Salsify is a root vegetable native to the Mediterranean region of Europe, where it has been cultivated and used in food for centuries. This plant has also been widely introduced to other regions of the world, although it is primarily popular in Europe. Some specialty markets carry salsify, especially in the fall, when it is in season, and it can also be grown in a home garden, for people who live between USDA zones six and 10.
Formally, this plant is known as Tragopogon porrifolius, and it also goes by Purple Goatsbeard and Oyster Plant. It has blade-like leaves and slender stalks which produce distinctive purple flowers in the second year of growth. In addition to the root, the greens and stalks are also edible. Salsify root has a slightly oysterlike flavor, explaining one of its common names, and the greens and stalks are mildly sweet.
There are a number of uses for salsify. Young roots can be grated and served on salads, while older roots need to be cooked to soften. The roots can be added to soups and stews, peeled and mashed, or used in root vegetable gratins. The greens can be used raw or cooked in salads and other dishes, while the stalks benefit from a light steaming or quick roasting, much like asparagus.
Depending on the cultivar, salsify may be white, golden, or black in color. As a general rule, the roots need to be scrubbed and peeled before use. The Mammoth Sandwich Island cultivar is the most popular for consumption, since it produces large, evenly-sized roots as long as it is grown in well-worked soil with lots of compost.
In the store, cooks should select salsify which feels heavy for its size. Roots should be evenly textured, with no soft spots or signs of discoloration, and they should be stored under refrigeration, wrapped in plastic. Cooks may want to be aware that salsify exudes a sticky white sap when it is cut, so it is a good idea to work with these roots next to the sink for ease of washing.
Gardeners who want to grow salsify can obtain seeds from specialty companies and some garden stores. The seeds should be planted in a prepared vegetable bed after the last chance of frost has passed, and kept moist until they germinate. It can take as long as three weeks for the seeds to germinate, and it is a good idea to leave them undisturbed until they do, as the seedlings can look like little twigs, rather than plants, and they might be accidentally removed by overzealous gardeners. Once germinated, salsify takes around 120 days to mature.