There are more than 50,000 edible plants in the world, but we actually only eat from a very narrow spectrum. Most of the world’s diet comes from the top 15: rice, corn, wheat, sorghum, millet and the root staples such as potato, cassava, yam and taro. We are most familiar with the rice, corn, wheat and potatoes in our culture and the incredible infrastructure required to farm these staples. But what the world also eats are wild and foraged foods. Some of the “wild” foods have been cultivated and thrive well in small farms and market gardens. An example of this is the exotic looking Salsify in our East Coast TakeHome cases this week.
Once a wild grass growing along the Mediterranean, Salsify is related to sunflowers and has some qualitative similarities to its relative Jerusalem Artichoke. This tousled looking root has been a part European and American cuisine for hundreds of years, but you are unlikely to find this exotic in the grocery store. John A. Freeman whose homesteader’s classic handbook “Survival Gardening” calls Salsify a “very special survival vegetable.” It grows easily but harvesting the deep root takes a deft touch and so is in the dominion of the hands-on-farmer.
Turn of the century books and pamphlets on farming such as The Cultivation and Country Gentleman for the Farm, Garden and Fireside cite Salsify for its virtues as a blood purifier. In more modern times it is lauded for its inulin - a type of carbohydrate that breaks down fructose, a diabetic-friendly sugar. It is highly nutritious and a good source of vitamins and minerals, giving it a satisfying quality in soups and stews.
Ancient folk foods like Salsify usually have a many of descriptive names. The purple spiky flower and grassy nature earned it “Goatsbeard” and its somewhat ocean flavor earned it “Oyster Plant.” With a little help from bonito flakes or seaweed, it can be used to create a substitute fish soup stock. Although leaf and shoots can be used, Salify’s virtue is the root, which can be boiled, baked or mashed. The peel can be left on or removed. With little effort, you can enjoy this old world nourishing food.
Preparation: Scrub before preparing. If peeling, be sure to have a bowl of water with a few drops vinegar or lemon juice handy - first, the peeled root is a little sticky, and second, the water will prevent discoloration.
Storage: Salsify may be stored, unwashed, in plastic bag for up to a week in the refrigerator.
- Heidi Lewis