Serious gardeners, small-scale market farmers, and the managers of community-supported agriculture (CSAs) programs are always on the lookout for unique crops — especially those they can harvest through winter. Many restaurateurs also support seasonal eating by shopping for unusual, local ingredients to fill out their menus during the chilly months. We need not look too far to find interesting options because an array of old-fashioned crops is well-suited to take up the call where summer vegetables leave off. I’ve grown crosnes (Stachys affinis), skirret (Sium sisarum), and salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius) for more than 35 years and have gotten to know them well. They are the “three sisters” of my winter garden, and they’ve kept my table amply supplied with unusual and delightful dishes.
All three of these epicurean treasures remain fairly close to their wild ancestors. Perennial crosnes and skirret are hardy in Zones 4 to 8. Salsify is a Mediterranean crop and, as a biennial, requires a winter rest period. It’s hardy in Zones 6 to 8 (or into colder Zones if given ample winter protection). Aside from their preference for sandy loam, all three crops benefit from deep trenching, which leads to well-shaped tubers. Crosnes do well in damp locations, and skirret is quite at home on swampy ground or a bank along a stream. If you have winter garden plots that collect water because of poor runoff, they may lend themselves well to a crop of crosnes or skirret — I’ve planted both in what I call my “swamp,” and they love it. Low spots tend to ice over, however, so plant these vegetables in a well-drained area under row covers to access them for winter harvests. The same can be said for planting salsify, which will also supply a healthy crop of edible greens when given such protection.
These high-yield root crops are usually free of pests, so they’re quite low-maintenance for organic gardeners. Deer relish salsify greens, but using row covers or a repellent called Liquid Fence will help deter them. Voles are the only serious problems I’ve experienced when growing these rare crops. Fortunately, my farm’s stealthy resident cats have halted many voles in their tracks — and they’ve been rewarded accordingly.
Cultivate and Cook with Crosnes
Perennial crosnes originated in eastern Asia, where the tubers are mostly made into pickles. These plants were brought to France in the 19th century under the name “Chinese artichoke,” and eventually took their European name, crosnes, from the French village where they were first cultivated.
In cookery, you can treat crosne tubers like water chestnuts. Their mildly nutty, artichoke-like flavor and crunchy texture complement salads, stir-fries, and mixed vegetables. They also make excellent pickles because they retain their crispness well. Many Japanese cooks pickle crosnes with red shiso under the name “chorogi,” which you can purchase in jars in most Asian grocery stores. (For more information on growing and cooking with shiso, see “Revitalizing Shiso”. Rather than the red saltiness of chorogi, I prefer sweet-and-sour combinations. Green shiso is quite pleasant for contrasting flavor, especially if you add a few hot peppers to the mix. In fact, most cooks in the United States haven’t explored the full culinary potential of crosnes, so this rare crop remains on the cutting edge of American cuisine.
Crosnes foliage resembles mint in appearance, and the plants spread via knobby tubers that develop around the roots during late summer and early fall. For best results, plant the tubers in a grid pattern, 4 inches apart in each direction. Crosnes bloom with attractive, purple, spiky flowers that look similar to bishop’s wort (Stachys officinalis) blossoms — not surprising, as the two are botanically related. Because of their handsome flowers, crosne plants lend themselves to accenting colorful, edible landscapes. Keep an eye on them, though, as crosnes can become invasive when grown as ornamentals.
You can begin harvesting crosne tubers in late fall, after frost has killed the tops, by gently pulling on the plants and digging up the tubers. Continue harvesting into winter. One downside to crosnes is that they discolor if exposed to the air for longer than a day, which is why growers who sell them at markets generally leave them in the ground as long as possible and dig them as needed. Because of their knobby shape, the tubers require special care in washing; an old toothbrush or a small bottle brush will come in handy for this purpose. As you clean them, you can drop the tubers into a bowl of water with a bit of lemon juice so they won’t discolor before you serve them.
Classic French Crosnes Recipe
Yield: 1 pound
• 4 tbsp butter
• 2 cloves garlic, minced
• 1 pound crosne tubers
• Salt and pepper, to taste
• Melt butter in a sauté pan and add minced garlic.
• Add crosne tubers and sauté lightly, stirring consistently.
• Add salt and pepper to tubers, and serve warm.
Salsify is an ancient plant, and its specific epithet, porrifolius, is apt in that it means “leek leaved.” Indeed, many people have come into my garden and mistaken the plants for leeks. Salsify originated in the Mediterranean region and was generally treated as a wild-harvest plant until the 17th century, when gardeners brought it under cultivation in order to improve the size of the roots. Some of the earliest experimentation took place in Switzerland, which is generally considered the homeland of the best salsify strains. For that reason, at my farm we only grow and sell a Swiss cultivar called ‘Luethy,’ named after the family that developed it (spelled ‘Lüthi’ in some seed catalogs). Other old-time cultivars are ‘White French,’ ‘Gammel Gotlandsk,’ and ‘Mammoth Sandwich Island,’ the latter being the most common in U.S. seed catalogs. At first glance, the thickness of the roots and the whiteness of the flesh make these cultivars distinctive, but you may also pick out variations in flavor.
You can use salsify like carrots in cookery, although rich sauces mask its delicate taste, so partner it with other light flavors. Salsify is also known as “oyster plant” because many think the root, when cooked, tastes like raw oysters. In Germany, people call this crop haferwurzel (“oat root”) because they think it tastes more like cooked oatmeal. Whatever the case, the distinctive flavor lends complexity to soups and stews. If you want to think of the roots as vegan oysters, then they’ll definitely serve that purpose, even for making faux fish stock. I’ve found that salsify also blends well with wild mushrooms, especially “chicken of the woods,” which we’ve been harvesting for the past several years off an old, dying ash tree.
Because salsify roots are long and narrow, prepare them for cooking by paring the roots and then cutting them on a 45-degree slant, thus creating large, flat pieces, which could take the place of clams or oysters in recipes. Like crosnes, salsify will discolor if you remove the skin, so keep the roots in water with lemon juice until you’re ready to cook. Salsify greens are also edible, especially when young, and are often added to salads. The unopened flower heads are edible, too, and some people even pickle them — so all parts of the plant are useful in the kitchen.
Like its leek namesake, salsify is biennial. When growing salsify, space the plants far enough apart so they develop thick roots; if crowded, the roots will grow long and stringy. Plant the seeds in spring as soon as the ground can be worked, and then thin seedlings to 2 to 3 inches. Harvest the roots through winter and into the following spring. For seed saving, let the plants flower in the early summer of their second year. The flowers, which are pale purple and quite attractive to pollinators, quickly develop into giant puffballs resembling dandelion seed heads. The wind will carry off the seeds if you’re not quick to harvest the blooms as they transform into “feathers.” At my farm, we snip them off and let them dry in large paper bags, and then remove and clean the seeds later. Otherwise, birds will gorge on the seeds. In fact, one of the other unsung features of salsify is that it makes wonderful bird feed and could be grown profitably for that purpose alone.
Salsify’s popularity is growing. It’s already in great demand by local-harvest restaurants, and growers in New York and Philadelphia can’t keep up with the market. Because salsify appears in many early U.S. cookbooks, its appeal is not only regional but also historical. It’s now beginning to appear in Asian markets for cooks who treat it like burdock, because aside from its culinary charms, salsify is also an heirloom herb with a solid reputation in botanical medicine, where the root is often recommended to promote healthful digestion.
Grow and Cook with Medieval Skirret
Historians trace skirret back to China and to ancient Roman cookery. While skirret is Eurasian in origin, it’s definitely one of the oldest vegetables grown north of the Alps and was a common feature of Central European cuisine during the Middle Ages. I think this plant’s sweet-tasting roots are easier to grow and much better tasting than parsnips, which they slightly resemble in flavor. Skirret remained popular into the 18th century and then more or less dropped off the menu. Perhaps one reason that the root fell out of favor is that no one has taken the time to improve it; skirret still grows much like its wild ancestor, meaning that you must gather quite a few to make a worthwhile meal. Because parsnips have undergone considerable horticultural improvement, they may have been the underlying reason skirret eventually fell out of fashion.
I acquired my stand of skirret from Poland while researching medieval Polish cookery. Even there, where skirret could easily be found in Polish marshes, it was only cultivated in special collections devoted to traditional food plants — it wasn’t a crop sold in local markets. Now that interest in skirret has undergone a revival, more cooks and gardeners have discovered its culinary possibilities and extreme hardiness. You can grow it on marginal land in harsh microclimates, and it will remain fairly free of pests. Even deer seem to leave it alone. Moreover, as a perennial crop, skirret can supply a gardener with edible roots for many years.
For those who have never seen skirret, the plants bear a vague resemblance to parsley — they belong to the same botanical family. As the plants grow and eventually begin to flower, they can reach about 3 feet in height. The white flowers develop seeds that resemble celery seed, so you can increase skirret from the seeds and by dividing the roots. Commence harvesting the roots during winter and proceed right into the following spring. After the plants revive in warm spring weather, the roots lose their flavor and texture, meaning the harvest season of skirret is approximately the same as that of parsnips.
Skirret’s flavor is luscious and buttery. For this reason, cooks traditionally mashed skirrets and mixed them with turnips, then later with potatoes. They’re a great addition to vegetarian recipes, but also marry well with smoked meats and game. I’ve eaten skirret roots with wild boar, used them as filling in Polish pierogi, and even added them as an ingredient in bread. The floral taste with a hint of violets pairs well with wines such as Gewürztraminer, and on a cold winter’s day, there’s nothing more refreshing than a steaming-hot bowl of skirret soup!
Sold in fall and spring.
William Woys Weaver is the author of 16 books, including the classic Heirloom Vegetable Gardening. He’s the caretaker of the Roughwood Seed Collection, which contains about 4,000 plant cultivars.