Scorzonera and salsify are not very much in use today but were formerly an important part of bourgeois cooking. It has been grown in Sweden since the 17th century, although at first it was only grown in the gardens of aristocrats. It acquired the name fattigmanssparris (poor man’s asparagus), because when cooked it looks and tastes like white asparagus. Read more about Scandinavian Poor Man’s Asparagus.
Svartrot, as it is called in Swedish, has a special buttery texture and a pleasant taste reminiscent of lamb lettuce. Found wild as escapees from cultivation, they are not indigenous to Scandinavia. It belongs to a huge genus, and other plants from it are eaten in similar ways elsewhere.
Related: Scandinavian Vegetables
How it grows
Salsify has beautiful purple blooms, opening in the morning and closing by noon. Scorzonera is similar, but with bright yellow flowers. They are generally grown as annuals, for the roots, but can be grown on as perennials, just for the leaves. It’s an art to grow the fine roots to perfection, as their extremely long, fragile roots need a very deep loam. They are, however, extremely hardy, and can even be harvested the spring after they are sown, or you can choose to use the young tuff of leaves and shoots for a salad.
Appearance and taste
Scorzonera can be 1m long, and up to 2cm thick, with a pitch-black, strangely dry skin. Salsify is paler and only 5cm long. Both have a high content of insulin, a sugar that will trick your taste buds into believing that anything you can eat and drink with them is extremely sweet. The taste is very different from other roots, as they are not sweet and seldom mealy, but retain their shape, and certain juiciness when cooked. They have a deliciousness not found in other roots, which is done justice by the recipe below.
Related: Scandinavian Beetroot
The roots’ taste is a little like a day at the beach, and in fact salsify is sometimes known as oyster plant. Actually, the oyster taste is much more prominent in young borage leaves, hence its inclusion in the oystered vegetables.
Buying and storing
Both must be freshly dug, with no soft spots, and must not be bendable. They can, however, be restored in cold water. They keep for a long time wrapped in wet newspaper in the fridge.
Both go well in soups, pies, salads, baked, in a gratin, or marinated but they are not good raw, or boiled and mashed.
Both salsify and scorzonera will secrete a white rubbery substance, which will turn red and taint anything it touches, including your fingers and the roots themselves. To avoid this, handle them with gloves, and put the roots in a bowl of cold water with a drop of lemon juice, the second you have peeled them.
Related: Scandinavian Cucumber
If you like the idea of eating molluses, but do not dare to eat them raw, this will be a gentle way of introducing them. Six oysters will go a long way, their intense sea flavor spreading over a seabed of vegetables.
750g scorzonera or salsify (cleaned weight)
100g salted butter
1 bunch of very young borage leaves, chopped
1 bunch of flat-leaf parsley, chopped
for the cooking liquid
500ml hard cider
2 tablespoons sherry or cider vinegar
1 large sprig of thyme
4-5 red onions, quartered
4-5 garlic cloves, sliced
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
Serves 6 as a starter
Boil the cooking liquid for 5 minutes in a large saucepan.
Rinse the mussels and discard any that will not close, or are broken. Dump them into the pan and steam until they open, which will take just a few minutes. Lift them out with a slotted spoon, together with the onions, and set aside, discarding any which are still closed. Remove half of the shell of each mussel if you have the time.
Try scraping the bottom of the pan if it feels like there is sand in it, poor off the liquid very gently, leaving the sand behind. Wash the pan, then pour the liquid back in and continue. Bring the liquid back to the boil and reduce to almost nothing. Peel the roots and cut into bite-sized pieces. Boil until almost tender in salted water, then keep warm.
Shuck the oysters with a blunt knife, wearing thick gloves. Save every drop of the juice inside them. Chop the oysters. Whisk the butter into the sauce and stir in the roots, mussels, oysters, and juice from the oysters. Season with salt if necessary. Serve with the chopped herbs.
Scandinavian Poor Man’s Asparagus, written by Tor Kjolberg