Readers of this column have had some strange dishes offered up to them over the years. Of the lesser-known crops I’ve suggested you try, a few might not have won you over. Was the saltwort a little too prickly, the Malabar spinach too viscous? Then again, maybe you found great uses for them.
I figure being adventurous in what you grow makes gardening more fun and can lead to new favorites. And the reason many of these foods are obscure may have more to do with the needs of long-distance shipping than whether they are good to eat. This is what gives the home gardener or local grower such an advantage. It might seem like the supermarkets have everything, but here’s the big secret: Potentially, you have a much wider repertoire.
So you’re going to have to trust me about salsify. This is a white root — rather like a parsnip but skinnier — that keeps beautifully in the ground. Like the parsnip, it’s planted in spring, as early as the ground can be worked, then allowed to grow all summer and fall until the first frosts bring out its flavor. You can then pull it up during thaws, saving some under refrigeration if you like, but it will shrivel a little and is best dug and eaten fresh.
When you do this, don’t be dismayed by the way those roots look. They are tan and shaggy with coarse side roots. They make me think of the tabloid headline “Movie Stars Without Makeup.” Just wait till they’re all dolled up.
The dolling-up consists of peeling them with a vegetable peeler to reveal the snow-white flesh, then placing them into a bowl of water acidulated with lemon juice, to keep them that way. Or not. If you’re going to brown them in butter it won’t matter, right? And that’s just what I do with them after I’ve steamed them for 15 to 30 minutes, depending on size.
I also use the greens, which look like tall, wide grass blades. The light-colored part of the leaf, the bottom six inches or so, is tender and delicious, like the bottom of a leek, so it gets a thorough washing and then a quick butter saute, along with the roots.
The most surprising thing about salsify, the first time you eat it, is its flavor. Traditionally it is called “oyster plant,” a name as inaccurate as it is unappetizing. The roots taste nothing like oysters, and nothing like parsnips either. They taste like artichoke hearts — unlike the so-called Jerusalem artichokes that are said to taste like artichokes but don’t.
This is a great two-in-one crop. Greens and roots tend to nourish us in different ways, and the role of roots is to bring up minerals from deep below the soil, especially a taprooted plant such as salsify. That’s why it’s important to give these crops a deeply cultivated soil with plenty of compost dug in. And by the way, have you ever tried two of salsify’s even more obscure taprooted cousins, scolymus and scorzonera. Are you curious?
Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of “The Garden Primer.”
Read more about growing your own food and vegetable gardens .