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In Season: How to boost the flavor of edible root salsify

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Two edible roots share the name of salsify — one has white roots, one black. I’ve seen black salsify at both Whole Foods and Oliver’s markets. Its season starts in September and runs until Thanksgiving.

The white version of salsify has a straight white root, and you may find it at farmers’ markets or occasionally at Oliver’s. Another name for it is the oyster plant — supposedly because the boiled roots taste like oysters, but if you’ve ever eaten one, as I have, you’ll find precious little resemblance to an oyster in its bland, nutty, vaguely asparagus-like flavor. It does have a mucilaginous sheen that might recall a slippery oyster.

The white root is a vegetable that long ago escaped into the wild across North America, and it’s not hard to find in out of the way places from Boston to Berkeley.

Black salsify has a black skin, but white flesh within. Its root is long and slender. This native of a wide region of Europe and Asia has a finer texture and more flavor than white-rooted salsify. There’s a suggestion of coconut and artichoke about its taste, and it’s sweeter than white salsify. The sweetness comes not from sugar, but from inulin, the same compound that gives Jerusalem artichokes (sunchokes) their sweetness. Inulin, although sweet, is safe for diabetics.

Before cooking, both types of salsify should be scrubbed hard to remove soil particles and any little rootlets.

You can also boil them with skins on, then peel. Black salsify skin will peel off especially easily. But be careful not to overcook, as long cooking will cause the skins to cling to the flesh.

The roots of both plants can be eaten raw, sautéed in a little olive oil, or boiled then mashed, or they can be roasted like chicory root and used as a coffee substitute.

Since salsify is bland, you can give it a flavor kick by blanching the pieces in boiling, acidulated water (juice of one lemon in a quart of water) for a couple of minutes, then marinating them in lemon juice with salt and pepper, chopped parsley, and a little olive oil for an hour, then dipping them in tempura batter and deep frying until the root is tender and the batter turns golden brown.

Whether you’re eating the roots raw or cooking them, always plunge them in acidulated water as you peel or cut them, because the cut surfaces quickly discolor when exposed to air.

The same substance that discolors the root will stain your fingers, so you might want to wear clean rubber gloves.

Salsify — both black and white — is commonly baked as an accompaniment to meats, or boiled then whizzed in the blender and added to soups, or sliced thinly and sauteed as a root vegetable with light meats like chicken or fish.

If you find salsify at a market, look for firm, unblemished and fresh-looking roots. If they’re flabby or soft, they will have lost their delicate flavor.

Whichever way you cook salsify — and its flavor intensifies and becomes creamier when cooked — finish it with your choice among onions, shallots, olive oil, cream, butter, lemon juice, nutmeg, béchamel sauce or Parmesan cheese.

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This is an astoundingly delicate and lovely dish that takes some preparation but is well worth it.

Salsify Gnocchi

Makes 4 servings

1 pound of peeled salsify

— acidulated water

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons minced chives

2 tablespoons minced parsley

— pinch of nutmeg

1 cup water

1 cup all-purpose unbleached organic flour

4 large organic eggs

1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

— lemon juice

— salt and pepper to taste

Peel the salsify and immediately drop the pieces into a saucepan with enough acidulated water to cover. Set this aside or begin cooking over low heat.

In another saucepan, add the butter, chives, parsley, nutmeg, salt, and pepper to the 1 cup of water and bring to a boil until the butter is entirely melted. Remove the saucepan from the heat and add the cup of flour, all at once.

Beat the mixture with a wooden spoon to incorporate everything smoothly, then return the pan to a moderately high heat and continue beating for a minute or two, until the mixture leaves the sides of the pan and forms a mass.

Remove the pan from the heat and make a well in the center of the mass. Break one egg into the well and beat to incorporate well, then make another well and repeat the process until all four eggs are beaten into the mixture and thoroughly incorporated. Reserve this paste.

Turn up the heat on the pan with the salsify and acidulated water and cook until the salsify is very tender and able to be mashed. Drain the salsify and mash or puree in a blender with a few drops of lemon juice. If more liquid is needed to make a thick puree, use a little whole milk.

Add one cup of the warm paste and the grated cheese to the salsify, beating it all together until smooth.

Take large spoonfuls of this mixture and roll them with your palm on a lightly floured board, forming rolls about 1 inch in diameter and two and a half inches long.

Prepare a deep skillet of salted water that’s almost simmering — certainly not boiling or the gnocchi may fall apart.

Slip the gnocchi into this water, maintaining the temperature at just shy of simmering, and cook for 15 or 20 minutes. When they’ve almost doubled in size and roll easily in the water, they’re done.

Remove them with a spoon and drain on paper towels.

You can serve them as is or place them in a buttered baking dish, sprinkle with a little more cheese, and pass under the broiler until the cheese melts.

Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based food and garden writer. Reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net

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