Black Salsify or Scorzonera

A forgotten vegetable

Carlton Hotel in London, 1906On the picture you see an 'artist impression' from 1906 of the restaurant of the Carlton Hotel in London, that was openend in 1899. This is one of the legendary hotels that were run by César Ritz (1850-1918) and Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935).
I have spend many hours searching for a painting with black salsify, but alas, ir seems that never ever has a painter been inspired by this vegetable ... But at least you can see the ambiance in which Escoffier's black salsify fritters were eaten (he worked at the Carlton Hotel until his reiterement in 1920).

Scorzonera and Salsify

There are two vegetables that look like asparagus once they're peeled: salsify and scorzonera. Both are winter vegetables, and both are the root of a plant, while asparagus is actually the stalk with the bud. According to Allan Davidson, salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius) is better known than scorzonera (Scorzonera hispanica), but in the Netherlands at least it's the other way around. Scorzonera were called 'winter asparagus' in nineteenth century Hollland. They are more recent than salsify, it wasn't until the seventeenth century that scorzonera was introduced to the table as substitute for salsify. The roots are high in nutritients, which make them valuable as winter food. Scorzonera is available from Octobre to March. The name black salsify indicates that the roots have a black skin, while salsify is whitish.
Even though they look like asparagus when peeled, scorzonera tastes differently, and has more 'bite'. On this page you'll find two recipes, one Dutch recipe from the eighteenth century for boiled black salsify with parsley sauce, and a French recipe from the early twentieth century for marinated and deepfried black salsify.

Black salsify at the end of the eighteenth century
Dutch cookbooks from the eighteenth and nineteenth century keep it simple: black salsify was served with a butter sauce, sometimes with addition of parsley. The Dutch recipe below is taken from the Nieuwe vaderlandsche kookkunst (New national art of cooking), from 1797. More about this book can be read at the recipe for Coteletten-Toert. The text is from the facsimile edition.

The original recipe

RecepttekstBlack salsify (scorzonera).
When the scorzonera have been scraped, cut them into pieces the length of a finger, and immediately put them into rain water, lest they turn red. Then wash them clean, and stew them in rain water, with a piece of butter. That will make them stay very white, which is their asset. When they are done, add butter rolled in flour, and grated nutmeg, salt and chopped parsley.

Modern adaptation of the recipe Print the recipe on this page
What catches the eye here is the manner in which the sauce is thickened, with a kind of beurre manié. This method consists of kneading equal weights of butter and flour together, than adding this in small lumps to the boiling or hot liquid while beating the sauce with a whisk. The sauce will thicken very quickly.
Although the base (equal amounts of butter and flour) is the same, this method is different from thickening sauces with a roux. For a roux the butter is melted first, and the flour has to be heated together with the butter before adding liquid.
For 4 persons.

Black salsify with parsley sauceIngredients
450 gram (1 pound/4 cups) black salsify
20 gram (1 1/2 Tbsp.) butter for cooking
20 gram butter (1 1/2 Tbsp.) and 20 gram flour (2 1/2 Tbsp.) for the beurre manié
1/4 litre (1 cup) of the liquid in which the black salsify was cooked (without the butter)
grated nutmeg to taste
pinch of salt
optional pinch of freshly ground white pepper
1 Tbsp. chopped parsley

Preparation in advance
Clean the black salsify. Sounds simple, but actually doing it takes some work. Some suggest scraping the root like a carrot, others use a peeling knife. I prefer a combination of the two: after rinsing the roots under warm water from the tap, I first use a peeler. Then I scrape any remaing skin off. Then cut the root at once in the desired length, and plunge in cold water.
Knead butter (at room temperature) and flour to a paste.

Boil the black salsify in clean water with a lump of butter for fifteen to twenty minutes. Because the melting butter will form a layer of fat on the water, the black salsify will not be touched by air during boiling, keeping them white.
Drain the vegetables, but catch the cooking liquid.
Take a quarter litre of the cooking liquid, bring to the boil in a small saucepan. add small lumps of the beurre manié whilst beating with a whisk. Heat through for five more minutes on a slow fire, then finish it off with salt, pepper, nutmeg and parsley. Return the vegatbles to the saucepan to heat them again.

To serve
At once. I prefer boiled potatoes with this, and, bcause it is winter, some black pudding with fried apples (see picture).

Scorzonera and salsify according to Escoffier

Escoffier published his Guide culinaire in 1902. It contains four recipes for salsify and black salsify (according to him, they are interchangeable): à la crème (with cream sauce), au gratin (like the first, but put under the gtill with cheese and breadcrumbs), frits (marinated and deep-fried in batter), and sautés (fried). Here you'll find the basic preparation for salsify (cooking in a blanc), and the recipe for fritters. Typically Escoffier: in the cookbook you have to look at several preparations to collect the entire recipe.
The French text is from my edition of the Guide culinaire, a reprint from 1995 from the fourth edition from 1921, but a glance at my Dutch translation from the first edition from 1902 showed me that at least the redaction of the recipes for salsify remained the same.

The original recipes
The French text is from the reprint from 1993 of the fourth edition of the Guide Culinaire. Escoffier uses a lot of words, you cal also choose to move on directly to the adapted version.

Salsifis (p.770)
Les salsifis employès en cuisine sont de deux sortes: le salsifis blanc et le salsifis noir, qui est aussi désigné sous le nom de
Les mêmes préparations conviennent aux deux espèces. Quelle que soit cette préparation, les salsifis doivent être d'abord ratissés avec soin, lavés, puis cuits dans un Blanc léger.
There are two kinds of salsify used in the kitchen: white salsify and black salsify, which is also called Scorzonera. The same preparations are used for the two kinds. Whatever preparation it is, the salsify must first be carefully peeled, washed, and then cooked in a light Blanc.
Blanc pour viandes et certaines légumes (p.405)
Cette préparation n'a par elle-même aucune valeur culinaire, elle n'est qu'un facteur de cuisson et a uniquement pour but de conserver blanches les substances qui sont plongées dedans.
Pour quelque substance que ce soit, le Blanc doit être porté à l'ébullition avant de la recevoir, puis recouvert d'une couche de graisse qui forme
isolant, et s'oppose à ce que les substances en cuisson reçoivent le contact de l'air qui les ferait noircir.
Préparation: Delayer à l'eau froide une forte cuillerée de farine par litre d'eau; saler à raison de 6 grammes; aciduler de 2 cuillerées de vinaigre par litre et faire prendre l'ébullition. Ajouter un oignon piqué d'un clou de girofle, bouquet garni, l'élément à cuire et la graisse destinée à former l'isolant; laquelle peut être de la graisse de rognon de boeuf ou de veau, crue, hachée finement et, au besoin, préalablement dégorgée à l'eau froide.
Nota -- Lorsque le Blanc est destiné à une cuisson de légumes, le vinaigre est remplacé avantageusement par du jus de citron.
Blanc for meat and certain vegetables
This preparation does not in itself have any culinary value, it is nothing more than a way of cooking and its only purpose is keeping the substances that are plunged in it white.
Whatever substance that is, the Blanc must be brought to the boil before it is added, then covered by a layer of fat that isolates, to prevent that the boiling ingredients come into contact with the air, which discolours them.
Preparation: add a heaped spoon of flour per litre water to cold water. Salt it with 6 gram. Acidulate with 2 spoons vinegar per litre and bring to the boil. Add an onion, with a clove stuck into it, a bouquet garni, the ingredient that must be cooked, and the fat that will form the isolating layer; that can be suet of beef or calf, raw, chopped finely and, if necessary, first rinsed in cold water.
Note -- If the Blanc is destined to cook vegetables, the vinegar is best replaced by lemon juice.
Salsifis frits (p.770)
Après les avoir bien égouttés, les tailler en tronçons de 7 à 8 centimètres de long et les mettre dans un plat. Assaissonner de sel et de poivre; ajouter: jus de citron, quelques gouttes d'huile et persil haché; laisser mariner pendant 25 à 30 minutes, en ayant soin de les sauter de temps en temps.
Ensuite, bien les égoutter; les tremper dans une pâte à frire légère les mettre dans la friture très chaude et les égoutter quand la pâte est bien sèche.
-- Dresser sur une serviette avec persil frit.
Nota. -- La marinade préalable des salsifis est facultative, mais très recommandable.
Salsify fritters
Cut them, after draining well, in pieces of 7 to 8 centimetres, and put them on a dish. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add: lemon juice, a few drops of olive oil and chopped parsley. Marinate for 25 to 30 minutes, while stirring from time to time.
Then, drain well. Dip them in a light batter, fry them in very hot deep frying fat and let drain when the batter is dry.
-- Serve on a napkin with deepfried parsley.
Note -- The prior marinade is optional, but very recommendable.
Pâte à frire pour Légumes (Salsifis, Céleris, Crosnes, etc.) (p.81/82)
Délayer dans une terrine: 125 grammes de farine; une pincée de sel; 2 cuillerées de beurre fondu; un oeuf, et la quantité d'eau froide nécessaire pour obtenir une pâte claire.
Autant que possible, l'apprêter une heure à l'avance.
Batter to deep fry vegetables (salsify, cellery, crosnes, etc.)
Temper in a bowl: 125 gram flour, en pinch of salt, 2 spoons melted butter, an egg, and as much cold water as needed to prepare a light batter.
When possible, prepare an hour in advance.

The modern adaptation of the recipes Print the recipe on this page
Whatever recipe you want to prepare, the black salsify has to be cleaned and cooked. Escoffier uses a blanc. This blanc keeps the vegetables white. Other cookbooks from the eighteenth and nineteenth century keep it simpler: the salsify is to be cooked in water with some butter. And in 1651 La Varenne just says they have to be cooked and then prepared like parsnips.

Preparing (black) salsify according to Escoffier, using a blanc
Cooking in a blanc is used not only for vegetables, but also meat that must be as white as possible, like chicken breast.

450 gram (1 pound/4 cups) black salsify, cleaned and cut to size (see the first recipe)
for every litre (quart) water
1 Tbsp. flour
1 tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. white wine vinegar or lemon juice
1 white onion pricked with one clove
bouquet garni (parsley, thyme, bay leaf)
suet of beef or calf

Preparation in advance
Chop or grate the suet.
Place a bowl with water nearby to put the salsify in as soon as it is peeled, to prevent discolouring. According to Escofier, the salsify has to boiled before cutting it in pieces, but if you do that first, you'll need a smaller pan and less water.

Bring water, flour, salt and vinegar or lemon juice to the boil. Add the onion with the clove, bouquet garni and salsify, and the finely chopped suet. Let cook for ten to fifteen minutes, and drain well.
Take care that you do NOT pour the cooking liquid in the sink, because the suet will congeal when it has cooled, and clog the drain.

Salsify fritters
Escoffier prefers using rendered suet, tallow from beef, or a combination of beef and calf suet, for deepfrying. But he also used lard, combined with other kinds of fat. If you start at the beginning, by rendering suet, the fat has to be grated or chopped finely, and added to a pan with 3/4 litre water for 5 kilogram suet (1.5 decilitre water for 1 kilo suet). Heat until the water has evaporated and the pieces of fat are reduced to cracklings (about twenty to thirty minutes). Let it cool for a short while, then strain it. This is tallow (here you have an illustrated guide to rendering tallow). The fritters must be fried dans la friture très chaude, in very hot frying fat, which means according to Escoffier at 180 dgC/355 oF.
In Belgium and the Netherlands you can buy tallow especially for deepfrying, called ossewit of blanc de boeuf. I think in England it is called shortening, but that can also be made of vegetable fat, so look at the ingredients before you buy. But Escoffier himself also mentions vegetable oils, goose fat and even butter as possible mediums for deep frying.
For 4 persons.

Salsify fritters according to EscoffierIngredients
400 gram (black) salsify, cut in pieces of 7 centimetres and precooked in a blanc
pepper and salt
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
125 gram flour
30 gram (2 tablespoons) melted butter
salt to taste
1 egg
1.5 decilitre water
a few tufts of parsley
2 kilogram suet or 1 1/2 kilo tallow (beef shortening)

Preparation in advance
If you use suet, you'll have to render it first (see above). Tallow or shortening just has to be heated.
Mix all ingredients for the batter, place in refridgerator for an hour.
Sprinkle the precooked salsify with lemon juice, oil and parsley, marinate for thirty minutes. Then drain well, and pat dry with kitchen towels.

Heat the frying fat to 180 dgC/355 oF.
Cover the pieces salsify in flour if you want, to make sure the batter doesn't slide off too easily.
Fry the salsify pieces three or four at the same time in the deep fryer, fry until the crust is brown and crisp. Drain, and keep warm in the oven at 120 dgC/250 oF with the door slightly ajar to keep the fritters crispy.
If al salsify is fried, dip a few tufts of parsley for a few seconds in the hot fat. The parsley will remain bright green and wonderfully crisp.

To serve
Just as Japanese like to serve tempura on rice paper to absorb fat, in Europe deep fried dishes used to be served on linen napkins, like croquettes. So, if you want to serve in style, cover each individual plate with a folded napkin, and place on each napkin some salsify fritters, decorated with deepfried parsley.
To me, this dish is an hors d'oeuvre, but it could be a side dish in the rich classical French cuisine.

All descriptions of ingredients

Blood sausage/Black pudding - What a pity that it is so difficult to obtain fresh pig blood! Cookbooks from Apicius till very recent have recipes for blood sausages and black puddings. Even my butcher's handbook from 1965 (Moderne beenhouwerij en charcuterie) has no less than sixteen recipes for blood sausage. The Dutch blood sausage for baking is made with pig's blood, meal of rye or buckwheat, spices and diced lard. But there are many variations, such as the 'Rotterdam blood sausage', with pork jowl, rind, blood, salt and saltpetre, black pepper, cloves and marjoram, no grains. This sausage is lightly smoked, most blood sausages are only cooked. Other blood sausages were with tongue or kidney, arranged attractively (see picture). See also My day at the Butcher's.
Bouquet garni - A bundle of aromatic herbs, that is added to stock or stew. They are removed before serving the dish. The usual combination is parsley, thyme and bayleaf, but other herbs can also be used, like rosemary, sage or chervil. The term bouquet (without the garni) is already used by François La Varenne in 1651 in his stock recipe (Le Cuisinier François, II), but except for cloves he doesn't specify the herbs. However, in the second edition he mentions parsley, chives and thyme. Pierre de Lune (Le cuisinier) also uses the bouquet in 1656, but he calls it a paquet, consisting of thyme, chervil, parsley and clove, and a piece of lard when the dish was to be served on a meat day.
Tallow - This is rendered suet. You can buy it at supermarkets as beef shortening (the picture shows the Belgian/Dutch commercial tallow for deepfrying), but you can also make it yourself (see here). Because fat congeals when it cools, you must filter it after each use when it is still liquid. Keep the fat in a cool place. By the way, if you prefer vegetable oil for deepfrying: that also has to be filtered before storing away. It may be clear that tallow is not to be used for vegetarians. If you use different kinds of fat for deepfrying (as I do), store them all with labels on which you note how often and when it was used.
Fat that congeals at lower temperatures (animal and vegetable) is less and less used in the Netherlands, probably because of the extra work it entails. And tallow, being an animal fat, is of course regarded as highly suspicious, because of the scare for bad fat. However ... if you only use tallow occiasionally, nothing is wrong with it.
If you mix tallow with birdseed, it is ideal winterfood for birds.

The editions below are in my possession. Links refer to available editions.
All books mentioned on this site (with short reviews)

  • Auguste Escoffier, Le guide culinaire. First edition was in 1902, last edition authorized by Escoffier was the fourth, from 1921. Most all recent editions and translations are from this fourth edition (English: The Escoffier Cookbook and Guide to the Fine Art of Cookery). The first English translation dates from 1907, which was made from the first French edition (A Guide to Modern Cookery, William Heinemann, London, 1907)
  • Nieuwe vaderlandsche kookkunst, Bevattende een volledig en grondig onderricht, om, naar den hedendaagschen smaak, toetebereiden allerleie soorten van spyzen [...], door twee in dit vak zeer ervarene huishoudsters. Johannes Allart, Amsterdam, 1797. Facsimile edition C. de Vries-Brouwers, Amsterdam/Antwerpen, 1976