people, even foodies, if they’ve ever eaten salsify. You’ll get a blank stare. Those who have heard of it assume it’s the same as turnips or parsnips. I almost didn’t write about it, it’s so rare. But it’s too delicious to ignore.

Salsify is a root vegetable that was popular in the U.S. during the 1700s. For modern purposes, it basically comes in two types: salsify, which is white, and scorzonera, which is black. Some websites say that other parts of the plant are edible, though I’ve never heard of this. It is also called “oyster plant,” and if found in a store, might actually be labeled as such. The roots are similar in shape to a carrot or parsnip.

Scorzonera has the more oyster taste, while salsify, which I think is the more likely-to-find variety, has a taste that has been described as oyster/asparagus or oyster/artichoke heart. It can be added to any root vegetable dish, but try it first on its own.

But once again: it’s hard to find. Even in Chicago. A farmer’s market might have it. If you’re okay with canned (and that’s fine for your first try), you can order online from Roland Foods. If you want to grow your own, buy seeds at these places: Salsify seeds.

If you are preparing fresh salsify, don’t wash it. Just store it in plastic. When it’s time to prepare it, I recommend wearing rubber or plastic gloves – and old clothes. Salsify exudes a sticky substance that is unpleasant to work with and impossible to wash off; cooking removes this substance. Place the peeled salsify in a bowl with water a bit of lemon juice to prevent it from discoloring prior to cooking.

Salsify supposedly grows wild throughout the U.S., and one source I consulted said it was “plentiful” in deserted urban areas and could be spotted by its purple flower. I’m not sure I want to dig my food out of a vacant lot filled with shards of glass and who knows what else, but it’s an interesting twist – that a rare vegetable is all around us – if it’s true.

Mock Oyster Soup

1 1/2 cups cubed salsify
1 1/2 cups water
1 tablespoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons butter (not margarine)
2 cups whole milk
1 cup cream (or half-and-half)
Salt, pepper and parsley to taste

Prepare the salsify as advised above; cut into cubes about a half-inch thick. In medium saucepan, place water and salt, bring to a boil, and add salsify. Cook until tender, approximately 10 minutes. Add butter, milk, cream and heat through. Add salt and pepper to taste. Some might choose to add parsley for bit of color and additional different flavor. You can also top this with – what else – oyster crackers.

By the way, it doesn’t rhyme with “falsify.” The syllable on the end is “fee.” This vegetable just won’t conform.