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Salsify and scorzonera, the rarer roots

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Call us obsessive, but my husband and I have vegetable tastings at suppertime, testing and comparing the produce we grow the way oenophiles assess wines. We’re endlessly curious about what garden practices make vegetables more flavorful, but to tell the truth, we also love to eat, and we look for ways to fill our meals with pleasure.

This year I grew salsify and scorzonera in rows side by side with the explicit goal of a cook-off. With hard frost predicted, I dug them all, selected some choice roots and was soon scrubbing away grime and peeling off skins, furry with root hairs. The edible greens, too, were part of the test, so I sampled those raw first. Scorzonera’s, shaped like tall lily-of-the-valley leaves, were slightly tough but had a not-unpleasant spinach taste. Salsify’s grass-like tops were slightly sweet (they contain inulin) and tender enough to snip for a salad if there were no normal salad greens around.

Soon I had four little pans simmering on the stove, two filled with greens and two with chopped roots.

First, a word of definition. Salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius) is a long, off-white root that was a common vegetable in Thomas Jefferson’s day. It has a slightly artichoke-like flavor we both find appealing. Scorzonera (Scorzonera hispanica) has longer, somewhat skinnier roots, black in color. In fact it’s often called black salsify, even though the two plants are unrelated. Both are pure white inside and will discolor after cutting if not submerged immediately in lemon- or vinegar-spiked water.

“What’s this one?” my husband asked, blind-tasting the cooked leaves.

“That’s scorzonera,” I replied.

“It scores an error, all right. The other one is better.” I concurred: Salsify had won the greens test, as I thought it would. The root test, on the other hand, was an upset. Side by side with salsify, scorzonera proved a far more elegant root. It was snow-white next to salsify’s beige, and, more importantly, the pieces stayed intact in cooking, just yielding enough, with no tendency to mushiness. We liked the subtle flavor of both, but we pronounced scorzonera the most cook-friendly.

Next year I’ll reserve a large bed for scorzonera to get a bigger yield, loosening the soil to at least a foot in depth to accommodate the probing roots. I’ll sow as early in spring as the ground can be worked — early April if the soil is not too soggy. I sow thickly, then thin to about four inches apart in the row, using fresh seed to ensure germination. I’m careful not to weed out young seedlings, which resemble grass.

I’ll also plant salsify, because I’d like to experiment with blanching it. This entails mounding soil over the plants in late fall, leaving them in the ground and eating the pale, tender shoots that grow up through the soil in spring. I predict they will be quite delicious. Maybe even a home run.

Damrosch's new book, "The Four Season Farm Gardener's Cookbook," will be published in March.

Tip of the week

In cleaning up garden beds, don’t cut back bigleaf hydrangeas. Removing canes now will ruin the flower display next June. If you want to groom your hydrangea, wait until spring growth erupts in April. Work around the new growth to remove old flowerheads and dead canes. If your shrub is old, congested and twiggy, remove some of the oldest canes entirely at that time.

— Adrian Higgins

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