Articles in Gardening
At a reading a few weeks ago in Portland, Ore., I finally blurted it out for the first time: “I hate the word veggies!” There was a stirring in the audience. I expected trouble, but instead, there was a solid murmur of agreement. One chef, Cathy Whims of Nostrana, said she couldn’t stand the word either, but was sometimes horrified to hear herself using it on occasion because it’s just around so much. Like using “like.” Can we make it go away?
And why would I bother to have and squander any emotion at all about the word veggies? I’ve wondered myself about why I don’t like it and won’t use it. I think it’s this: The word veggie is infantile. Like puppies. Or Cuties. It reduces vegetables to something fluffy and insubstantial. Think about it: We don’t say “fruities,” or “meaties” “or “wheaties” — unless it’s the cereal. We don’t say “eggies” or “beefies.” We don’t have a Thanksgiving birdy; we have the bird. But we don’t seem to be able to say vegetable. Certainly it’s no longer than saying “Grass-fed beef” or “I’ll have a latte.”
Veggie turns vegetables into something kind of sweet but dumb, and in turn, one who eats a lot of vegetables might be construed as something of a lightweight, but one who can somehow excused. “It’s just veggies, after all. They’ll snap out of it.”
‘Vegetables’ speaks to their many strong traits
But the word isn’t used just by errant omnivores. Vegetarians are very fond of the word too, and they use it all the time. Plant foods, especially vegetables, are the backbone of vegetarian magazines, yet even there they’re reduced to veggies. I think vegetable is a more dignifying name by far. Just think of what plants do and what they’ve gone through to be on our plates.
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They’ve been moved all around the world and gone rather willingly to where we humans have wanted them.
They’ve been altered to be pleasing to human palates.
They have adapted to all kinds of circumstances and survive against all odds and at extremes ranges of heat and cold, wetness and aridity.
The tiniest sprouts can move concrete. Eventually.
They can be dangerous and deadly, or they can be tender and sweet. And some come close to being both in the same plant. Like potatoes and tomatoes.
They can cure ills, for example, aspirin comes from willow; liver remedies are derived from members of the aster family, which include artichokes, burdock, chicories, milk thistle and lettuce among others; brassicas may prevent cancer. There’s the whole pharmaceutical stance one can take regarding vegetables given the truly amazing nutrition they offer.
Vegetables have serious means of protecting themselves — with spines and thorns, or by emitting subtle odors or substances. They can keep other plants at a distance so they alone can make use of limited amounts of water and nutrients; they can find ways to use other plants to climb on. Seed pods are cleverly designed to attach a ride to a jacket, a hat, a dog’s fur to be carried elsewhere to grow. (The burdock burr was the model for Velcro.) And they can defend themselves against predators; pinions discharge a sap that keeps bark beetles from boring in. (The food part is the pine nut).
Plants also keep other forms of life going by attracting bees and hummingbirds, moths and insects, which they feed. They can sometimes cajole birds into carrying away their seeds to plant elsewhere. Plus they give us flowers and fruits in abundance. We love honey of all varietals — especially that derived from thyme, a member of the mint family, and flowers, too. We even use flowers in the kitchen.
Their seeds can sometimes last for hundreds of years or more. Some sprout only in fires, which is one reason burned forests can recover some kind of growth soon after a fire.
They don’t complain when we waste them by using only the most tender parts and ignoring rough-looking leaves and stems and cores. Chickens are grateful of them.
In short, plants are generally quite amazing, strong and clever beings that evolve with time. Whether you are an omnivore or a vegetarian (or a chicken), we all benefit by eating plants. Plant foods. Vegetables. Fruits. Seeds. Stalks. Heads. Crowns. Skins. Cores.
I hadn’t thought about it when I was working on “Vegetable Literacy,” but I think — I hope — that the book, among other things, offers a way to go beyond the “veggie” concept of vegetables by introducing them as the eccentric and powerful personalities they are.
Top photo: Rainbow chard. Credit: Deborah Madison
Eating a local diet, one where consumers subsist on food grown locally — often within 100 miles from the source — is no longer edgy or revolutionary. It’s common to find restaurants across the United States touting goods from local farms, proving that it is not difficult to eat abundantly but with a small carbon footprint.
Except, of course, if you live in Alaska. The unavailability of fresh produce during the long winters as well as the presumed unavailability of grains makes eating local in Alaska seemingly impossible.
But one small group of people set out to prove that was a myth and spent one year eating better than they ever had.
Planning and canning
Headed by Anchorage couple Saskia Esslinger and Matt Oster, the Alaska Food Challenge was a loose collection of Anchorage residents who committed to eating only Alaskan food for one year. Each set up their own parameters. Oster, for example, allowed himself beer from local breweries even though the hops and other ingredients were not local. Esslinger accepted gifts of chocolate and butter on her birthday, and the couple took a vacation to Italy shortly after their first child was born.
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As expected, the Alaska Food Challenge came with some surprises and, fittingly, challenges. The first surprise was the sheer abundance of food available. Esslinger notes that that year was the healthiest she’d ever eaten. Alaska has excellent seafood, including salmon, halibut, crab and scallops, as well as game such as moose and caribou. The couple has a large urban garden, where they grew berries, salad greens, kale, turnips, tomatoes and more.
Chickens, for eggs and butchering, supplied more protein options, and the difficulty of butchering them surprised the couple. “It’s so much work,” Esslinger said. “The industrial system must cut so many corners to process so many.”
The local-eating year was full of discoveries such as that one — certain foods require large amounts of work. The couple realized that even though they had eaten mostly Alaskan before the food challenge, they were still out of touch with many of their food sources.
Other challenges included discovering the amount of planning required to eat locally for a year, as well as planning for a winter of eating. It is almost impossible to grow produce year-round in Alaska because of temperatures and severely limited daylight, and so the Esslinger-Osters harvested more than 1,600 pounds of produce from their garden. In turn, they had to process and preserve all those vegetables. They built a root cellar in their garage, experimented with fermenting and purchased a full-size freezer.
Part of the challenge was simply knowing how much food to put away. “Once you do it and you know how much you need, it’s much easier,” Esslinger said. “Harvest season was exhausting. Not only were we learning new skills like making butter, but we were also trying to put away everything for the wintertime.” Harvest season was a flurry of canning, drying and smoking, but once winter set in, they were able to “take a break and just cook and enjoy it all,” Esslinger said. They were surprised to find that they actually harvested too much food, including garbage bags full of kale.
Barley and wheat came from Delta Junction, about 300 miles north of Anchorage. They bought a mill for grinding the grains, and were able to bake bread all winter. A local creamery provided cream for butter, made in a Cuisinart, and a goat-milk share supplied milk.
The lack of fresh produce over the winter was difficult, Esslinger admits, but when they allowed themselves a salad on Oster’s birthday, they were disappointed by the limp, faded lettuce that had traveled thousands of miles to reach Alaska. Their diet remained varied, though they admit (somewhat guiltily) of tiring of salmon.
The lasting effects of eating local
Esslinger and Oster live in a suburban home on a corner lot, which they have converted into a massive garden. A partially-sunken greenhouse doubles as a chicken coop, and a beehive perches on their roof. They teach classes on urban chicken raising, soil maintenance and permaculture.
Though the food challenge is over, the couple still eats mostly local and organic. They have found that the food tastes better and that in all, the Alaska Food Challenge wasn’t as massive a challenge as even they believed.
However, Esslinger does admit to appreciating being able to buy organic butter at the store.
The garden at Saskia Esslinger and Matt Oster’s Alaska home. Credit: Saskia Esslinger
Imagine a group of volunteers that has shown up each Tuesday from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., April through October, since 1957 to plant, weed, harvest, dry, store and cook. At the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Mass., these volunteer Herb Associates are devoted to the dual mission of sustaining their local botanical garden by selling a wide range of in-house produced herb products, and educating the public about herbs.
"No excuse is needed for stressing the greater use of herbs and cooking. It is not a fad, it is nothing new. ... It is we in America who have forgotten our heritage of the art of flavoring and seasoning, of the art of wholesome and delicious cooking brought to this country by our ancestors." -- "The Book of Herb Cookery," by Irene Botsford Hoffmann, 1940
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Volunteerism, passion, curiosity and generosity define the Herb Associates of the BBG. They claim they are the only group in the country that grows and sells “on site.” Inspired by the BBG’s founder, Irene Botsford Hoffmann’s cookbook, “The Book of Herb Cookery,” published in 1940, the Herb Associates essentially created a bake sale with herbs. The herb products are the result of this dedicated group’s efforts to preserve and maintain the “show” and “working” herb gardens.
A team effort to preserve tradition
One of the oldest members, who refuses to say how long she’s been a member, prides herself on the fact that the herb garden is a show garden.
“We work in it so you don’t know we’ve worked in it.” There is no hierarchy within the group. Members naturally gravitate to the tasks that intrigue them or need doing. A volunteer who joined three years ago began working in the show garden, but when it was clear that help was needed in the kitchen, she embraced the jelly and jam making.
The members emphasize that even for them, participating in the Herb Associates is all about learning and camaraderie. Many members had never gardened before. They use the volunteer experience to learn. Another member, Iris Bass, relishes the social aspects of the group. While Iris has gleaned much garden wisdom from her six years as a member, she has also put her book-editing skills to work. She edited and designed the BBG’s “The Garden Cookbook, Celebrating 75 years of Growing and Cooking With Herbs.” The herb display garden, also known as the “show garden” exists to attract and to teach visitors. All the stonework is in its original layout and the plantings were redesigned four years ago to be more thematic and infused with pops of color. So much so, the color, come mid-August, takes your breath away.
The Herb Associates are charged with dead-heading, weeding, trimming and keeping the garden in tip-top shape. There is a Hogwarts garden that is designed with a magical mystical theme. Other plants in the garden include monkswood, the spectacular clary sage, nasturtium, fluffy poppies, lavender, allium, heliotrope, potpourri roses, tansy and much much more.
When a volunteer was seen wearing a sprig of tansy in her cap, a BBG visitor proclaimed, “I haven’t seen that since my mom used to do that.” Tansy is known for its insect repelling qualities. It is also quite pretty, resembling miniature curly kale with yellow flowers and makes great dry flowers.
The keepers of the secret recipes
The working garden is a combination of annuals and perennials. The plants are all chosen for their use in either drying or cooking. The lavender plants are a hardy species that date back to the original garden. Other perennials include lovage, also known as celery herb, which is a secret ingredient in many of the recipes. The perennials collection includes mint and, of course, chives, to name a few. The annuals include basil that is grown in large pots and nasturtium, which makes gorgeous vinegars.
While the gardening begins in April with digging, edging and preparing the soil, the kitchen gears up too. Mint that was infused and frozen over the winter is made into mint jelly. All season long, however, the kitchen relies on what the garden is producing and, in perfect harmony, creates products with those herbs.
Meanwhile the drying team gets busy as well. Great baskets full of herbs are washed with water, spun dry in a salad spinner, then placed on wonderful shelf-like racks with screens to air dry, and then finished in a dehydrator. It’s an ongoing and fluid process. Once the herbs are dried, they are made into a variety of dried herb mixes such as herbs de Provence, Chilean seasoning and salt-free herbed pepper.
To become a volunteer means you become a trustee of the “secret” recipes. Currently only one person knows the recipe for the herb mustard. The recipe book is off-limits to the public. Volunteers have fun tweaking the recipes, however. After all, no one really wants lime green mint jelly. They have eliminated the food coloring and have found that patrons welcome the more natural product. Like most things in the culinary world, recipes evolve to reflect the tastes of the times. And these times are ripe for the Herb Associates’ products as they are organic, and, of course, locally grown and produced.
This wonderful group of approximately 22 volunteers produces a plethora of jellies, vinegars, dressings, mustards, sauces, marinades and dried herb mixes, all with the purpose of funding the Berkshire Botanical Garden. In exchange, they preserve a way of life, fuel a passion and mostly tend a garden.
Top photo: A volunteer in the gardens at Berkshire Botanical Gardens. Credit: Courtesy of Berkshire Botanical Gardens.
Daniel Nguyen is not your average farmer, and VEGGI Farmers’ Cooperative in eastern New Orleans is not your average farm. At a time when urban agriculture seems stuck between taking flight as a scalable and real solution to urban food supply and being written off as another harebrained and all-too-precious scheme of flannel-clad hipsters, an inspiring story of scrappy success couldn’t be more welcome.
VEGGI Farmers’ Cooperative’s current agricultural operation, previously known as Viet Village Urban Farm, is sandwiched between an old playing field, rows of tidy brick ranch-style homes and a ditch filled with debris leftover from Hurricane Katrina’s 2005 ambush on the neighborhood. In mid-March, its 3 acres accented with neat stripes of green — early signs of newly planted crops ready and waiting to take off in New Orleans’ early summer — seemed misplaced, or perhaps like peace offerings to some unruly god.
Nguyen, too, seems anomalous in the neighborhood. A tireless worker in the fields, he’s also a provocative thinker helping drive the farm’s cooperative organizing and marketing strategies as well as its agricultural inventiveness.
Young, toned, tanned and with a mane of dark hair that stretches most of the way down his back, Nguyen recently greeted a group of students and me to the farm. Clearly unaccustomed to speaking in front of crowds, he spoke quietly and waited to be prompted with questions, zigzagging and veering as he recounted the story of the farm.
“NOLA East is home to nearly 60% of the metro area’s population,” Nguyen explained, glancing down at his rubber boots. “But we’ve got only one supermarket.”
I let this sink in for a minute. After years of working with food-security measures, I couldn’t recall another area so underserved by retail food outlets.
As a result, VEGGI Farmers’ Cooperative operates with an eye toward production and efficiency. And they’ve gotten there remarkably quickly.
Urban farm a bright spot in struggling community
When the farm took hold, the community had been looking for innovative strategies to bolster economic resilience. At the time, things were looking bleak, even for a community that had been living on the fringes for years. Katrina struck in 2005, and when British Petroleum’s rig started leaking into the Gulf in 2010, the community’s strongest resource — both in terms of food and income — became off limits almost overnight.
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“Before the spill, 1 in 3 people in the community were involved in the fishing industry,” Nguyen explained. The pressure was on. The cooperative needed a poverty-alleviation strategy, ideally one that would supply calories as well, and they needed it fast.
“We began in 2011 with funding from [the charity] Oxfam,” Nguyen continued. “And in 2011, we officially formed a co-op.” Meaning each of the farmer-members working the land — who range in age from their mid-20s to their late 70s, and half of whom are women — has partial ownership in the business. Nguyen, whose parents are Vietnamese immigrants who settled in San Diego, arrived in New Orleans after Katrina with verve, a green thumb honed in childhood and a head full of ideals inspired by union-organizing.
He worked as a bus boy in some of the city’s finest restaurants for a stretch, interested in the world of food, but itching to do something with a long-term impact. He began working to organize Vietnamese fishermen, and as he grew close to members of the community, he saw that many gardened at home. Some were even selling off surplus to neighbors. His first thought was to create a cooperative of backyard gardeners, but he quickly realized production would be too disparate to make marketing efficient. So the community began the search for land.
Today, VEGGI Farmers’ Cooperative is growing on the kind of acreage rarely seen in urban America. For what’s known as a “dollar lease,” the group has secured long-term use of the land for a minuscule fee, just enough so the land isn’t officially “gifted” to them in the eyes of the law. The plot we visited is 3 acres, plus another 1 to 2 acres in brambly wetlands, where the group has plans to raise ducks, expand its composting operations and experiment with aquaponics. Another 7 acres are in the works.
The farm doesn’t come without challenges. Space is a limiting factor, and even with sophisticated techniques like closed-system aquaponics, companion planting and heavy mulching, VEGGI Farmers’ Cooperative is, like any outdoor food operation, subject to weather, ever wary of another dramatic climatic (or man-made) event. Even more complex are the neighborhood politics: Many are wary of cooperatives, Nguyen explained, because of the economic devastation communism wrought in Vietnam.
Still, the farm has garnered a lot of attention. Today, there’s a wait list that includes African-Americans, Latinos and young adults. A youth training program is in the pipes, as are expansions into farmers markets, local gas stations and quick marts, a strategic way to intercept the stream of junk food locals consume based almost entirely on convenience.
For now, the farm regularly sells out of traditionally Vietnamese crops and more common vegetables. Nguyen’s connections in the restaurant industry have proved invaluable. Relationships between chefs and farmers can be tough to navigate, but cooperative members show up at approximately 15 restaurants several times a week with a van full of produce, making it easy for chefs to pick and choose what they want. Close to 70% of the farm’s produce goes to restaurants; a small percentage is sold at the local Vietnamese Saturday morning market, while the other 20% goes to member-owners.
When pressed about measures of success, Nguyen said a survey showed some members have used the farm to increase their income more than 100% since before the BP spill. Nguyen said the goal is to hold steady or increase that statistic for all member-owners.
But Nguyen, like most farmers, is still scraping by on what he makes from the farm. Still, he shows up every day, doggedly committed. “I have no social life,” he laughed. “But most days I get to drink a beer with these guys,” he said, gesturing to a slender older man bent over a newly tilled row, leveling out the soil with a piece of worn plank.
Top photo: VEGGI Farmers’ Cooperative founder Daniel Nguyen in fields at the farm. Credit: Sara Franklin
Let’s take a poll. If I say the word “canning” what comes to mind? From my experience, your mental images would fall into one of three categories: grannies, a skull and cross bones levels of danger, or the sleeve tattoos and multiple piercings of hip DIYers. Canning and other forms of home food preservation have an image problem.
As for my basement? Don’t get me wrong, there’s some neat stuff down there (quarts of tomatoes, some tangy chutneys and pickles, a few fall squashes still hanging on), but “Hoarders” it is not.
Everyone should learn to preserve their own food
Teaching home cooks how to preserve food is often seen as folly, a luxury technique for those who have extra time on their hands. But we eaters are in a cooking crisis right now. There are segments of our population that cannot feed themselves for lack of basic kitchen skills. Expecting people to preserve might seem, initially, like asking the starving not just to eat cake, but to decorate it, too. But preserving foods is a reliable, economical and useful means of preparing seasonal ingredients. It has served the home cook for generations and can do so again.
When I was growing up, my grandmother canned, dried and fermented everything that came out of her garden. She put up her tomatoes, dried her herbs, made tremendous dill pickles and even her own wine. She didn’t do this because she was a gourmand. She did it because she was poor. For her, it was insurance; she was essentially building her own food bank every summer so that when things got tight in the winter, there was not only good food to eat, but some delight to be had as well.
In the early 1900s “Tomato Girl” clubs taught women how to can tomatoes and imparted the business skills needed to turn canned goods into profit-generating enterprises. The women of these clubs grew their own crops and processed, packaged and sold their produce to help support their families. The clubs were often the doorway to business and educational experiences unattainable to most women at the time.
In an era when economic pressures are driving more of our citizens toward food insecurity, and the increasing cost of fuel will limit our ability to ship food as widely as we do currently, preserving our own food could be part of the solution to a more stable, sustainable and equitable
Benefits of preserving your own food
Preserving food is practical. It minimizes waste. Think of how much food is discarded at the farmers market, the grocery store and in our gardens because it went bad before it could be eaten. The famously prolific zucchini doesn’t have to wind up in the compost pile; you can turn it into pickles. Berries that are starting to fade make a terrific sauce when cooked down with a little sugar.
Preserving food at the peak of its season evens out uneven production, providing for eaters when fields are fallow.
Preserving saves energy. Canned, fermented and dried foods can be stored without refrigeration.
Preserved foods provide income. They can be sold as added-value products by farmers and community gardens. If this business model is out of reach, food swaps and barter exchanges transform preserved foods into a kind of currency that helps eaters stock up on great tasting home-crafted foods.
Preserving protects food sovereignty. Just as victory gardens fed our nation in wartime, community and school gardens can help build our individual and our national food independence.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to be a deep DIY kind of a guy or gal to preserve your own food. (Though I can’t imagine you would earn your “Portlandia” badge without it.) It’s just a simple thing we can do to feed ourselves.
Photo: Sherri Brooks Vinton. Credit: Chris Bartlett
Along with the return of robins and whirling bees, I count the appearance of dandelions among the first signs that spring has officially arrived. I look forward to seeing their cheery butter-yellow flowers, and admire their tenacity as plants. It takes a survivor’s spirit and dogged determination to thrive in the manner of dandelions, growing everywhere from lush fields to the worst of disturbed ground, even in cracks of sidewalks. As much as I admire dandelions’ perseverance, I also particularly enjoy them as a food. Their edgy bitter green flavor is a welcome addition to mealtime after a long winter filled with dreary grey skies and heavy slow-cooked dishes.
Every part of the dandelion plant is edible. Perhaps you’ve enjoyed a salad of bitter greens served with bacon and a splash of vinegar, or savored a cup of dandelion root coffee. You may even have delighted in dandelion flower fritters or sipped dandelion wine. But have you eaten every part of the dandelion?
Where to look for the best dandelions
I learned from edible wild plants expert Samuel Thayer how to eat two of the less commonly eaten parts of dandelions, the flower stalks and crowns. After a few years experience eating them, I’d say that dandelion crowns are among my favorite spring foods.
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To find the best dandelion flower stalks to use as food, seek out large plants in shady areas. These grow in tall grass, which forces the stalk to grow quite long in order for the flower to not be obscured by grass. Longer stalks mean more food with less picking. Seek out the youngest, most pale green flower stalks, as they will be most tender.
Remove the flower heads from the stalks (and be certain to eat them or make dandelion wine). Boil whole flower stalks in boiling water for 10 minutes, as recommended by Thayer, then drain them. Serve dandelion stalk “noodles” dressed with a little butter and salt, or incorporate them into your favorite dishes as a vegetable.
Harvesting dandelion crowns takes a bit more technique. The crown of the dandelion is the tight knot where the leaves meet the tap root. Even in a large plant, it may not be more than a single bite, but it is a very satisfying one. Seek out young spring dandelion plants that have not yet flowered. Look for plants with a tight nest of new buds at their core.
If you are harvesting an entire dandelion plant, either because you intend to eat it, or because you are, gasp, weeding it, the first step is to wash the plant free of as much dirt as possible. Cut off the root, and peel away the outer leaves, and you will be left with the little nugget that is the crown. Rinse it again as thoroughly as possible under running water because it is likely to be very dirty.
Thayer, however, has come up with a clever method of harvesting dandelion crowns without all of the dirt. He uses a sturdy teaspoon with sharpened edges to selectively harvest crowns from the plants. I’ve found that a grapefruit spoon with serrated edges or a pocketknife also work well. Again, seek out large dandelion plants that have yet to flower. Use your spoon or knife to carve a cone-shaped piece of crown right out of the plant, which is still in the ground. Harvested in this manner, the plants require little additional rinsing to remove any remaining grit and dirt. Even if you intend to later remove the entire plant, if you find that you particularly enjoy dandelion crowns, harvesting them in this manner saves time.
Dandelion crowns have a touch of the same bitterness as dandelion leaves and feel like a solid bite of vegetable in the mouth. Use dandelion crowns as you would asparagus, adding them to any soup, salad, or stir-fry. They can be eaten raw, but I prefer to serve them cooked.
My favorite way to serve “yard artichokes” is similar to how I’d serve real artichokes. Steam prepared dandelion crowns until they can easily be pierced with a knife, usually around 10 minutes. While they are steaming, prepare small ramekins full of melted butter kissed with a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of salt. Dip the steamed dandelion crowns into the butter bath before enjoying the tender morsels like the toast of spring that they are.
Top photo: Dandelions. Credit: Erica Marciniec
A few carrots that didn’t get pulled one summer made their beautiful lacy flowers the next year, and it was easy to see that those blooms looked a lot like Queen Anne’s lace, cilantro blossoms and the diminutive chervil flower. Were they somehow related? More than just a pretty face, I knew there was something behind these flowers and the gorgeous vegetables I loved, something that united them and their forms, flavors and behaviors. But what?
I took those unread botany books off the shelves and found out that yes, these were all members of the umbellifer family and they all make umbel-like flowers, though varying enormously in size. This family includes a lot of wild but familiar plants, including the deadly hemlock, and it turns out that — minus the hemlock — they all happen to be harmonious in our mouths, both the vegetables and the many herbs in that family.
It’s all relative when it comes to vegetables
I started looking more into plant families, who is in them, their stories, their shared characteristics and the way they play in our kitchens. Like people, plant family members are indeed relatives.
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The daisy (composite) family, a group of ruffians, includes the prickly artichokes and cardoons; salsify and scorzanera all with their habit of oxidizing; the bitter chicories; plus milk thistle, dandelion and burdock — a feisty bunch of plants. Break any of the roots and a thick white sap appears. Taste it and you will recoil from its bitterness. But a lot of these bitter plants are good for the liver, it turns out. Interesting.
Members of the nightshade family have been universally resisted wherever they’ve been introduced. Tomatoes were thought to cause stomach cancer. The Russian Orthodox Church believed potatoes were not food because they weren’t mentioned in the Bible, and besides, why eat what a dog didn’t even find interesting? Eggplant was thought to cause leprosy, and the consumption of eggplant (and nightshades in general) stimulates the pain of arthritis, which is why some people avoid it, even today. Belladonna got its name because when ingested, the pupils of the eyes grew large and dark, which was considered a form of beauty in women. The difficulties in this family, presumed or real, are due to alkaloids that can be deadly in large quantities but helpful in smaller ones; we all get our eyes dilated by the optometrist so the doctor can look deeply into our eyes, though not because of their lustrous beauty.
The chenopods, or goosefoots (yes, I looked at a goose’s gnarly foot to confirm the association), include spinach, chard, beets, wild spinach or lamb’s-quarters, and all are related to quinoa and amaranth, whose leaves can be and are eaten as well as the seeds. Speaking broadly, they are interchangeable in the kitchen with respect to flavor. And if you have chard bolting in your garden, might you still be able to eat the leaves as they becomes smaller and further apart on their ever-lengthening stems? Indeed you can. And at this stage they taste more like some of the wild greens they’re related to. This is the kind of stuff that I find fascinating!
Anyone who gardens has opportunities that deepen one’s vegetable literacy and excitement. You’ll find treasures that won’t appear in your supermarket, such as coriander buds that are still green and moist, so surprising in the mouth and so well-paired with lentils. You get to see — and eat — the whole plant, not just the parts and pieces that show up in the store. Broccoli leaves, as well as the crowns and stems, are quite tasty, and the same is true of radish and kohlrabi leaves.
Leeks produce enormous ribbons of leaves, sometimes referred to as flags, and indeed you can wave them back and forth to signal someone, if need be. When left in the garden over winter, the shanks can grow to a few feet in length(!), by which time a firm core has formed, too dense to eat, but a great ingredient for soup stock. When a leek is left in the garden long enough to bloom, its enormous spherical flower mimics that of the pretty chive blossom. And when you finally encounter a mature leek in the garden you can see that it is a mighty and noble vegetable (one variety is named King Richard). Is it surprising that the leek is the national symbol of Wales?
The name knotweed (the family that includes rhubarb, sorrel and buckwheat) refers to jointed stems, but you might see that the blossoms of these plants resemble the kind of embroidery that consists of little knots. Not the botanical definition, but my own, and you may have your own interpretation of names, too. I might add it doesn’t take much imagination to bring these three challenging plants together in a recipe.
Does any of this matter? Yes and no. We can still buy vegetables and cook them without knowing a bit of botany or history. But it is enormously fun to bring the familial nature of vegetables into view, to know that what relates in the garden often does so in the kitchen, which encourages both confidence and daring. And if you garden at all, your eyes will be open to possibilities that just don’t exist elsewhere.
To me, vegetable literacy enriches our world — and our culinary possibilities — by regarding the whole, wonderful plant and its relatives, not just the pieces and parts of a few cultivars.
Top photo: Deborah Madison holds an allium. Credit: Christopher Hirsheimer
Recently, I was at Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa, getting some last images for my new book, “Vegetable Literacy.” Although the late summer days were hot, it was chilly at 6 in the morning. Dew wet our feet and hems while gloves and socks, unthinkable until that moment, were very much desired. But the display garden at dawn mitigated any discomfort, especially the beds of Brassica vegetables — kale, collards, broccoli, cauliflower and cabbages — which had the whole summer to grow and were now displaying their enormous leaves.
There’s always that moment when a garden starts to sigh and sink and say, in so many plant expressions, “Enough. We’re done.” It looks so exhausted that you can’t imagine there’s much left to harvest. Probably all our gardens are looking this way about now. Yet if you dig around you often discover there are still a few more tomatoes yet to ripen, the Jerusalem artichokes are coming on strong, and tiny cabbages are starting to emerge on the stems of the Brussels sprouts. The garden is far from finished, despite the strain it shows from a summer of growth, and what’s really looking big and strong, albeit somewhat tired, are cabbages and collards and those other big Brassicas.
The cabbages were especially impressive. They always are because they take up so much more room than their harvested heads would lead you to imagine. The enormous old grandmother-grandfather leaves that had been there since the start of the plants’ growth showed their scars. Though weathered, punctured by hail and nibbled upon by insects, they were still gathering sunlight and feeding the edible head. They’re hard-working plants. My respect for them, already considerable, grew even more.
The broccoli’s larger heads had long been picked, but smaller sprouts were ready for the taking — had this not been a demonstration garden, that is. The kales seemed energized by the cooler days and looked as if they were ready to sprint along for the next several months. Nothing looks as if it would be better for you to eat than kale — it is just so robust. If it were a person, I might add tightly wound.
Collards? Also huge. Brussels sprouts? What an architectural plant with the branches jutting out from the stalk leaving a window that you can peer in and see the sprouts starting to take shape.
Garden color arrives with vibrant hues of Brassica vegetables
But among all this vigor what really stood out was the extraordinary range of garden color these plants exhibited. We think of cabbages of red and green, but the leaves themselves are more of a dusky plum or a muted grayish blue-green. Pull away the leaf that just covers a head of red cabbage and beneath it is shiny purple, nothing like the smoky purple outer leaves. The broccoli and the Tuscan kale leaves are a surprising shade of blue-green-gray that escapes you until you see them en masse, not just in a bunch. The stems of the Brussels sprout leaves radiate a suggestion of violet, while the little sprouts are that calm slate green of the leaves. Taken together, the effect of all these shades and hues is breathtaking and utterly surprising. What we think of as green is actually a wide range of hues that embraces purple on the one side, green-blacks on the other, with shades of slate, blue-green, gray-green and every other shade in between. It’s another good reason for having a garden, or for visiting one like that at Heritage Farm. The goodness of plants is nothing if not layered — taste, nourishment and beauty all at once.
(Heritage Farm is the headquarters for the Seed Savers Exchange. Visiting hours and events are posted on its website at www.seedsavers.org.)
Top photo: A Mammoth Red Rock cabbage at Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa. Credit: Deborah Madison