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The Salsify or Oyster Plant[Notice]

  • Mary F. Williamson

Myths around origins are easily invented. Jasper Grant was apparently unaware that the root vegetable salsify (pronounced salsifee) was being cultivated in his own country, where Scottish cookery writers had been discussing it back in the eighteenth century. According to Pennsylvania food historian and seed expert William Woys Weaver, salsify was grown in his state by the Pennsylvania Dutch in the 1700s, but it was not a popular vegetable elsewhere in the United States until much later. By the 1840s, if not sooner, Ontario farmers were being showered with instructions for growing and wintering salsify by the province’s agriculture journals and newspapers. Recipes for salsify cakes, soups, and salads, and for salsify as a vegetable fried, frittered, stewed, and boiled, were easily found in magazines and cookbooks up to the 1940s when the vegetable gradually slipped from view. A probable explanation is that salsify defies successful commercial marketing. The white roots theoretically stretch straight down in the soil for 10 to 15 inches, but they are inclined to finger and are easily bruised, causing discolouration. Like apples, once peeled and cut, the usual advice is to drop them in water with a bit of acid, such as lemon juice or vinegar. Historically, salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius) was also known as oyster plant because of its supposed oyster taste. Older recipes often recommend adding a little codfish to stewed or boiled sliced salsify to increase the oyster flavour. It was also said to taste like asparagus, and the new shoots springing up from the base of the plant were harvested as pseudo-asparagus. The cultivation of salsify is much the same as for carrots or parsnips, but salsify is biennial. Seeds planted in the spring produce roots that can be harvested in the fall, and, if kept over in the ground until the following spring, send up plants three feet high with pale-mauve flowers. The flowers quickly develop into large round seed pods by early July, continuing through August. In the old days the roots that were not harvested in October often were overwintered in the ground, covered with straw for later consumption, or were packed in fresh earth in the root cellar. Today, Mammoth Sandwich Island seeds, the variety that was sold a hundred years ago, are listed by several Ontario seed companies. Be alert: there has long been confusion between salsify and scorzonera roots, the latter bearing yellow rather than mauve flowers, and with black roots, rather than white. “The so-called Black Oyster Plant is not a Salsify at all, but a Scorzonera, which although its root resembles the former, belongs to another genus.” In Canada’s earliest cookbook, The Frugal Housewife’s Manual by A. B. of Grimsby, Ontario, the anonymous author writes of salsify as B. goes on: They are prepared for the table by slightly scraping the roots then they are cut in thin slices, and boiled in a very little water, seasoned with salt, until tender. When thus cooked, cream is poured in, with a little cod-fish, picked fine, and the whole allowed to boil up, when it is ready to be dished for the table. The cod-fish, if used very moderately, greatly increases the oyster-like flavour, for which this vegetable is so much esteemed. Scrape a bunch of salsify and drop into cold water as you cut into inch lengths. Boil in hot, salted water until tender. Drain and pour into the saucepan with the salsify a cupful of hot milk. Simmer five minutes, and stir in cracker-dust, with pepper and salt. Stew gently for three minutes. Scrub and steam or boil salsify, then …

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