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Gardening Columns

Unusual Edibles

First published on on June 4, 2009, by Suzanne DeJohn

One of the best parts of growing your own food is that you can try new things. A few years ago I tried 'Georgia Peach' tomatoes, which have unusual skin -- not quite fuzzy, but not smooth like a typical tomato. They were interesting but didn't make the cut. I guess I like my tomatoes to be tomatoey, not peachy. 'Pruden's Purple' tomatoes, on the other hand, were outstanding -- large and meaty with few seeds and great flavor. Here are some suggestions for crops and varieties you might like to try now that the weather has warmed up and planting is in full swing.

Lettuce. A mind-boggling number of lettuce varieties are available now, and fortunately they're often categorized by spiciness so you can choose how much zip you want. If you like strong flavors, plant spicy arugula and mustard greens, cabbagy mizuna, or bitter radicchio (chicory). Mesclun (from the French, meaning "mixture") is a combination of salad greens that are harvested when the leaves are young and tender. Look for mixes in a range of spiciness.

Cole crops. This year I planted 'Cheddar' cauliflower -- a yellow-headed variety with higher nutrient levels than regular white varieties. I've also planted broccoli raab (rapini), a pungent, non-heading broccoli; the leaves, stems, and flower buds can be steamed and used to liven up blander foods. Calabrese (Italian sprouting) broccoli is less pungent but still stronger in flavor than modern hybrids. And I planted lots of Brussels sprouts, with the hopes of harvesting these delights well into late fall.

Root crops. Try purple and yellow carrots in addition to the usual orange. Include some easy-to-grow beets, including a few yellow beets and 'Chiogga', a variety with concentric stripes of red and white when sliced crosswise. If you have heavy soil or are growing in containers, short and tasty 'Thumbelina' carrots will do better than larger varieties. 'Adelaide' is a Dutch carrot hybrid that is grown for the popular "baby" carrots you see in the grocery store. Parsnips, once a garden staple, are often overlooked these days, but their spicy, sweet flavor shouldn't be missed. Turnips, rutabagas, and celeriac are other root veggies to try. And when it comes to potatoes, include some blue, yellow, and red varieties. 

Beans. Grow your own edamame (soybeans), which are pricey in stores but easy to grow. Try flat-podded Romano beans, as well as yellow and purple varieties. There are hundreds if not thousands of varieties of beans to grow for drying, many with colorful regional names like Jacob's Cattle, Dragon's Tongue, and Lazy Housewife (possibly named because it was the first completely stringless bean).

Eggplants. Eggplants now come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and colors. Brighten up your patch of shiny purple-black eggplants with plants bearing orange, white, pink, or lavender fruits. In addition to the common oblong ones, consider including some elongated types, such as 'Chinese Pingtung Long' or 'Ichiban', and some small, rounded varieties, such as 'Oriental Purple Ball' or green 'Thai' eggplant.

Peppers. There are so many varieties of peppers to choose from, it's crazy to settle for only mainstream varieties. Sweet peppers come in a kaleidoscope of colors, including purple, white, orange, yellow, and "chocolate" (brown). If you like the flavor of hot peppers but not the heat, try 'Fooled You' or 'Senorita' jalapenos. If you can take the heat, try habanero- or serrano-type varieties.

Here are a few other unusual crops to try: birdhouse gourds, purple kohlrabi, 'Lumina' white pumpkin, 'Eightball' round zucchini, shallots, Florence fennel (grown for its anise-flavored bulbous stems), and tomatillos.

While the plants are growing, you might have to expand your cookbook collection and explore new ways to make the most of your harvest!


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