Oyster Plant, Pearl of a Vegetable

Times Staff Writer

Question: Where can I find salsify or oyster plant? I remember my mother fixing it and it was a "pearl" of a vegetable.

Answer: Salsify or oyster plant may be found at Irvine Ranch Farmers Markets and at Gelson's Markets.

For those unfamiliar with salsify, author Elizabeth Schneider gives the following information in "Uncommon Fruits & Vegetables--A Commonsense Guide" (Harper & Row: 1986, $25)

" Salsify is a word used to describe two plants, both of which belong to the vast (20,000-species) Compositae family.

"Salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius) also called oyster plant, vegetable oyster, white salsify. Tragopogon means goat's beard and refers to the milky white seed filaments (like dandelion fluff) that distinguish members of the genus. Porrifolius means leek-leaved and describes to a degree the grassy, flat greens of this plant, which is the only cultivated member of the group. The root vegetable itself is shaped like an irregular parsnip and has relatively thin, pale-tan skin (the flesh is off-white), the whole covered with tiny rootlets.

"Scorzonera (Scorzonera hispanica) also black salsify, black oyster plant, viper grass. The word scorzonera (skort-soh-NAIR-a) comes from either escorzo nera, Spanish for black bark, or from escorco, the Catalan word for viper, so named because the plant's juices were thought to provide an antidote to snakebite. The plant was introduced to European culture through Spanish seed; hence hispanica. This most edible root is nothing great to look at, resembling in appearance a muddy brown (cream beneath the skin), non-tapering, petrified carrot. It is usually more regularly shaped, longer, and smoother than white salsify.

"In recipes, white salsify and scorzonera are virtually interchangeable, as far as techniques and timing go (although the taste and texture are slightly different)." Schneider goes on to say, "Expect both kinds of salsify to be subtle and delicate--too bland for some taste buds.

"SELECTION AND STORAGE: Look for both the domestic white salsify and Belgian scorzonera from late fall through early spring, although some filters in at odd times. White salsify is generally sold in bunches, with its following tops attached; scorzonera is sold virtually leafless, in perforated plastic bags. In either case, look for medium-sized even roots, with no obvious flabbiness. Although not as firm as carrots, neither should be soft. Very large roots tend to be fibrous; very small ones wind up more waste than flesh.

"If oyster plant is in good shape when you buy it, you can keep it up to two weeks in the refrigerator, wrapped in plastic. Just check to be sure it isn't drying out.

"PREPARATION: When salsify is peeled, it darkens immediately and unevenly. It is best to place it in a bowl of water and lemon juice (about 2 tablespoons per quart) as you work. You can wear rubber gloves to prevent discoloring your hands as you work, if a temporary rusty-brown stain will bother you.

"Scorzonera is generally even-shaped, and is simple to peel before cooking. However, white salsify often has a crazy conformation, forked and tentacled, that makes peeling wasteful and time-consuming. Therefore, it is easier to cook, cool slightly, then slip off the peel, being careful not to break up the roots."

Because salsify breaks easily, Schneider recommends steaming the vegetable rather than boiling. "Once cooked, the vegetables can be cut to suit, and gently heated in butter touched with a little sugar, salt, and lemon juice. Or combine the oyster plant in a shallow baking dish with a light bechamel or cheese sauce and bake in the upper part of a hot oven until just lightly browned. Or bathe the cooked salsify in vinaigrette sauce and let cool to room temperature.

"Add peeled, diagonally cut salsify to stews and braises during the last forty-five minutes or so of cooking. Or brown first, then braise with fowl or veal. Add salsify to chunky vegetable soups, as well; or simmer salsify in light stock, then puree for a delicate soup.

"Note: Salsify has been known to cause gastric grumbling, sometimes volcanic, in some poor souls (even if Louis XIV is said to have included it in his meals as a digestive aid). If you are subject to such miseries, or have not eaten it before, enjoy it in moderation until you've figured out your tolerance."

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