Enthusing about salsify (SAHL-seh-fee) calls for a mighty small bandwagon. Although Thomas Jefferson grew it and middle-aged Europeans have fond memories of gratins made with the stuff, the skinny root vegetable gets love only from certain sectors of the food universe: fine-dining chefs, curious eaters and adventurous backyard farmers.
It can be tough to track down and even a little tricky to pull out of the ground, a winter pursuit. Salsify looks like a stick covered with dusty bark, making it the kind of ingredient that can be mistaken for kindling. It does not scream “try me.” Most often you’ll find references to its slight oyster flavor, and for that reason it’s referred to as “the oyster plant.”
All of which is exactly why we asked Diane Morgan to stop by The Post kitchen for a salsify session. The Portland, Ore., cookbook author-instructor was in town this week on a 30-city tour to promote her 17th book, “Roots: The Definitive Compendium With More Than 225 Recipes” (Chronicle, 2012). It’s a beauty, and a strong contender to be on our Top Cookbooks of 2012 roundup this year.
On this trip she and her husband were able to work in a visit to Jefferson’s Monticello, where she was delighted to buy salsify seeds.
“It’s coming back,” she said, using a vegetable peeler to dispatch the softer-than-it-looks exterior of the two pounds we ordered from Melissa’s Produce. She found plenty of salsify recipes in early American cookbooks while researching her book. Morgan says salsify has become a regular at her hometown farmers markets and in Portland’s CSA (community-supported agriculture) boxes.
We hit something of a brick wall during emergency scouting before her visit to Washington. But thanks to Friend of the Food section Nicole Donnelly, we found out later that salsify is available locally through Star Hollow Farm. It costs $4.70 per pound and is grown by at least one farmer in the Tuscarora Organic Growers Cooperative. The salsify you want to bring home should be firm rather than flexible.
As she worked, Morgan cut each peeled salsify into 2 1/2-inch lengths, then immediately transferred them to a bowl of acidulated water to keep their Rembrandt-toothpaste-white flesh from discoloring. The water turned a bit cloudy as the vegetable released inulin, a beneficial fiber. Fingertips and the knife blade picked up a starchy residue that washed away easily.
The salsify was parboiled, in acidulated water, for 7 or 8 minutes, until the tip of a knife inserted into the vegetable could enter with some resistance. Then she spooned the pieces into an ice-water bath to maintain their texture. She dried them with paper towels and then sauteed them in butter, keeping them moving until they glistened and had picked up some caramelization — “just in spots, not all over,” she said. By that time, the texture had become a little softer, akin to that of spot-on steamed white asparagus.
Seasoned and in the serving dish, the salsify got an even sprinkling of minced parsley and garlic. And there it was: a simple, out-of-the-ordinary side dish. “Better than the same old starch on the plate,” Morgan said.
The oyster affinity inspired her to develop a salsify stew that calls for bivalves; Morgan says the vegetable is a natural with mushrooms (in a ragu) and loves being tossed with cream. I plan to work my way through that section of the book, dish by dish.
Star Hollow Farm sells salsify through its CSA memberships, and it will be available at the farm’s last Saturday market stand in Adams Morgan on Saturday from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. How do you like to prepare it? Share in the comments below.
6 to 8 servings
MAKE AHEAD: The parboiled salsify can be refrigerated in an airtight container for a few days.
Adapted from Morgan’s “Roots: The Definitive Compendium With More Than 225 Recipes” (Chronicle, 2012).
2 pounds salsify
Unseasoned rice vinegar or distilled white vinegar
3 tablespoons minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 large cloves garlic, minced
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus an optional dab or two for garnish
1/2 teaspoon kosher or fine sea salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
Fill a large saucepan three-quarters full with water. Add 1 tablespoon of vinegar per 8 cups of water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat.
Meanwhile, fill a mixing bowl with water and add a generous splash of vinegar.
Peel the salsify. Cut crosswise into 2 1/2-inch lengths, immediately transferring them to the bowl of acidulated water. (The water may become cloudy; this is okay.)
Drain and add the salsify to the pan of boiling water; cook for 7 or 8 minutes, until the pieces are fork-tender yet still firm.
Fill a bowl with ice and cold water.
Use a slotted spoon to transfer the parboiled salsify to the ice-water bath. Once the vegetables have cooled, drain and pat them dry with paper towels.
Melt the 5 tablespoons of butter in a large skillet over medium-low heat, making sure the butter does not brown. Add the parboiled salsify and increase the heat to medium; cook for a few minutes, stirring frequently, until some of the vegetables are lightly caramelized yet all still retain a firmness.
Meanwhile, combine the parsley and garlic in a medium bowl.
Transfer the sauteed salsify to a serving dish. Season with the salt and pepper, then sprinkle with the parsley-garlic mixture. If desired, place a few dabs of butter on top.