(Tragopogon porrifolius ssp. porrifolium – Family Compositae [Asteraceae])
Salsify, White salsify, oyster plant, vegetable oyster, goat’s beard, oatroo
Salsify is from a different genus than that of Black salsify
but both are from the same family. This can be confusing but there are botanical and culinary reasons.
Salsify is also closely related to and very similar to scorzonera. It can be distinguished by only its narrower leek-like leaves and reddish violet flowers,
rather than the yellow flowers
produced by the scorzonera.
Salsify root is yellowish-white and much shorter than the scorzonera root, but the flavour is basically the same, and so is the preparation and cooking. Both are native to the lands around the eastern Mediterranean.
This ancient root vegetable is covered with tiny rootlets, and is usually about six to twelve inches long, looking very much like a parsnip with a thin, pale skin and off-white flesh.
Some are sold with their leek-like grass tops, called chards, still attached.
Although salsify has been dubbed “the oyster plant”, most people cannot detect any such taste. The flavour is more like a nutty artichoke and sweeter, if eaten shortly after harvest rather than after it has stored awhile.
It is often grown as an ornamental, as well as for its edible shoots, flower buds, flowers, and tapering roots.
Its Latin and common names are fitting as “tragos” means goat and “pogon” means beard, which describes the tuft of silky hairs on the developing thistle-like seedheads and end up looking like a giant dandelion after it has gone to seed.
“Porrifolius” means ‘with leaves like a leek’. Salsify comes from the old Latin name ‘solsequium’ from the way the flowers follow the course of the sun throughout the day.
In the 13th century, salsify was harvested from the wild in Germany and France, but not cultivated until the early 16th century in Italian gardens.
Salsify was esteemed in central Europe until the end of the 16th century when it was almost entirely superseded by scorzonera because its core was frequently woody and also because it sometimes bloomed in the first of the year, which rendered its roots worthless.
Now, only in Britain, southern Europe, and southern Germany is it still marginally important as a decorative and useful plant.
The English plant collector, John Tradescant the Younger, recorded it in 1656, but it was not brought to America until the late 19th century. It is still grown in the US as a vegetable.
The salsify root is not easily removed from the ground, as it often breaks. When this happens, it must be used at once as it quickly discolours and spoils. Even when cutting it up, it should be dropped into acidic water (with a little lemon or vinegar) until ready to cook to prevent discolouration.
The root can also be baked or made into a creamy soup. If it is precooked intact, the skin becomes much easier to remove. The young leaves are good in salads.
Some gardeners grow the plant for its shoots, which are treated like a Belgian chicory. If grown as such, the root system will not develop.
The smaller wild goat’s beard is a miniature version of the salsify in every way except that its flowers are yellow instead of purple. The flower buds are picked just before they open, with about three inches of stem attached. They are lightly simmered and then eaten when cold.
Salsify is high in Vitamin B6, fiber, calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, riboflavin, and folate.
Like the Jerusalem artichoke, salsify contains inulin, a type of carbohydrate that breaks down fructose, a diabetic-friendly sugar. However, not everyone can digest inulin efficiently and must start slowly by eating small amounts to build up a tolerance so as to avoid flatulence – or eaten with a digestive enzyme high in amylases.
The roots do not need to be peeled before cooking, just scrubbed well. They do discolour when cut so will have to be kept in water until ready to use. They can then be sliced and sautéed or baked, dipped in batter and fried, or made into fritters, although boiling brings out the full flavour.
Salsify does not freeze well raw or cooked so needs to be used fresh. It can also be cooked with the peel on and then removed afterwards like a potato.
Salsify breaks apart easily so it cannot be overcooked, or it turns from succulent to mushy in an instant. Steaming is a better method of cooking than boiling, or it can be added to soups and stews to help thicken them.
The vegetable often has a sauce as an accompaniment. The Greeks use a lemon sauce called avgolemono, or such others as béchamel, vinaigrette, or a cherry sauce. Herbs and spices are added with some dishes. It can be cooked with a glaze like carrots or parsnips.
A couple of good varieties are as follows:
Geante Noire de Russie is an extremely long, black-skinned variety with white roots and a superb flavour.
Sandwich Island is a selected type with strongly flavoured roots and smooth skin.
Scorzonera, Black salsify, viper grass, Spanish salsify (Scorzonera hispanica – Family Compositae [Asteraceae])
Scorzonera is not a variety of salsify (see photo above). It has been cultivated as a vegetable since the 17th century; but, before that, it was strictly a medicinal plant.
During the Middle Ages, it was reputed to be an anti-venom, thus the nickname of viper grass. As time went on, it became accepted more as a food, and increasingly supplanted the white-skinned salsify.
To many cooks, salsify and scorzonera are considered interchangeable, as their taste and texture are almost identical. However, scorzonera has been described as having a faint coconut flavour, while salsify is more akin to artichokes. It is slightly longer than white salsify, with a black or dark brown skin and no rootlets; and, it is easier to peel.
Scorzonera was introduced into Europe through the Spanish seed and hence the hispanic attachment to the name. The name scorzonera may have come from the French scorzon, meaning “serpent”, as the root was used in Spain to cure snake bites.
Another interpretaion suggests it comes from the Italian scorza (bark) and nera (black) which describe the roots. Native to central and southern Europe through to Russia and Siberia, scorzonera was known to the Greeks and Romans, who took little interest in its cultivation. It arrived in England by 1560 and in North America by 1806.
Although popular in Europe, it is far less common in Britain and North America. It is still widely grown in continental Europe as an excellent, winter vegetable. The leaves have been used as food for silkworms. Belgium is the most important producer and exporter of this vegetable, followed by France and Holland.
Scorzonera is a winter-hardy perennial. Its narrow tapering leaves with unbroken margins can reach heights of two to four feet. Although only the roots are sold, the leaf stalks, buds, and flowers are quite edible and can be used in salads.
Commercially cultivated scorzonera is harvested in October as soon as the leaves wither. The roots should be straight and as thick as possible and undamaged. The diameter averages an inch, but can reach lengths up to twenty inches.
The skins are velvety thick or corky; but the inside is white, fleshy, soft, and juicy. The root should be firm, but not like a carrot. Large, overly mature salsify can be tough and woody. The nutritional value of scorzonera is only surpassed by that of peas and beans, making it a highly useful winter vegetable.
There are varieties available that produce long tapering roots with a good flavour.
Some are: Duplex, Flandria Scorzonera (produces twelve inch roots), Habil, Lange Jan or Long John, Long Black, and Russian Giant (which lives up to its name).
(Arctium lappa var. edule — Family Compositae [Asteraceae])
This species of burdock is not the same as the large, wild, and inedible burdock (Arctium lappa),
but it does resemble the scorzonera and is treated the same way in cooking.
A member of the Daisy family (Compositae [Asteraceae]), edible burdock is common all over the northern temperate zone, furnishing edible roots for any who want them.
The roots can reach lengths of four feet and are usually quite slender. The wild variety grows to only about sixteen inches in length.
It is speculated that this root originated in China, but cultivated by the Japanese over 1,000 years ago. It is popular in Hawaii, where the Japanese introduced it and prized there as a low-calorie foodstuff with a high fiber content.
It is not well-known in the West, and found only occasionally in an Asian market. In Japan, there are two forms of edible burdock.
One has green stalks, while the other is purplish. The Japanese do not cook this vegetable alone, but prefer to combine it with others. The rind must be peeled off as it is bitter.