Sunny Scorzonera

Here's a cheerful photo for a sombre November day - Scorzonera hispanica (common names black salsify, viper's grass or just scorzonera). A sunny, insect-attracting flower worth adding to the garden even if you don't want to cook its tasty roots, enjoy its leaves and unopened flower buds lightly steamed, or add the crisp, mild leaves and also its flower petals to salads.

Scorzonera in flower
Scorzonera hispanica

I've been growing scorzonera for a few years now in odd corners of the garden but recently planted a patch of them. I transplanted some older plants as well as using first year plants grown in pots.

Bed of scorzonera plants

Two days ago I harvested a selection of roots for cooking.

Harvested scorzonera roots

Now I'm not entirely sure what I've got there but I think the first three plants from the left are at least two years old and possible older. The fourth plant is in its first year. Whilst the older plants were hard to excavate without breaking their long roots, the roots of the younger plant went less than a spit deep and you can see in the photo how they taper to a point. The fifth plant had its roots harvested before its top was transplanted last May or June. (I'd done this already to at least some of the older plants in the photo but in a previous year and in their original homes). This one has produced roots but obviously needs longer to produce new storage roots. I have now replanted it once again and think it will probably manage to survive the winter and produce fat roots next year.

Scrubbed scorzonera roots
Scrubbed scorzonera roots

These plants grew quite happily in a clay soil (although their roots didn't appear to grow into the pure clay subsoil that lies about a spit and a half down). I think you'd get longer, straighter roots in lighter soil but there was plenty here for a couple of meals - and none of them had become woody with age.

Scorzonera roots are mild in flavour with a very pleasing tender firmness. There are lots of ways to cook them, most simply by boiling until just tender, peeling and serving with butter, salt and pepper. You can also bake them and roast them, use them in recipes instead of carrots, make creamy soups with them or even fritters. I decided to cook mine with leeks and mushrooms in a gratin.

Scorzonera root being peeled
Peeling boiled scorzonera roots

After boiling sections of scrubbed root for 5-7 minutes I ran a knife just through the skin down the length of the root and the skin peeled off easily in sections. This does take a little time and I played around seeing how long a section I could trap with the side of my thumb to peel off in one go! You can peel the roots before cooking too with a potato peeler. As each root was peeled, popping it into a pan of water with a little added lemon juice prevented it from discolouring.

Then I just layered up all the vegetables, covered them with plenty of seasoned cheese sauce, topped them with breadcrumbs and grated cheese and baked them in a medium oven (Gas mark 4 , 180 C, 350 F) for about 25 minutes. (If you've read my previous posts and are wondering why my oven thermostat suddenly works, well it's a bit embarrassing! We have a fan oven too. I hate noisy machines and have never used it much so I'd forgotten about it. I suddenly realised it was very unlikely that the thermostat was broken on both ovens!)

Washed leeks - uncooked
Washed leeks - uncooked

Leeks and scorzonera in a dish
Leeks and scorzonera

Leeks, scorzonera and mushrooms in a dish
Leeks, scorzonera and mushrooms

Scorzonera gratin uncooked
Covered in cheese sauce and topped with breadcrumbs and grated cheese.

Scorzonera gratin cooked
Baked for about 25 minutes in a medium oven

The gratin was very enjoyable, full of flavour and satisfying. 

But you may find that scorzonera has a downside. It is one of those roots, like Jerusalem artichokes that stores its complex carbohydrate in the form of inulin rather than starch.

I get a bit tied up trying to accurately understand the biochemistry but roughly speaking it seems that:
a) the fact that we have trouble digesting inulin makes it useful for diabetics and slimmers because not much of it gets turned into blood sugar,
b) consequently it is a less useful energy source than starchy vegetables like potatoes,
c) when inulin passes, mostly unprocessed, into the large intestine it feeds assorted bacteria there and may do wonderfully healthy deeds for the body - or less healthy deeds, especially for sensitive individuals.
(If you'd like to know about this in detail I found this article interesting).

But the most common negative consequence of consuming a lot of inulin is that it may over-feed methane-producing bacteria in the colon. It's a shame but sunny scorzonera sometimes has a tendency to shine out of one's backside! Don't be immediately put off though if you prove to be affected: there is a list of suggestions I've come across to counteract the fartiness in this post I wrote about Jerusalem artichokes. They are all worth a try for scorzonera too.

N.B. I sell a range of perennial vegetable plants on my website.