I love discovering new and interesting ingredients. I like seeking out the less than usual. I crave diversity.

I often see comments (in the context of cookbook reviews) that a given cookbook had too many odd/unusual or hard to find ingredients. Fair enough. On the other hand, ‘odd’ is a bit subjective. I guess there’s a fine line, just like with most everything else. But personally, I want a cookbook (or, for that matter, a blog) that exposes one to new ideas, ingredients, and flavors.

On that note, meet salsify. Have you heard of it? Tried it? While many people probably walk by salsify and simply note that it looks like a twig (which it certainly does), I’m instantly intrigued. What is this odd looking plant? What do you do with it? What does it taste like? I must know.

Salsify is a root vegetable in the dandelion family. It’s also referred to as the ‘oyster plant’ due to its mild oyster-like flavor; although, for me, I get less oyster flavor and more earthiness, along the lines of Jerusalem artichoke (aka sunchoke) or burdock root, though less sweet than parsnip.

There are two types of salsify: 1) black salsify and 2) white salsify. Black salsify is scientifically classified as Scorzonera hispenica, also commonly known as Spanish or Scorzonera Salsify. White Salsify is scientifically classified as Tragopogon porrifolius and is what most people think of when they refer to salsify. The white variety is sometimes called Purple Salsify for the lilac-colored flowers that bloom on the plant in the spring.

You can prepare salsify like many other roots — roasted, pureed, mashed, boiled, etc. Its earthy flavor makes for a nice addition to soups and stews.

Today, I’ve used salsify in a soup — an oyster salsify soup. The soup has a rich, briny, earthy flavor — notes of land and sea. While I’ve yet to try, I think you could easily substitute more readily accessible roots, like Jerusalem artichoke or, perhaps, burdock root (I often find burdock root in Asian markets) for salsify.

You most likely won’t find salsify in your local supermarket as it’s best eaten soon after harvesting. It’s one of those vegetables that you need to keep your eyes open for. And now when you next encounter salsify, you’ll know what it is and what to do with it. I procured mine from the Union Square farmers’ market in NYC (when I lived in Washington D.C., I would buy it from the Dupont Circle farmers’ market). While I’ve yet to try, I’ve read that salsify is easy to grow (easier than carrots or parsnips). Plant salsify in the spring, as early as the ground can be worked, then allow it to grow all summer and fall until the first frosts bring out its flavor. It’s best dug and eaten fresh — the green tops are edible, in addition to its root.

Food for thought…

If you can’t find salsify, I recommend Jerusalem artichoke, aka sunchoke, as a substitute for the oyster stew.

Salsify Oyster Bisque

Adapted from Chef Michael McDonald (former chef at One Sixty Blue, Chicago, IL)
serves 4
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2 shallots, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups salsify, peeled, chopped, soaked in *water and lemon juice
1 cup half and half
2 cups vegetable stock
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon of your favorite hot sauce
16 shucked oysters, liquid reserved (*plus extra for garnish)
Chopped parsley (garnish)

Heat the olive oil in a soup pot over medium heat. Sauté the shallots and garlic in the oil until soft. Add the salsify, half and half, and vegetable stock to the pot, and simmer over low heat until the salsify is tender, about 25 to 30 minutes. Season with salt and hot sauce. Add the shucked oysters and their reserved liquid.

Remove the pot from the heat and puree the soup in a blender until very smooth. Serve soup in bowls, sprinkled with chopped parsley.

*Note: soak the chopped salsify in a lemon-water mixture — juice of 1 1/2 to 2 lemons plus enough water to cover the salsify — to prevent browning.
**Note: you can garnish with one whole oyster in each bowl if you so desire.
***Try this stew with Jerusalem artichoke (sunchoke) or burdock root in place of salsify.

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