Friday, September 13, 2013

Mock White Fish (Vegetarian Dish.)

Aaaaaand I'm back!  I'm going to go ahead and blame it on the fact that today's dish took six months to make.  Mainly in my backyard.  And why?  Because you can't buy salsify.

What is salsify?  Let us refer to the Horticultural Register and Gardener's Magazine [1836]

Left: the only attractive specimen obtained.  Right: what most of them looked like.  It isn't the salsify's fault.  My carrots are also pretty homely. 

Salsify is a native of England, and is universally esteemed there to be very wholesome and nutritious.  So much so, that there are but few families that have a garden, who are without a profusion of this delicious culinary vegetable.  The root, which resembles a parsnip in appearance, is white, long and tapering, and is the part most valued for culinary purposes.  It is boiled and eaten like a parsnip, or parboiled, cut into slices, and fried, and dished up for the table as a sauce for boiled fowls, turkeys, &c.  When sliced and fried in batter, it very much resembles in taste the oyster, whence its local name, Vegetable Oyster.  

Salsify is one of the many root vegetables that have fallen out of favor with the advent of mass produce transport, along with Jerusalem artichokes, rutabagas, and turnips.  It was very popular in the 1800's, mainly as a fish and oyster substitute.  I suspect its popularity was also due to its color.  Victorians were huge fans of any white- or cream-colored food, to the point of engineering ordinarily colorful vegetables to be pale and anemic looking.

I have wondered for a long time, however, how well this hideous vegetable actually works as a substitute for fish.  And today, my dream has come true.

Mock White Fish (Vegetarian Dish.)
Mrs. Beeton's Everyday Cookery (1861)

Ingredients. --Salsify, milk, butter, flour, lemon-juice, breadcrumbs, salt and pepper.  
Method.--Scrape the salsify, cut the roots into 1-inch lengths, cover them with lemon-juice, or white vinegar, and water, and let them remain 1 hour.  Drain well, barely cover with boiling salted water, cook gently until tender, then strain and preserve the liquor.  Take equal parts of liquor and milk; to 1 pint allow 2 oz. of butter and 1 1/2 ozs. of flour.  Heat the butter, add the flour, stir and cook for a few minutes without browning, and put in the mixed liquor and milk.  Stir until boiling, season to taste, and add a little lemon-juice.  Place the salsify in coquilles, cover with sauce, sprinkle thickly with breadcrumbs, and add 2 or 3 small pieces of butter.  Bake until the surface is nicely browned, then serve. 
Time.--To cook the salsify, from 25 to 30 minutes.  Average cost, 2d. to 3d. each.  Allow 1 to each person.  

Verdict:  Danged if when I was peeling and grating, it didn't smell vaguely of fish.  Not... not food fish, but more like that smell when you walk past the fish department at the grocery store.  Sort of like raw fish and a little like cleaning solution.  Most salsify recipes tell you to drop the pieces into water while you are working, and this is a good idea.  On exposure to air, they start turning black.  They also leak white milky sap onto your hands, which make you smell slightly like a fish counter.  

But does it taste like fish?  Yes.  It actually does.  In a mushy, squishy way, similar to cod.  The lemon juice in particular makes it taste very close.  I should mention that cod is my least favorite fish.  I ate two pieces of mine, Husband ate most of his, and 2-year-old ate the rest of mine, cramming pieces in her cheeks like a hamster, chanting "Salsa-feeeeeee!  Salsa...FEEEEEEEEE!", and ignoring her spaghetti.  I suspect she liked the mushiness and the sound of the word "salsify."

This would be a good dish to make if you had time to spend, space in your garden, and a serious and worrying grudge against a vegetarian frenemy who hated fish.  


Nancy said...

Welcome back! Don't stay away so long next time.unanchm 14

Beth said...

I've heard of salsify, but I did not know it tasted like fish. That's....unique.

Lisa said...

I was happy to see your post pop up in my reader! I have to admit, I always thought salsify was more like parsley, some kind of herb. I had no idea it is a root vegetable, and I'm very impressed that you went to the trouble of growing it.

Jana said...

Great! Although apparently, since it is biennial, you can leave it in the ground over winter and then eat the new shoots in the spring like asparagus.

Mrs. Mac said...

I've always wanted to try this .. salsify grows wild all over our property. I came across this recipe that resembles fish cakes made with salsify should you get adventurous.

Thanks for posting.

Jana said...

Well, I have to get rid of the rest of it somehow!

SometimesKate said...

It's also called 'oyster plant', I know, and wasn't thrilled at the thought, given that I hate oysters, raw or cooked. You're a braver woman than I, Jana Din.

~~louise~~ said...

Welcome back Jana! I see you are up to your usual investigating. I've come across Salsify in old cookbooks but I never knew of the fish connection. Amazing!

Thanks for sharing and again, Welcome back!

Jana said...


Karen K. said...

That last paragraph made me laugh out loud. You might also add "long-held grudge" because that's what it would take for me to expand that much energy to make this dish for a vegetarian frenemy. You're hilarious.

Lately I've been tempted by parsnips which I have never tried. I think they're much easier to find, though.

Jana said...

You'd really have to be devoted to the cause to have such a grudge. Parsnips aren't bad, and not impossible to find.

Anonymous said...

Ah! I'm so glad you're back! I looove your blog!

Jana said...


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