While lovers of root vegetables will never tire of the likes of carrot and parsnip, there's certainly no harm in adding to the repertoire. Two curiosities often overlooked are salsify and scorzonera, also known as black salsify. (Scorzonera is easier to pronounce with practice!) Both are exceptionally easy-to-grow and make a welcome change to the usual suspects.
Salsify and scorzonera are in fact members of the lettuce family, though that's where the similarity ends. These highly attractive vegetables – with their starry pink (salsify) and yellow (scorzonera) flowers – originate from the Mediterranean. As such they need plenty of sunshine to produce their long, slender taproots. Give them this and they'll reward you handsomely.
Salsify is similar in looks to parsnip: it has a long, slender taproot with creamy flesh hidden behind a tough, usually dark-tan skin. Sometimes called the 'oyster plant' because of its mild oyster-like taste, the roots can be used in much the same way as any other root vegetable – mashed, boiled or roasted. Its edible pink blooms make it a showstopper worthy of inclusion in the ornamental border. Oh – and you can eat the new shoots as spring greens, making this a very versatile crop choice!
Salsify really is foolproof, being easier to grow than both carrots and parsnips. Give this Victorian-era favourite a light soil that's free draining and it will have no problem producing its parsnip-length taproots.
Reaching anywhere up to (or rather down to) a metre (3ft) in length, the thin black roots of scorzonera certainly represent value for money. Its name reflects the root's black skin, deriving from the Italian scorza negra, meaning 'black peel'. While the skin will do you no harm, like salsify it is tough and therefore inedible, so needs to be removed before eating.
Scorzonera is also easy to grow and for some palates has more flavour than salsify. Taste is subjective, so grow both to see which you prefer.
Growing Salsify and Scorzonera
Salsify and scorzonera are grown in the same way. Start by sowing seeds in spring as soon as the soil has warmed up. Sow seeds about 1.5cm (0.5in) deep in rows 30cm (12in) apart. Seedlings can take up to three weeks to appear, so you'll need to be patient. Once they have germinated, thin the seedlings out to leave 15cm (6in) between the young plants.
Ongoing care is remarkably hands-off. Keep weeds down and water if the weather is especially dry. And that's it.
Roots will be ready to lift from mid-autumn/fall onwards. You can leave them in the ground throughout winter where, just like parsnips, the flavour of the roots will improve with each frost. If your winters are the kind where the ground freezes solid, lift what you need beforehand and store in boxes of damp sand to access them as required.
Lifting the brittle roots requires some care if you're to avoid snapping them. Sink a fork into the ground about 15cm (6in) from the base of the leaves then ease the fork back and forth to loosen the soil; repeat on the opposite side. Work around the root like this to gradually free it from the surrounding soil. Lift the root carefully, working it out with further levering if necessary.
How to Cook Salsify and Scorzonera
The uncooked roots exude a cloying, latex-type substance when peeled. This can quickly get unsuspecting chefs into a sticky mess – indeed, the latex derived from salsify has been used as a chewing gum! Peel the skin off both roots after boiling them for 10 to 20 minutes.
Salsify is very versatile once it's peeled. Try the roots in stews and soups. Or serve them teamed up with sautéed garlic, a generous handful of parsley then finished off with a touch of cream and a pinch of nutmeg.
Roll out the red carpet for scorzonera by presenting it just like that early summer delicacy, asparagus. Coat the peeled, cooked roots in a velvety hollandaise or white sauce. Or try the roots battered and deep fried for an unusual but no-less-agreeable treat.
If you have grown salsify and scorzonera before, drop me a comment below to let me know which you prefer and your favourite ways of cooking with them.
Photographs courtesy of: Thompson & Morgan, Suttons Seeds, littlemisspurps
By Benedict Vanheems.