Root Ahoy! The Joy of Finding a New Vegetable

By Carol Ann Sayle
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Carol Ann Sayle


I don't go out for lunch much. Takes too much time for one thing. However, the other, more important reason is that the food I'm growing is much better—especially in nutrition—than what I will find on a lunch menu. In general, that is due to the fact that restaurants serving lunches must offer them at a very affordable price to those who lunch out every day. Typically the necessary cost cutting occurs with the raw material used.

In my own kitchen, at noon, I do not skimp in preparing several items. Sometimes I make use of leftovers, but I really enjoy cooking fresh from the fields, even if for myself only. It's the most valuable reward for being a vegetable farmer. I've plenty from which to choose: a salad whose leaves were picked that morning, simmered beets, lightly sautéed broccoli—whatever is in season. My methods are quick: grated raw veggie slaw-type salads (parsnips, beets, carrots in the cold season; squash, cucumbers, onions in the hot season), and sautés featuring hash-browned potatoes, squashes, green beans, etc. Occasionally an open-faced sandwich with thin, braised-in-butter slices of eggplants and onions. But I tend to not eat much bread, as it goes quickly to fat on me.

Fat aside (except for butter), I love to test out new items we are growing. Over the years, there have been many vegetables that I have not previously sampled—until the first harvest. And generally I am always amazed at the spectacular flavors, like the sensuous aroma from freshly harvested and freshly stewed parsnips.

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These days, I'm joined in the fields and in the kitchen by my stepson, Tom. Together we grow the new stuff and then cook and critique it. Today, it was scorzonera. I'd only vaguely heard of this root over the years, but didn't know anyone who had ever grown it, much less cooked with it. Even many of our chef customers professed inexperience with it, and that finally energized me to grow it this past fall, placing a line of the seeds in one side of a 200-foot bed, with parsnip seeds sown on the other side. We harvested all of the parsnips before we had the time and nerve to extricate the scorzonera. Tom got the task of stomping a spading fork deeply into the hard clay soil and teasing out the black-skinned roots. ("Nero" is "black" in Italian.)

Scorzonera is reportedly similar to salsify, which I haven't grown or eaten, so that's no help to me! Internet searches of scorzonera revealed that it should be blanched or boiled and then the skin will easily peel off. I chose to peel it in the raw state with a potato peeler and thought it easy, maybe because it was so fresh. The black skin, however, will stain any cloth permanently, as I found out in our farm stand Saturday, when the pile of scorzonera left a brown patch on a light blue table cloth. Oh well, now I know.

Also on Saturday, in the farm stand, we hosted a very successful book signing for author Deborah Madison for her new Seasonal Fruit Desserts: From Orchard, Farm, and Market. Every time someone inquired about the non-fruit scorzonera, I sent them over to Deborah, who told them to blanch, skin, slice, and cook them in butter with a sprinkle of salt.

That's what I did today, sans the blanching. However, since I ate a piece raw and found it very subtle in flavor, I decided that perhaps I'd add a tiny bit of spring onion and some snow pea "peas." The snow peas were "of a certain age" and so I shelled them for their wonderfully sweet peas. Actually, if you don't have room in your garden for English peas, just grow a lot of snow peas, forget to harvest some, and you'll have peas without the English accent. Just as delicious.

So in the buttered iron skillet, the little rounds of scorzonera turned tan, and I flipped them over with the onions, adding a bit of salt. In the last few moments, I sprinkled in the spring-green peas. They definitely improved the eye appeal of the dish.

We added a grated raw beet salad on the side and toast topped with melted cheddar and dandelion greens. I asked Tom, the scorzonera harvester, if he liked them. "They are alright! I'd eat them again!" That was a ringing endorsement. I found them delightfully crunchy (not having been boiled first) and buttery. Well, who doesn't like butter? We both will eat them again prepared this way, soon, before we sell them out. And certainly, we'll grow them again next winter!

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2010/05/root-ahoy-the-joy-of-finding-a-new-vegetable/56396/