Salsify sounds like something you’d do to tomatoes right before turning them into salsa! But this skinny vegetable has nothing to do with tomatoes or Mexican food. Instead, salsify (actually pronounced “SAL-se-fee”) hails from the Mediterranean, where ancient Greeks and Romans harvested the roots for both food and medicine.
Through the Middle Ages and up until the last century, this vegetable was a common sight in both Europe and the United States. However, with the advent of refrigeration, people started using vegetables that were more difficult to preserve and the once popular salsify faded into obscurity.
Black and White Salsify
This plant comes in two different varieties: black salsify and white salsify. Throughout history, it has gone by many names, including purple goat’s beard and vegetable oyster. To this day, you’ll often see black salsify referred to as scorzonera. But it’s not exactly pretty, so many people may pass right by this vegetable without giving it much thought.
So what, exactly, is salsify? Tragopogon porrifolius is a long, thin root vegetable that looks similar to a medium or large carrot or parsnip. Black salsify is immediately recognizable by its dark, nearly black, smooth skin while white salsify has brown or tan skin and is more “hairy.” Both varieties have white flesh that looks similar to a turnip.
In the garden, salsify makes an excellent bedding or background plant. The greens, which are also edible, look like tufts of coarse grass, and they grow up to three feet tall. As a member of the dandelion family, salsify has dusky pink to purple blooms that look something like a cross between a daisy and a dandelion. And, just like dandelions, the flowers turn into white puffs when they go to seed.
So how does one use or cook with salsify? Centuries ago, this plant saw some medicinal use for gallbladder and liver complaints. Black salsify was sometimes called “Viper’s Grass” because it was a popular remedy for snakebites. Today, salsify can be used as a replacement for nearly any root crop – especially potatoes. Boil it, mash it, put it in your favorite soups and stews or simply cube it and sauté it in butter with its greens. You can even use it in place of potatoes in au gratin or scalloped potatoes recipes.
The best part is that salsify is much better for you than most starchy root vegetables. These simple roots contain lots of iron, vitamin C, thiamin, calcium and phosphorus, and provide a healthy dose of fiber. They also have as much potassium as a banana. All of this earns them “superfood” status.
This good-for-you vegetable tastes good, too. Many claim that salsify tastes a little bit like oysters, which is one reason why it’s often called “vegetable oyster.” In truth, black salsify has a mild oyster flavor that makes it perfect for chowder or mock oyster soup. White salsify has a somewhat different flavor, similar to artichoke hearts or asparagus.
Want To Grow Salsify?
Since finding salsify in grocery stores is often difficult, many people choose to simply grow it themselves. And growing salsify is simple. These hardy plants are resistant to most diseases and pests don’t pose a threat to them.
The best time to plant salsify is in early spring in areas that get snow, and early autumn in areas where snow does not fall. It takes about 100-120 days for the plant to reach harvesting size and they prefer cool weather.
You’ll be starting with seeds—simply plant them every four inches in rows spaced 12 to 16 inches apart. Salsify prefers moderate to poor soil—too much manure or compost will produce poor quality roots. And when weeding, make sure that you don’t inadvertently weed out your seedlings since sprouting salsify looks exactly like young grass.
As you’re harvesting these roots, you won’t need to worry about preserving them. Salsify doesn’t can or freeze particularly well, and it goes limp relatively quickly after being harvested. The best (and easiest!) way to keep the roots is to leave them in the ground until you’re ready to eat them. If you live in an area where the ground freezes during the winter, dig the salsify roots right before the first freeze. Then you can store them in a container of damp sand placed somewhere that stays cool but not frozen, like a root cellar or in the garage.
These days, lots of fruits and veggies are labeled as “superfoods” but salsify is one of the few vegetables that truly lives up to that name. It’s easy to grow, packed with vitamins and minerals, and it has a scrumptious flavor that lends itself well to all kinds of dishes.
Pan Roasted Salsify
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Fresh chopped parsley
Juice of one lemon
Fresh ground black pepper
Water for boiling
Cut off the tops and tips of each root and scrape off the dark outer skin. Cut each root into smaller pieces, about 2 inches long.
Bring water to a boil with lemon juice (this prevents the salsify from darkening). Boil the pieces until tender, about 20-30 minutes. Drain, and cool slightly, then cut the pieces in half, lengthwise.
Place olive oil in a large saute pan over medium-high heat. Place the drained salsify pieces in the olive oil with the salt and black pepper.
Cook until golden brown, turning the pieces gently. Add the fresh parsley and serve.