Monday, December 15, 2008


It's about this time of year, when I'm suffocated by tubers, roots and squash, that I begin to get my fill of seasonal cooking. With spring comes the advent of fresh green vegetables, a return to light from the shadow cast by the cold winter dark, and with summer come the still brighter hues of tomatoes and a rainbow assortment of fruits. Fall heralds the holiday season with a slight chill and a built in remedy to boot--apples, cider, and warm autumnal pies. But with winter we see little more than tough, knobby bits, seemingly culled from the same piece of earth and tasting oddly alike. After a plethora of preparations, I finally tired of dealing with the seemingly limiting ingredients of winter.

It's my great fortune that these days it's en vogue to take these rough, knobby, stringy bits and make something significantly more lovely out of them. They started out playing second fiddle in restaurants--a light puree under a steak, an element in a creamy soup, or sautéed with a vegetable that people liked more. Now, as seasonal food becomes the norm, and making customers more familiar with what's around is in a restaurant's best interest, these bits of winter fare begin to shine as side dishes and appetizers. I'd been searching for a root called salsify for some time, and finally found it last weekend at the farmer's market. There's white salsify and black (seen above), which has a thick, bark-like skin that must be peeled. It's been called oyster plant because someone (lacking in taste buds, apparently) once said it tasted like oysters, but it's really a lot more like a dense artichoke heart.

When using an ingredient for the first time, I try to prepare it in a way that best exhibits it's flavor and texture, so purees and soups are out. I usually try some variation of pan-roasting or braising, which is exactly what I did with the salsify. After peeling it, I cut the salsify into 3 inch long batons and boiled them in acidulated water (water with lemon or vinegar) until they were almost completely tender. Then I sautéed them in butter and shallots with lemon and capers, adding chicken stock and a lid so the sauce could concentrate and thicken while the salsify finished cooking. The dish turned out great, and the lemon caper sauce was delicious. I topped the whole thing with some spinach I quickly wilted in the leftover sauce after plating the salsify, but that's completely optional. I am now proudly out of my winter veggie funk and ready for the next challenge. So go out there, find yourself some salsify (or other rejuvenating winter vegetable) and make the coolest dish you can.

Salsify with Lemon-Caper Sauce

4-5 medium-sized salsify stems, peeled and cut into 3 inch batons
4 cups cold water
2 lemons (reserving the zest of one)
1 small shallot, minced
1/4 cup capers, rinsed and dried
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 cups loosely packed spinach (optional topping)

1. After peeling and cutting each piece of salsify, immediately drop it into cold water with the juice of 1 lemon (this acidulated water will keep the white skin from browning). Bring water, lemon and salsify mixture to a boil and cook until salsify is tender but not quite cooked through.

2. Heat butter, olive oil and shallot in a non-stick skillet on medium heat until shallot begins to brown. Bring heat down to medium-low. Add drained salsify and toss to coat. Cook a minute further, then add capers and the juice of 1 lemon. Cook another minute so lemon deglazes pan, then add 1 cup of stock. Bring to a light boil and cook covered, checking frequently, until stock is reduced and thick (make sure to give everything a turn in the pan to keep sauce from burning).

3. If salsify is not cooked through, continue adding stock 1/2 cup at a time and cooking covered until tender (it will depend on how thick your salsify is--mine were quite large and required all 2 cups of stock).

4. Plate salsify, drizzled with sauce and topped with spinach quickly wilted in leftover sauce. Serve and enjoy!


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