Salsify seems to be a forgotten vegetable that used to be popular, but hardly ever can be found at regular supermarkets and farmer’s markets nowadays. Occasionally, you can find these odd-looking root vegetables at specialty grocery stores and (bio) farmer’s markets (usually for a low-cost, despite their rarity) and they are definitely worth a try. They may look like dirty, ugly, brown sticks, but they are very tasty. Once peeled, you will find a delicious, nutritious, cream-coloured flesh that can be prepared in a similar manner as parsnips or carrots, for use in warm salads, soups, stews, purées, or as a savoury side dish or appetizer.
But what is salsify?
The name ‘salsify’ is actually used to describe two different, but kind-of-similar plants and root vegetables.
‘White’ salsify (tragopogon porrifolius), also known as purple salsify (because it’s got beautiful purple flowers), goatsbeard, or common salsify, is a plant belonging to the sunflower family. The edible tan, or white-coloured roots are slightly similar in appearance with long, thin parsnips and can be cooked in a similar manner. This edible plant can be found growing in the wild in many European countries (and all over the world?) and is a popular plant amongst foragers. Some claim this variety is the only real salsify.
Black salsify (scorzonera hispanica), also known as scorzonera, Spanish salsify and serpent root (the root was believed to be effective against snake bites in the past), is actually a different genus and species of plant, belonging to the dandelion family. The edible roots are recognisable by their long cylindrical shape and dark brown, smoothish skin. Black salsify is native to Southern Europe, but is commercially cultivated in central- and Northern Europe as well nowadays. The salsify pictured and used in this post is scorzonera.
Both varieties of salsify have a similar white or cream-coloured flesh and can be used to make the soup below. I’ve read that the plants are also known as ‘oyster plant’ and ‘black oyster plant’ respectively, due to their apparent faint oyster-flavour, but, to be honest, I cannot quite detect any seafoodiness (not sure if that’s disappointing or not). If anything, they taste more like parsnip or potato.
Because of the way they look once they are peeled and cooked, salsify is often compared to asparagus as well and is even nicknamed “armeluis asperges” in The Netherlands, meaning something along the lines of “poorman’s asparagus”. I believe neighbouring countries have similar nicknames for the root vegetable, which is probably why most salsify recipes I could find prepare them in a similar fashion as white asparagus, serving them either as a soup or with a milky white sauce, some nutmeg and some (boiled) egg and/or ham. While it may look similar to white asparagus once cooked, salsify is indeed a lot cheaper, as the nickname suggests …and not just for their milder flavour.
In the Netherlands, black salsify also goes by another nickname, namely “keukenmeidenverdriet”, meaning ‘kitchenmaid’s sadness”. It earned this nickname because of the extremely dirty hands, fingernails, and potentially clothes, you get from cleaning them. The roots are often caked with sand and clay and need a good scrubbing and peeling before they even look slightly edible. Once you start cutting and peeling the roots themselves they immediately start to excrete a white, sticky substance that stains your fingers and anything it touches, which makes wearing gloves advisable, or even necessary. On top of that, once you’ve finally uncovered the creamy, white flesh of the black salsify, they also start to discolour immediately, so keeping a bowl with cold water on the side to dunk the peeled roots into is necessary as well.
Yet, while they’re indeed a bit of a hassle to clean, they are an appetising and interesting vegetable that really shouldn’t be completely forgotten. Below you find my simple recipe for black salsify soup with cooked brown shrimp as a garnish (I guess I did miss that promised seafoodiness), but the shrimp can easily be replaced by cubed ham or boiled egg as well!
Black Salsify (Scorzonera) Soup with Brown Shrimp / Schorsenerensoep met Hollandse (Grijze) Garnalen
- kitchen gloves
- vegetable peeler
- immersion blender, or food processor
- for the soup:
- 500g black salsify (scorzonera)
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice or vinegar
- 2 shallots
- 30g butter
- freshly grated nutmeg, to taste
- 1 heaped tablespoon of plain flour
- 100ml dry white wine
- 1 liter chicken (or vegetable) stock
- 100ml double cream
- salt and pepper, to taste
- to garnish:
- few sprigs of fresh chives
- cooked brown shrimp (Hollandse garnalen), or cooked smoked ham cubes
- Before you start peeling, prepare a bowl with enough water to submerge the peeled and cut salsify and add about a tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar.
- Scrub salsify as much as possible under running water to clean off the dirt and clay.
- Peel the salsify with a peeler whilst wearing kitchen gloves - the juice released from the salsify is very sticky and will stain your fingers. Once peeled, cut into pieces and immediately submerge in the prepared bowl with water and lemon/vinegar.
- To start the soup, peel and finely dice the shallots, then sauté them in the butter in a pot over medium-high heat until softened, but not browned.
- Add peeled and cut salsify and grate over some nutmeg. Stir.
- Dust vegetables with flour and sauté for a few minutes.
- Deglaze the pan with the wine and allow alcohol to evaporate slightly for a minute or two.
- Add chicken stock, cover and bring to a simmer. Turn heat to low and continue simmering for 30 minutes until the salsify are soft.
- In the meantime, prepare the garnishes: finely chop the chives, and, if necessary, sauté the brown shrimp or ham cubes until warmed/cooked through (or just browned in case of the ham).
- Once the salsify are soft, blend soup with a food processor or immersion blender until very smooth. Stir in the cream and season with salt and pepper to taste. Bring back to an almost simmer, then take off the heat.
- Divide the soup over plates or bowls and sprinkle some of the chopped chives and shrimp or ham over the top.Serves 4 as a small appetizer. Serve with bread to make it a lunch or light meal.