Market Matters: Creamy Salsify Soup with Salmon

This week at the Hollywood Farmers Market I was on my weekly crawl to find something interesting. But I had a secret; I actually had a plan this time. I had my sites set on salsify.

What is salsify you ask? Maybe you know it better as oyster plant or goatsbeard. No?

It’s an ancient plant, long utilized as food. It is related to the sunflower and is in the family Asteraceae, which makes it, basically, a wildflower. But this information probably does not help you identify it because we don’t eat the flowers. Or at least I don’t eat the flowers…they’re just too darn pretty!

As a food, salsify is primarily a root vegetable. But the green grass-like leaves and stems are edible and often sold still attached to the root.

The root looks a lot like a big, skinny, hairy, parsnip. It is between six and twelve inches long. It is a cream colored with lots of little rootlets sprouting out of it in all directions. There is a black version, but botanically they are not closely related. Personally I have never seen the black type.

But why salsify…and more particularly why salsify now? Shouldn’t I be on the look out for mandarins or walnuts?  These are typically the prizes of the December harvest in Southern California.

salsifyAnd it’s true, these things are reaching their peak right now and I may become transfixed by one of them next week at the Farmers Market. But this is this week I have salsify on the brain.

The weather has turned crisp recently. Rain is predicted. The local news anchors are on 24/7 “STORM WATCH”. Phrases like “Arctic Blast” and “Bone Chilling” are being bantered about. That has created a salsify window that I cannot ignore.

These are the conditions necessary to bring salsify to the Farmers Market. Or more precisely, these are the conditions necessary to bring good salsify to the Farmers Market.

Salsify is often mature enough to harvest as early as June. But it is way better during winter. It needs to be exposed to chilly ground temperatures for a few weeks. The colder temperatures help convert its starches into sugar. So salsify actually sweetens, as the weather gets colder. But it is a Mediterranean plant and may die back to the ground once the weather gets too cold or stays too cold for too long.

Being a native of the Mediterranean region it is a good choice for us, and grows well in southern California. But you aren’t likely to find it in your local grocery stores.

This is partly due to its slightly difficult storage and handling problems. Salsify does not freeze well so the Jolly Green Giant has passed it over in favor of other more freezer friendly veggies.

Salsify is similar to a banana, or artichoke in that it discolors the moment it is peeled, or sliced, or chopped. It should be dropped into lemon water until ready to cook or serve raw.

It is also a bit hard to harvest. It is a brittle root, often breaking when pulled from the ground. When this happens, it must be used at once as it will quickly discolor and possibly spoil.

Some say it tastes like an oyster. Well, not any oyster I ever ate. But they do call it oyster plant, so somebody must think so. The flavor to me is more like an artichoke, or maybe even a sun choke…slightly nutty.  It’s at its best shortly after harvest while still sweet. It can revert to its starchy summer self after it has been stored awhile.

So here I am back from the market with 2 big roots. What I am going to do with them? I am going to have to think about that.

While I do, I’ll need to store them…and store them well, because they are best fresh, very fresh.

Salsify can be refrigerated in a perforated plastic bag for up to a week. But do not wash it before use. It will deteriorate quicker.

Salsify is difficult to clean and peel, if you plan to do this before cooking you should acidulate the water. But remember, if it works for your recipe, they can be peeled more easily after cooking.

Salsify is better steamed than boiled. It can break apart easily so do not overcook it. It turns from succulent to mushy in the blink of an eye, so have an ice bath ready to stop the cooking process.

Salsify is excellent in soups and stews. And so much easier to deal with this way. Given the weather, a Creamy Salsify Soup with Salmon is exactly what I have in mind. Besides with its starchy nature I just think that it works better in conjunction with other flavors. It can add a depth and interest that potato just can’t match.

As my jumping off point I am turning to a soup from Daniel Boulud’s CAFÉ BOULUD cookbook. He does a basic creamy potato based soup that is hard to beat.

I am going to make a few minor changes to the base of the soup. (He won’t mind). Plus, I am adding some leftover shards of salmon and dill as a garnish. Not to mention the addition of my wrangley, ugly, (but tasty) salsify; I know I am going to get a comforting, yet deeply compelling soup. Perfect for the chill in the air!

Creamy Salsify Soup with Salmon

serves 6 CLICK here for a printable recipe

  • 4 T unsalted butter
  • 3 (1 oz) chunks, pancetta or slab bacon
  • 1 large onion peeled, trimmed, and thinly sliced
  • 1 fennel bulb, trimmed peeled, trimmed, and thinly sliced
  • 1 celery stalk, peeled, trimmed, and thinly sliced
  • 3 clv garlic
  • 1 pn each salt and white pepper, as needed
  • 1 oz bouquet garni made with 3 large basil leaves, 2 parsley sprigs, 1 thyme sprig and 1 bay leaf
  • 1 lb salsify root
  • 1 qt chicken stock
  • 1 potato
  • 1/2 c heavy cream
  • 6 oz roasted salmon, torn into shards
  • 1 T dill leaves, chopped

Melt the butter in a Dutch oven or large casserole over medium heat. Add the pancetta or bacon and cook, stirring occasionally, until it renders its fat, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the onion, fennel, leeks, celery, and garlic and season with salt and pepper. Toss in the bouquet garni and cook, stirring occasionally, about 8 mins

Right before ready to use, run the salsify under cool water and scrub clean. Do not peel entirely, but you may break off some of the small rootlets if you like. Cut the salsify into one-inch chunks and add them to the pan. Cook them all together about 10 minutes more.

Pour in the stock, add the potatoes and a pinch of salt, and bring the mixture to the low boil. Lower the heat and simmer, about 30 mins. Skim off any scummy bubbles as you go. Remove all three pieces of pancetta or bacon, save them for another use. Discard the bouquet garni.

Add the cream. Using an immersion blender, puree the soup until it is creamy. Strain the soup through a mesh sieve into a large saucepan and taste for salt and pepper. Adding as needed. Add the cream to the soup and bring to a low boil. Lower heat and serve warm, ganished with salmon shards and dill.

Greg Henry writes the food blog Sippity Sup- Serious Fun Food, and contributes the Friday column on entertaining for The Back Burner at Key Ingredient. He’s active in the food blogging community, and a popular speaker at IFBC, Food Buzz Festival and Camp Blogaway. He’s led cooking demonstrations in PanamaCosta Rica, and has traveled as far and wide as Norway to promote culinary travel. He’s been featured in Food & Wine Magazine, Los Angeles Times, More Magazine, The Today Show Online and Saveur’s Best of the Web. Greg also co-hosts The Table Set podcast which can be downloaded on iTunes or at Homefries Podcast Network.