Rediscovered Roots

These uncommon vegetables are short on glamour but rich with culinary possibilities.

By Ellen Ecker Ogden

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salsift-an undiscovered rootCultivating something old, but new to our gardens, is a wonderful way to connect with our ancestors—or in this case, with our “roots.” And daikon, celeriac, salsify, and scorzonera are root vegetables with old-world associations. Although common in European or Asian cooking, these crops barely register with American gardeners today. What a shame: All four offer nutritious top greens as well as flavorful roots that extend the harvest season well into winter. It’s time more gardeners tried these honorable heirlooms.

Salsify and Scorzonera

The young leaves of salsify and scorzonera are edible, and their flower stalks can be blanched and served as you would asparagus. Yet it is the roots that are most prized by gourmets. Salsify produces pale-skinned, often forked roots with tiny rootlets, while scorzonera resembles a petrified brown carrot without the taper; preparing the long, slender roots requires some effort. Both vegetables are southern European natives, widely cultivated in the United States during the 18th century but largely absent from seed catalogs today. They are readily available in European produce markets during the late fall and winter months, a tribute to old-world traditions.

“We grow salsify and scorzonera as an ornamental crop,” says Doug Croft, horticulturist at Chanticleer, a public garden near Philadelphia where the vegetable garden is more about design than harvest. Transitioning from a summer garden to fall often leaves gaps in the rows, but Croft discovered that salsify produces a brilliant green rosette during the fall months when many other vegetables are past their prime. “As a bonus, the plants send up flower stalks with gorgeous composite flowers,” Croft says. As biennials, the plants bloom in their second year: purple flowers for salsify and yellow for scorzonera.

Salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius) and scorzonera (Scorzonera hispanica) are members of the aster family, Asteraceae, and share similar flat leaves. Scorzonera has a flavor reminiscent of artichoke heart. It is a common vegetable in early cookbooks, served grated, buttered, scalloped, or stewed. Thomas Jefferson grew salsify at Monticello, planting it in the same quantities as carrots and asparagus. Its flavor has been compared to that of oysters; in fact, salsify is sometimes called oyster plant.

Both vegetables are easy to grow from seed. A few varieties exist for each type, yet the differences are minimal.

Scorzonera—an undiscovered rootHow to grow:

Soil that is moderately rich and on the sandy side is ideal for these and other root crops. Amend poor soil with well-composted manure or leaf mold, worked into the top 9 inches. Sow seeds directly in the garden in early spring. Thin the seedlings to stand 4 inches apart. Apply mulch between rows to keep the soil moist and to eliminate weed competition.

Use a garden fork to lift the roots when the plants have completed their growth in October. Dig carefully, because the roots are brittle. To store in a root cellar at about 32°F, first brush off loose soil and twist off the tops. Pack in damp sand to keep the roots from shriveling. An easier storage technique, if the soil is light and dry, is to leave the roots in place through winter beneath an insulating layer of loose straw, and dig up only as needed.

Photos: Thomas MacDonald, top salsify, bottom scornonera

 
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