I grew up eating salsify (always pronounced SAL-sif-eye at home, but recently I watched a video where it was pronounced sal-sih-FEE!) and assumed that everyone else ate it also, but seemingly that is not the case. We commonly ate it in soup, which was called simply “oyster soup” and it wasn’t until I moved to the East coast that I realized there was another dish with the same name that was quite different. The “common” or folk name for salsify is “vegetable oyster” because it does have a mild oyster-like flavor. Mother also smashed the cooked salsify, mixed it with egg and bread crumbs, formed it into patties and fried them in butter, and sometimes it was mixed with corn and “scalloped.” In all its forms, I found it delicious and it is certainly an inexpensive meal.
Salsify (Tragopogon Porrifolius) is a root vegetable that takes a long growing season. The variety most commonly found is “Mammoth Sandwich Island,” an heirloom that takes 120 days. I usually give it longer in order to get larger roots. The crop shown in the photo was direct seeded on May 31st, after a crop of spinach came out and harvested in mid-December. Like other root crops, to get a good quality, straight root it needs light soil with good drainage, adequate water and sufficient nutrients. I would describe it as very similar in growth and appearance to carrots or parsnips or parsley root in terms of growing it, and in its root shape. However, the above-ground growth resembles none of those at all, but rather like a stiff, tough grass growing in clumps. It grows best in terms of root formation, in cooler temperatures (below 85 degrees F) so I like for it to mature in the fall rather than planting it in early spring and trying to mature in the heat of summer. The photo above is after several hard frosts and the tops are beginning to droop. That’s when it’s a good time to dig, at least here (Zone 5b) where we get long, cold winters and the ground freezes deeply. In milder climates, it can be left in the ground and harvested as needed. Salsify is actually a biennial, so if you do choose to leave it in the ground harvest it in early spring, before it begins to form its seed stalk for best texture and flavor. Or, you may choose to leave a few plants to produce it’s purple daisy-like flower (I think it resembles a thistle bloom) which is quite pretty and collect the seeds after they have matured.
Salsify roots are generally long and narrow, and usually have lots of small hairy roots all along their surface. If you have a root cellar or other good storage place at this point you can cut the tops off, leaving an inch or so or green, and layer them in tubs of sand for the winter. Option two is to cut off the tops again leaving an inch, and give them a quick rinse under the outdoor faucet, place them in plastic bags and store them in an unheated garage. With this second method the roots won’t last as long, but at least you’ll have them to use for several weeks. My choice was to bring them into the kitchen for a good scrub and “process” them.
Peeling is easy with a good potato peeler, or the roots can be scraped with a sharp knife. I was taught to do this under water, because as soon as it is exposed to air, the flesh of the salsify turns an unappetizing brown. Once peeled, each root is popped into a tub of salted water to keep the surface white. Then, as quickly as I can, the roots are sliced into “pennies” and put back into the salted water. Or, the roots can be cut into long, thin slices, dipped in egg and then flour and fried, but we usually cut them into rounds. Once all the roots are cut, the “old, discolored” water is drained and replaced with fresh salted water, put the kettle on the stove on high heat, covered, brought to a boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until just tender. At this point I do one of two things: allow to cool and spoon into cartons for the freezer (covering with the liquid.) When needed, allow the salsify to defrost completely if making patties or scallop and drain most of the liquid. Or, secondly, continue to cook until fully tender and use immediately.
To make the soup simply add a generous amount of butter, a bit of cream, some milk, salt and pepper and it’s finished! Normally, there would be more milk/cream than shown here, but I wanted you to be able to see the salsify itself, not just a bowl of liquid with a few floating on top. Serve with crackers or good bread! If making the soup with frozen salsify, allow to defrost and bring salsify and its liquid to a simmer before adding the milk and cream. And, if not all the soup is eaten, it’s even better the second day, or it can be “scalloped.”
So, as you are browsing through the seed catalogs and filling out those orders, I hope you will give salsify a try.