You know, most days I think I'm a pretty good catch. I have all my teeth, I earn my own keep, I speak four languages and I can cook (at least perfect spaghetti, a decent loaf of bread and poached eggs the old-fashioned way). Then along comes one man and cooks me a dinner made up of a few different root vegetables, for Pete's sake, and a simple roast chicken and I realize that I am a hack and a fraud and I might as well be serving cold cereal every night for dinner.
I guess I should explain. Stephen Williams is no ordinary man, you see: he's a Michelin-starred gastropub chef and the friend of a friend of mine who very kindly invited me over to dinner the night that Stephen was in town and cooking for her.
Now, I don't know if you know this about me, but I do truly believe that fancy food is sort of wasted on me. Give me a plate of spaghetti over a seven-course tasting menu any day. It's not that I don't appreciate the skill and artistry that go on behind that seven-course menu. It's just that I really kind of prefer, say, a plate of boiled vegetables and a good olive oil. Let's call it the Italian peasant in me.
I am not entirely a Philistine. Because as I sat at that dinner table, chewing on a stub of ham-wrapped salsify (oh, fine, five, no, seven of them), I distinctly felt the earth move.
My goodness, it was good.
And also slightly terrifying. If such glory was lurking behind a black-peeled root, what on earth else had I been missing my whole life? What other kind of magic was Stephen able to practice, if given a home kitchen and, say, a cabbage or a pound of carrots or celery root or a hulking rutabaga, for crying out loud?
(Only a few of us will be able to find out - Stephen's leaving the Harwood Arms and traveling in Australia for a while before going to work at the Auberge de Chassignolles this summer. In other words, you must go to there.)
It's too upsetting to comtemplate, really, so instead let's just get down to what actually matters: How to cook salsify yourself.
First of all, find the salsify. Not such an easy task! You're looking for what basically look like black carrots. Black as night, with little white roots emerging from their spindly ends. Here's a visual aide, since I wasn't able to find any to photograph for you (the season is ending, even in Berlin, but remember this for next year!). Buy four or five or six salsify roots. Go to the butcher and get some real Black Forest ham, which should be the cured and smoked German kind, not the cooked American kind you see in sandwiches. You could also use prosciutto or jamòn Serrano, I suppose, though those are sweeter, unsmoked hams.
At home, take out a pot with a lid and pour a couple of inches of water into it. Add a splash, just a splash, of white wine vinegar. Next, peel the salsify. This is a little unpleasant. The salsify, upon peeling, excrete the oddest sort of goo that makes your hands rather tacky and can be a little tough to wash off (though using the scrubber side of a sponge did the trick for me in a matter of seconds). The second you've finished peeling a salsify root, cut it in half and drop it in the pot of water. When you're finished, the salsify should be entirely submerged in the water.
You parboil the salsify, then wrap them in the Black Forest ham you've painstakingly sourced. (You won't regret it, I promise you!) These little packages are laid lovingly in an oil-smeared baking dish (does the oil actually do anything here? I'm not entirely sure) and then roasted for about 20 minutes, until the ham has crisped and the salsify is satiny-fudgy in texture.
Good luck plating these: I guarantee at least three of them will not make it from the dish to the plate. Somewhere in mid-air, you will swoop in, your mouth agape. You will chew and taste sweetness and salt and the faintly mysterious flavor of the salsify, balanced somewhere between this world and the next. You will, quite unlike you, not offer anyone else the last one, but take it as your divine cook's right to finish it.
And then you will give your inner Italian peasant a hard look and contemplate attending cooking school, if only to learn what Stephen knows.
Salsify in Black Forest Ham
Serves 2 as a side
5 salsify roots
1 glug of white wine vinegar
5 slices real Black Forest ham
1 teaspoon olive oil
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Fill a saucepan with a few inches of water and add the vinegar to the water. Peel the salsify quickly, cut each root in half after peeling and drop into the acidulated water.
2. Bring the pot to a boil and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes. Drain the salsify. Oil a baking dish large enough to fit all the salsify in a single layer. Cut the ham slices in half lengthwise. Wrap each piece of salsify in a slice of ham and place, seam-side down, in the prepared pan.
3. Roast for 20 minutes, or until the ham has crisped and the salsify are entirely tender. Serve immediately.