Written By David Shields
Originally Published in The Rice Paper Newsletter, Fall 2009
In America, the slender, pale salsify root became, curiously, a monument to the people’s insatiable desire for oysters, earning the vegetable the nickname, oyster-plant. Even boiled, mashed, rolled in cracker crumbs, and deep fried like fried oysters, Salsify does not possess the mouth feel, salinity, or unctuousness of a bivalve. So it suffers the fate of being a perpetual disappointment, a failed wish for those who take it up thinking it to be, somehow, the vegetable kingdoms phantom double for a blue point. (Repeatedly in cook books of the 19th century one finds suggestions on how to make salsify taste “more like an oyster,” such as “having a little cod- fish stirred among it” while stewing.)
Let us exorcise the phantom now. Only a 19th-century Midwesterner, haunted by elusive memory and residing far from the railroad depots where barrels of eastern oysters were dispatched, could possibly delude themselves into detecting the briny succulence of an oyster on his tongue when savoring salsify.
The root has its own virtues, whether boiled, stewed, fried, or shaved into a salad. It has a clean, slightly saline toothsomeness, free of the mintyness and occasional fibrousness of a parsnip, the rough sugar of a carrot, or the mealy blandness of a potato. It is wholesome, delicately nutty, and visually appealing when peeled, white, and firm. Salsify’s propensity to dissolve into mush when over-boiled has prompted 21st century cooks to steam rather than boil the root. In traditional European cookery salsify’s whiteness became a point of culinary elaboration. Care was taken to prevent the peeled roots from discoloring by soaking them immediately in vinegar water. Dishes often married the cooked roots with milk or cream.
Scrape and throw into water at once to prevent from turning dark. Boil till tender in a closely covered vessel. Drain off the water and cut the salsify in pieces half an inch long. Throw in a saucepan with 1 teacup vinegar
1 teacup water
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon butter salt and pepper to taste
Just before serving add the yolk of an egg beaten up and mixed with a little water. The seasoning above is give for one quart salsify.
Mrs. S. T. Marion Cabell Tyree, Housekeeping in Old Virginia (Louisville: J. P. Morton & o., 1879) p. 250.