Categories: Product of the week

Pale, thin and hairy: not winter British legs, but an underrated root veg

Pale, thin and hairy: while it might sound like we’re describing British legs at this time of year—except perhaps the thin part, post-Christmas—we’re in fact describing a rather underrated root vegetable: salsify.

But if you want to give this unusual vegetable a go, you’d better catch it quick: “We’re getting towards the end of the season now, which has been particularly short because of the unseasonably warm weather,” explains Ted of Ted’s Veg. “We get most of ours from Belgium, because the soil there is just right for them.”

Requiring deep, soft, finely sieved soil, salsify is something of a fussy vegetable, which bends awkwardly at the first sign of resistance, making it difficult to dig out without breakage—and in turn, relatively hard to come by in this country.

A prevalent feature
In Belgium, on the other hand, salsify is a prevalent feature on winter menus. But it’s not only Belgians—salsify is also on Borough Market demonstration chef Hayden Groves plate this month.

“We really like using salsify at this time of year. It’s mainly all roots and brassicas, so it’s nice to try something different,” says Hayden. While salsify is often described as having an oyster-like flavour—and is sometimes referred to as ‘oyster plant’—Hayden insists it has a taste entirely of its own.

“It has a slight salinity to it which people say is similar to oysters, but I personally think it’s incomparable to anything else,” he continues. “It’s slightly sweet in taste and has a very distinctive texture. It’s a unique vegetable.”

Absolutely filthy
While different in flavour, salsify can be treated similarly to your more familiar root vegetables. “The only difference is it’s absolutely filthy, so when you buy it make sure you shake it off, put it straight into water and give it a good scrub,” Hayden advises.

“There’s nothing to say you can’t eat the skin, but I like to peel them. Once peeled they will oxidise quickly, however, so make sure you rub them with lemon or plunge them straight into acidulated water. Otherwise they will start to discolour. Though of course if you’re roasting or baking them, that’s not necessary—just throw them straight in the roasting tray.”

Hayden has numerous suggestions as to how to use this spindly member of the dandelion family. “We like to cut them into batons and cook them in butter which gives them a nice nutty flavour, or we cook them slowly in olive oil which gives them a completely different texture,” he continues.

Lovely white colour
“You could also blanch them in acidulated water to keep that lovely white colour. With each of these methods you’ll get a very different flavour.” But there’s a common theme: “It’s not one of those things that, in my opinion, is very nice al dente; cooked through till tender is how it’s best.”

Much the same as potatoes or parsnips, salsify can be served with just about any dish—“anything full-flavoured and robust”—try serving some pan fried with roasted partridge and brussels sprouts as in this recipe from Andy McLeish, or if game isn’t your bag, take a leaf out of Borough Market demonstration chef Luke Robinson’s recipe book: serve it deep fried and dished up with lemon sole.

For more tips on how to use salsify, follow and tweet Hayden @Hayden1974