Food writer Nicola Miller says salsify is the way to go
My first encounter with salsify was in a book by Jilly Cooper called The Common Years about her time living opposite Putney Common. Jilly is out walking with two friends, both of whom are in a state of high indignation because a strip of grass has been mown along the edges of Beverley Brook, cutting down the wild salsify in its prime.
When I saw photos of salsify, it seemed amazing to me that such a plant should grow wild on a common in London.
Salsify belongs to the Asteraceae family and is a cousin to the dandelion and daisy; its flower sharing traits with both. Originally, both roots and flower were grown for food although now we tend to eat the roots only. The grass-like leaves aren’t terribly digestible as Guy De Maupassant writes in the Legend of Mont St Michel where a bargain between the saint (who built the island) and the devil (who lived and farmed the fertile salt marshes) resulted in a crop share including salsify which saw the saint harvest “all the plants whose juicy roots are good and savory,” whilst the devil ended up with crops “whose useless leaves are good for nothing but for feeding animals”.
I found black salsify in Waitrose and satisfyingly it has been locally grown in Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, Scientifically classified as Scorzonera hispanica, its common names are as dramatic and spiky as the root: Spanish Salsify, Black Oyster, Serpent root, Scorzonera, and Viper’s grass are just some of them.
Salsify was very popular with the Victorians who saw its value during the long months of winter when tedious dietary repetition threatened, and I’m glad to see growers attempting to repopularise it. Don’t be deterred by the root’s close resemblance to Jacob Rees-Mogg. Salsify does not want to remove your right to live and work in 27 different countries, and like most foods, its waxing and waning popularity tell a story of migration across continents and civilisations. (Food is political: anyone who objects to this statement has their head in the sand.)
I’m not going to deny that this is beige food. I could jazz it up with artfully scattered parsley so it looks more alluring in the photo, but it is what it is. Parsley adds nothing to the dish, it would merely assuage some of my styling insecurities – not that I claim to be a food stylist by any stretch of the imagination. Like brown food, beige food is generally comforting, often wintry in time and place, and is the mainstay of many Northern European food cultures.
Flavour-wise, salsify is quite delicate (some claim it has an oystery taste but to be honest, this can be elusive to the point of invisibility), with echoes of Jerusalem artichokes without the flatulence. The outside of the roots caramelise well and yield easily to the fork, producing a creamy, soft mash. You really don’t want to overwhelm such delicacy with strong flavours although I know big flavours are very fashionable at the moment. However, this boulangère is very good with a big juicy steak and a little pile of wilted spinach.
Black salsify and potato boulangère
Serves six to eight as a side portion
3 medium white onions
3 garlic cloves
1.2 kg red potatoes
Squeeze of lemon
Salt and pepper
1tsp chopped tarragon
800ml chicken stock
Heat oven to 200°C/fan 180°C/gas 6. Peel and mince the garlic and peel and finely slice the onions. Heat 1 tablespoon of butter and a glug of olive oil in a heavy pan and gently cook the onions and garlic until they are softened and turning golden. This will take at least 20 minutes. Set aside.
Wash the potatoes; I don’t peel them but feel free to do so, then slice across their widths. You can use a mandolin (please use a guard so you don’t end up with a finger in the pie – literally) or a sharp knife. Keep the slices fine, so you can just see the light through them. Cover and set aside.
Pour cold water into a shallow pan and squeeze in a couple of teaspoons of lemon juice.
Using a vegetable peeler, remove the black peel from the roots, rinse them under the tap and place in the lemon-water – this stops the roots discolouring. You may see a little white sap oozing out as you do this; don’t worry, it’s normal. The roots can be a little sticky too.
Make the stock up to 800ml.
Grease the base of your baking pan/dish with a little butter. I have used a large prospector pan from Netherton Foundry which can go on the stovetop and then into the oven. Spread a layer of potatoes over its base then sprinkle over half of the onion and garlic mixture. Continue layering until all the potato slices are in the pan, add the rest of the onions and as long as the potatoes are relatively even, don’t worry about making it look perfect. You are cooking a family meal not tiling the roof of the Sistine Chapel. Now lay the salsify roots on top in whatever manner pleases you, sprinkle over the tarragon, pour over the stock, dot with the rest of the butter and bake until the potatoes are fork tender. I keep it covered with foil for 50 minutes before removing this and letting the top become crisp and golden which takes about another 15 minutes, although much depends on your oven.
Check for seasoning, add more salt and some pepper if you want to.