Salsify belongs to the daisy family and is characterized by its long, thin, white or black root, not dissimilar in appearance to a skinny parsnip or carrot. Above ground, the plant produces grass-like leaves and, during flowering, showcases pretty purple petals that close up around midday, leading to one of its other names, "Goatsbeard." Nutritionally, salsify is a source of dietary fibre, vitamins, and minerals, particularly potassium. The root's unique flavour is mild, slightly sweet, and has that aforementioned hint of oyster, making it a fascinating ingredient for culinary experimentation.
Salsify has historical roots in the Mediterranean regions and has been cultivated in Europe since the Roman times. It was particularly popular during the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe but saw a decline in the 20th century as other vegetables gained prominence. Early European settlers introduced salsify to North America, where it was grown in gardens for its nutritious root and sometimes for its ornamental flowers. Over time, it became less common, overshadowed by other more popular root crops. However, with the recent trend of rediscovering heirloom and lesser-known vegetables, salsify is experiencing a modest resurgence in gardens and on plates in Canada.
Preparing salsify requires a bit of effort but yields delightful results. The root should be washed thoroughly and then peeled; it's recommended to wear gloves as the root can exude a sticky latex when cut. Once peeled, salsify should be immersed in water with a touch of lemon juice or vinegar to prevent discoloration. It can be boiled, much like a potato, and then mashed or served as is with butter and seasonings. Salsify can also be sliced and added to soups or stews, where it imparts its delicate flavour. For a crispy treat, salsify fries – where the root is cut into thin strips, seasoned, and deep-fried – can be a delightful side dish. Alternatively, it can be roasted alongside other vegetables, where it caramelizes slightly and deepens in flavour.
No matter the preparation, salsify brings a historical and unique taste profile that can intrigue and satisfy both the curious eater and the seasoned gourmet.