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Aug 22, 2014
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Rooting Out New Fall Flavor
By Pat Eby • Photo by Greg Rannells
Posted On: 11/01/2009   

The chalky black skin of the narrow roots beckoned as only the ugly can. What was this spiky creature nesting in the produce section of my supermarket? I didn’t recognize the squat bunch of something nearby that looked like dust-colored carrots gone wrong either, but weird vegetables intrigue me.

The black spikes? Oyster root, also called oyster vegetable, oyster plant or black salsify. And the squat dun-colored things? Parsley root. A casual conversation with the man arranging the produce revealed these two vegetables are available in the fall, October through January. He explained the parsley root adds flavor to soups and stews, and that the salsify makes a great holiday stuffing, a poor man’s oyster dressing. He was right.

My cookbooks held few clues to these new finds. Food Lover’s Companion noted parsley root, also known as Hamburg parsley and turnip-rooted parsley, is rarely found in U.S. markets. FLC classified salsify as more popular in Europe than in the United States as well. Sleuthing out what to do with the roots made for some culinary delights, a few ho-hums and one nearly inedible failure.

The parsley root handles like a carrot – it can be simply scrubbed with a vegetable brush or peeled before cooking. The leaves, if fresh and supple, can be used like fresh parsley. Taste first to make sure they aren’t bitter. Roasted, the root has a deep flavor with a hint of celery root and whiff of carrot. Diced into soups and stews, it adds a layer of flavor that wakes up the other vegetables. Braise it with carrots, potatoes and onions for a pot roast surprise.

For mashed potatoes with a twist, toss diced parsley root into salted, boiling water and cook for five minutes. Add some quartered potatoes – any kind – and cook an additional 15 to 20 minutes until soft. Drain, reserving the cooking water. Shake the pan over medium heat to dry the potatoes and parsley root. Add butter and mash it into the vegetables by hand. Add the reserved cooking water mixed with milk and whip to the desired consistency. Toss in chopped parsley – flat leaf or from the tops. Add white pepper and salt to taste.

The oyster root proved difficult from the get-go. No books told me the black color of the skin comes off on your hands. And if you don’t put the peeled root in water immediately, it turns icky brown. Just plain boiled is not the way to go with this vegetable: The texture seemed off. Roasted, oven-fried or pan-fried produced a better appearance and taste.

“Salsify is something you cook first, then incorporate into your dish,” said Clint Whittemore, executive chef at The Market at Busch’s Grove. “We use it in our vegan winter stew, cooked in a tomato vegetable broth, paired with sweet potatoes, winter squash and parsnips.”

Whittemore also likes to poach salsify spears in milk. “The milk helps it keep its color. I add salt and butter to the milk to bring out the flavor.” He then wraps the poached spears in bacon and serves the bundles in a mushroom cream sauce with grilled elk steak medallions. He imagines fried salsify, too, as an accompaniment to roasted pork.

Finding salsify and parsley root in local markets takes planning. The Market at Busch’s Grove carries salsify in the winter months. Some Dierbergs and Schnucks stores have salsify on hand, but the best bet is to place an order a week ahead of time. I found great parsley roots with beautiful green tops at Whole Foods Market, but again, call ahead to special order the roots to avoid disappointment.

There’s not enough demand for local farmers to grow salsify and parsley root yet, but the seasonal cook in me sure enjoyed working with something new.

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