A Lesson In Salsify, And How To Make A Salsify Bisque

Salsify, a vegetable that resembles, well, a twig from a tree, hails from the sunflower family (though the plants share little in common with each other). For starters, salsify tastes nothing like a sunflower seed. It has an artichoke-like flavor with hints of oyster. "There's a lot of chatter out there about it tasting like oysters when cooked, but in my opinion it's more like an artichoke with crunch," says chef Lauro Romero of Three Degrees in Portland, Oregon. It's because of the shellfish contention that you will also see white salsify listed as "oyster plant" or "vegetable oyster." Whether you taste the bivalve or not, within its flavor spectrum, there are plenty of reasons to make salsify your late-fall vegetable of choice.

Where it's from

Salsify first appeared more than 2,000 years ago in southern Europe, where the plant was harvested for its long white or black root. It was a popular ingredient during the Victorian era in England, and for years black salsify was thought to help treat the plague by ridding the body of toxins. While that didn't work out so well, the root does contain potassium, vitamin C, B vitamins, complex carbohydrates, iron and copper. The white version also has a dose of potassium. Salsify is still cooked throughout Europe and in the United States, with Belgium being the largest producer.

Another salsi-fact: In the 19th century it was common for American cooks to try to make salsify taste even more like oysters. Some went so far as to mix the vegetable with fish in order to provide a salty, unctuous texture. Lucky for us, that technique isn't used today, though you might find the root used in vegan dishes that try to mimic animal products. Vegetarian chefs probably wouldn't be so quick to play with the root if we called it, as the French do, "doigts de mort," which translates to "fingers of the dead."

When It's In Season

Salsify is usually harvested at the end October, and the harvest continues through the winter. Because it's a root, salsify can thrive underground no matter how much the temperature drops. This is why you may see salsify in the farmers' markets from November until the early spring.

What To Look For

Salsify is identified by its shaggy purple flower that opens in the morning and closes around noon. In the market you will probably see salsify without its flower, as most farmers just harvest the root. White salsify is slightly hairy and pale, and the shape resembles long, thin fingers. Black salsify has a stick-like appearance and is dark and slightly dry-looking. Both have a pure white inside, which you can observe at the point where the plant was cut off or by breaking it in half. No matter which color you go for, look for salsify that's very firm, like a potato or parsnip.

How To Store It

It's best to use your salsify as soon as you buy or harvest it, since the root has a tendency to shrivel. You can keep it fresh in a sealed bag in the fridge for about a week. Even if the vegetable does wrinkle a bit, it's still good to eat. Chef Romero suggests keeping peeled salsify in water until you are ready to use.

How To Prepare It

It wasn't until he first moved to Portland that Romero was first introduced to salsify by a local farmer. "I was very intrigued, and though the first year was a little experimental, I've looked forward to its season ever since then," says the chef. Now he whips up this root into all sorts of tasty things, including a luscious fall bisque (recipe below). "My favorite way to use it is in a soup, but it's really as limitless as your imagination," he says. "You can roast or sauté it, similar to other root vegetables, or thinly shave it to make a chip, like a sunchoke. If you're feeling really ambitious, you could make a gratin."

Keep in mind, he adds, peeling salsify takes a while, so you need to be dedicated to the project. You also want to keep peeled salsify in water while you handle the other roots, otherwise the plant will oxidize and turn brown. Other ways to prepare the root include steaming and then sautéing it in butter; chopping it up and adding it to stuffing for texture; thinly shaving and adding it raw to a salad, vegetable plate or fish; and mashed with potatoes or parsnips. You can even portion out the root and deep-fry it for a fritter reminiscent of fried oysters.

Salsify Bisque

By chef Lauro Romero at Three Degrees in Portland, Oregon

Make this rich soup on a cold night. Eat it on its own or add smoked clams like the chef does at his restaurant. Ingredients

  • 4 pounds salsify
  • 1 cup chopped leeks
  • 1 cup chopped sweet onions
  • ½ cup chopped celery
  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme
  • 3 fresh garlic cloves
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 1 gallon vegetable stock
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 1 lemon
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • Directions

  • Peel salsify until just the white part is left. Soak peeled salsify in water to prevent oxidizing while peeling the others, then chop.
  • In a sauce pot, heat oil and add salsify. Caramelize until golden-brown.
  • Add leeks, onions, garlic, and celery and cook for about eight minutes or until translucent.
  • Add thyme and bay leaves and deglaze with wine.
  • Add vegetable stock and simmer for 30 minutes.
  • Add cream and simmer for 10 more minutes.
  • Season with salt and white pepper. Add zest from lemon.
  • In a food processor or blender, puree and strain. Texture should be silky and smooth, but if too thick add a little more cream.