Black Salsify – the mystery vegetable from Winter-Neverland
Let me begin by mentioning that parsnips are not a particularly well known vegetable in Germany. Personally, I had never heard of them until my first winter in England. So I really can’t judge anyone who hasn’t heard of black salsify, a staple vegetable of my youth.
But what I can do is try and rectify the situation. Black salsify is a root vegetable with a subtle sweet flavour reminiscent of artichokes or asparagus, if a bit earthier. This is why it is also called winter asparagus or “poor man’s asparagus”. German white asparagus is considered a delicacy that comes with a certain price tag (the season is coming up, I’ll be reporting extensively), whereas black salsify is much less pricy.
In a standard supermarket you won’t find this, but specialist green grocers as well as online services such as Abel & Cole have it. It’s in season in the depth of winter, which makes it a wonderful variation to your cabbage heavy diet in the first three months of the year, otherwise known as the neverland of seasonal vegetables. As such, this post may come a bit late in April, but I wanted to give you something to look forward to in the next winter while you’re starting to enjoy all the fresh spring treats hitting the markets now.
Its looks are deceptive, if you’re expecting something similar to white asparagus you’ll walk right past it. In its unpeeled state, black salsify looks like brown sticks covered in mud. It’s a root vegetable true to its name. Only when you peel it will you reveal the fresh white flesh that makes it so appetising. You want to do so quickly under running water (it’s really muddy), and then drop the white pieces into some cold water with a bit of lemon juice or mild vinegar, otherwise it will turn brown within minutes. Probably only one minute, if I’m honest.
What to do with it? Anything you want, really, treat it like an asparagus with a slightly longer cooking time, or a carrot with a shorter one. Boil it, grill it, make a gratin, it’s really versatile. Just be sure you always have a few drops of lemon juice on it at the various stages of cooking, to bring out its flavour and avoid discolouring.
I will give you one simple and satisfying option here simply because this is how we had it when I was a kid. This is the dish I was craving went I typed “Schwarzwurzel” into Google Translate, to find out what it was called in English so I could source it. Which is how I came to write this post in the first place.
Chop the peeled roots to about 3cm length and simmer them in (already hot) vegetable stock, with a squeeze of lemon juice (I can’t reiterate this often enough). It should take about 20 minutes, I tend to try regularly until it reaches a tender, yet still firm texture. Make a white roux from a knob of butter and a spoon of white flour, slowly add the stock your roots are boiling in to make a white gravy full of flavour. Drop the vegetables into the gravy and serve with something carby, such as boiled potatoes or, in my case, a lovely savoury pancake!
Don’t stop here. The flavour is pretty unique and may even take some getting used to, so experiment! Now that I’ve told you about it, I will remind you when it comes back into season, and I will post other good variations using this little gem. Let me know if you find one you love!