Wednesday, March 19, 2008
S is for Salsify...the forgotten vegetable!
It seems that the letter S has its fair share of unusual vegetables. After samphire, we moved on to Salsify. "Its the forgotten vegetable,” said the grocer. “It’s as if people don’t know that it exists and wouldn’t know what to do with it.” He was right. When I googled the word salsify there were countless entries from seed companies. Yet they hardly ever appear for sale. I had seen them in markets in France and Italy but much of Britain seems to have chosen to neglect them. The grocer was delighted to be able to sell me salsify. I took the bus to a grocers where there bundles of what looked like stumpy black wands stacked on display. This was black salsify, also known as scorzonera. A small pink label told me it came from a farm in Belgium. Salsify and scorzonera are both root vegetables. One is long and thin with light-brown whiskery skin. It is related to scorzonera which has much darker roots with skin like tree bark. I picked up Freddie from school. A small crowd of his friends gathered round the scorzonera. “They look like daggers” said Eleanor. Freddie took one look and asked if I had any biscuits he could eat. After artichokes, daikons, eddoes and karela, he doesn’t bat an eyelid at strange-looking vegetables. I looked through my older cookery books to learn what to do with my forgotten salsify. Constance Spry writes that in France, salsify authorities classify both types of salsify as one category “salsifis”. She also praises the black salsify for its superior taste. I couldn't find any lighter skinned salsify so we have nothing to compare it with.
I soon learnt that scorzonera has a strange habit. Where the bank had been scratched, a sticky white milk started to ooze from its skin. This stuck to my fingers like pvc glue, turning black. It was impervious to scrubbing. Apparently this milk is in fact latex. Salsify is apparently distantly related to the same family as dandelions, which ooze the same sticky white fluid. When I returned to prepare the scorzonera I wore rubber gloves. There was another unpleasant family characteristic that we were all to discover later on that evening. Like another distant relative, Jerusalem artichokes, they contain something called inulin, which has earned them the nickname "fartichokes". You have been warned. (The genteel Ms Spry hadn’t mentioned this).
With a new vegetable we have learnt to keep it simple. All of my older cookery books recommended boiling or steaming the scorzonera and serving it with browned butter and freshly chopped herbs. So this is what I did. Have a large pan of cold water with plenty of lemon juice ready before you start. The salsify is a sensitive soul. Once exposed to the air, its white flesh starts to brown. With my gloves on, I scrubbed the roots clean, peeled them and placed them in the water with lemon juice. I boiled them until they were tender ; soft but not mushy. Browning butter is easy. Unless you make the same mistake as I did, using a dark coloured pan. Unable to see how the butter was browning, I burnt it. I switched to a white pan and started afresh. This was the first time any of us had tasted any kind of salsify. We tried to describe it. Alex thought it was like a mild turnip, Freddie compared it to Jerusalem artichokes, Chris thought it was a little like asparagus in taste. None of us felt that it tasted like its nickname, oyster. The score from Freddie for his first taste of Scorzonera was 7 out of 10. The browned butter helped this score...
Scorzonera with browned butter and herbs
1 kg scorzonera
Generous handful of freshly chopped chive and parsley
Clean the roots under running water, peel them and then put them into a large pan with some lemon juice. Make sure they are covered by the water. Cut into smaller pieces and slice them at an angle, into pieces the same size as penne pasta. Boil a pan of water with lemon juice and add the scorzonera. Simmer for around 25-30 minutes or until the roots are tender. There seems to be a huge difference in the recommended cooking time for this root vegetable. Some say that 10 minutes boiling is enough – we found that it took over 25 minutes. They are ready when they are tender and just soft – but not mushy. Drain well. In a small light-coloured pan, melt the butter and stir until it starts to turn a golden nutty brown. Drain the scorzonera and place in a serving dish. Pour over the browned butter with the chopped herbs. Serve immediately.