Foraging is not as foolproof as the blogosphere would sometimes have us believe, even when you have a solid handle on plant ID, habitat, and season. It’s not like browsing one’s way through wood and dale.
Take, for instance, this wild salsify I picked in Montana back in June. I figured I had the makings of an excellent side dish. I’d been meaning to try wild salsify for years, and here was a bunch of it growing next to the Bitterroot River. To my credit, I recognized the species, knew it was edible, and even had some recipe ideas in mind from past research. This seemed like a slam dunk. I dug up several roots and took them home.
I much prefer the other name by which I’ve known this pretty, non-native wildflower of dry slopes, road sides, and waste areas for the past 20 years: Johnny-go-to-bed-at-noon. Except in some places it’s Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon. Or goat’s-beard. Or oysterplant. Oh well, what’s in a name.
Once I got the plants home, I found a recipe online that involved braising the peeled roots in water, lemon juice, and herbs before sautéing in olive oil and butter. But no amount of braising could have tenderized these gnarly specimens. Even peeled, they had a tough outer skin wrapped around a pithy interior. Yet that thin interior vein gave a tantalizing hint of the culinary might-have-been. It was soft, buttery, slightly nutty, a bit like artichoke heart. It was quite tasty, as a matter of fact. I sucked it out like marrow from a bone and pondered my next move. Try digging the plant at a different time of year? Look for the more widely used Tragopogon porrifolius?
Arthur Lee Jacobson, who is always an excellent source of Pacific Northwest botanical information, says he concentrates his salsify foraging efforts on the leaves rather than the roots. Maybe this was a hint. Next time I’ll look for the purple variety. Such is the ongoing education of a forager. Failure rides shotgun with success, and experimentation is the order of the day.