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Salsify made easy: Esther's tips for handling "winter asparagus"
When you peel salsify you usually end up with black hands, which is probably one of the main reasons why many people choose not to use this tasty vegetable. Yet with its nutty flavour hints, salsify is a rich and delicious addition to winter cuisine. So it is worth getting to know this underestimated root vegetable a lot better.
If getting black hands is the only thing putting you off using salsify then you can use a trick that I have found mentioned in several old cookbooks. Instead of peeling the salsify you can simply scrape or brush off the skin – a robust vegetable brush works well for this. You may still get a little colour on your hands, but this method releases a lot less of the milky juice which is responsible for the staining.
If you would still prefer to peel this delicate vegetable – and there are times when this is a better option – then of course you can keep and use the peel. Markus Burkhard, who co-manages the restaurant Jakob in Rapperswil and has just been named "Discovery of the year" by Gault Millau, has some good ideas for using the whole of the root. The top chef makes salsify into a sorbet then sprinkles it with a crumble made from the peel. He makes his peel crumble by frying and chopping the peel then mixing it with white chocolate.
If you have a garden, then here are a few more ways you can use salsify: The tender, fresh leaves are edible; you can chop them finely and add them to a salad – that's a tip I learnt from a 1970s cookbook. You can also take off individual leaves from the salsify whenever you want (only the outer leaves, though, not the new inner leaves) and the plant will continue to grow well!
But back to everyday cooking: Salsify with orange is a great taste combination which I found out about a few years ago from popular Zurich butcher and chef Marlene Halter. She also simply scrapes the roots to clean them, then brushes them with orange marmalade and bakes them in the oven. I've tweaked the recipe a little and instead of marmalade I use thickened orange juice, which I mix with a little olive oil, salt and pepper. Then as a little extra I sprinkle the "winter asparagus" with finely chopped or grated orange rind, which is left over after the juicing anyway. Because you know me well enough by now to know that if it's edible, and especially if it tastes good – why would I throw it away?
You can also find salsify in the catalogue of ProSpecieRara, which seeks to preserve traditional species. Listed there, for example, is "Hoffmann's Black Pole", which is currently on offer from many commercial growers. It was first grown over 50 years ago and gives good yields. "We don't have as many varieties of salsify as we do of carrots, for example, because growers didn't spend as much time breeding new varieties," says Philipp Holzherr of ProSpecieRara. For this reason, he continues, ProSpecieRara is primarily concentrating on keeping salsify alive in our culture, on "rooting" for this long, slender vegetable that so few people eat nowadays.
We want to root for this root.
In order to sell vegetables which people don't know much about, it is important to gather and pass on knowledge of how to prepare them, so the ProSpecieRara vegetable experts also get involved in the practical aspects of cooking. Holzherr is only too pleased to share with us the best way of dealing with the milky juice produced by salsify: "It's best to peel it with the vegetable completely under water," he says, "then to keep the peeled roots white, place them straight into a bowl of cold water with a dash of lemon juice in it." He also says that washing up liquid is no good for removing the ring of residue which salisfy leaves on the pan when you boil it – but that a dab of oil on your cloth will work a treat. "I've definitely enjoyed cooking salsify more since I learnt this trick," he says. So there's a concentrated dose of cooking knowledge for you which also goes to show that at ProSpecieRara they don't just know a thing or two about conserving traditional species, they know how to enjoy them, too!
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