I love tomatoes. They’re what got me into farming. I love the smell of the new starts when they just begin to leaf out in the greenhouse. I love watching the flowers turn to fruits and then swell with growth till that first flush of color announces their impending ripeness. And that first tomato is heaven – usually on some lightly toasted bread slathered with mayo. I gorge on tomatoes all summer, till I can hardly stand to eat another one.
But tomatoes, although certainly the star, are not the only delicious vegetable in the garden. Each has its place. Some more familiar than others. So let me tell you about some of the unusual ones that I love.
Mexican Sour Gherkins (aka Mouse Melons, Cucuameloms, pepquinos)
These tiny cucumbers are full of flavor – like a slightly lemony cucumber. Generally eaten whole and raw they make a great salad topper; can be a salad on their own tossed with some red onion, feta and a light vinaigrette; and make excellent pickles.
We brought them to market in July and August last year and they were a big hit drawing lots of curiosity and conversation. My kids like to go down the row, picking and eating as they go. And I must admit to eating more than a few when harvesting myself.
Sunflower Shoots and Pea Shoots
When I looked at our sales numbers at the end of last year, I was kind of surprised to see that the third best seller was Sunflower Shoots. I shouldn’t have been surprised because I get asked about them all the time at market. These are the sprouted seeds of sunflowers grown until just before their true leaves appear. They have a mild, nutty flavor that is excellent on salads and sandwiches. We mostly do sunflower shoots in the shoulder seasons when not much is growing outside since these can be grown inside and take just over a week to produce.
We’ve also been experimenting with other microgreens this winter and have found a new love in Pea Shoots. The shoots taste just like peas. I’m eating them on every sandwich and salad these days. They are also great as a garnish on stir fry and soup. I’m serving them tonight as a part of a Pho dish. You can often find me snacking on them while I sit at the market booth.
I’m not a big fan of hot peppers. Aji Dulce is the one exception. This delightful pepper looks menacing, like a twin of the dangerous habanero, but has a floral, citrusy flavor with just a hint (sometimes slightly more than a hint) of spice. Even my delicate tongue can handle the spice here. Excellent in stir fry and salsa or even blistered and eaten whole. I use these for anything that calls for a hot pepper.
Sweet Potato Greens
Folks are always intrigued when I bring these to market in August and September. Sweet potatoes produce a prolific, vining green above ground that quickly takes over the beds and pathways where it is planted. Everyone knows the sweet potato itself, but not many folks realize that its green are edible. I worked for a time on a network of farms for refugees and they taught me about eating these greens. In fact, in many of their cultures, they grow sweet potatoes exclusively for the greens and don’t bother with the sweet potatoes. The greens are mild and a bit like spinach. Not at all bitter or spicy, they make a great green for folks who don’t care for other greens. And best of all, they fill the gap in the heat of summer when other greens and lettuces just don’t thrive. They can be eaten raw as a salad, though I prefer them cooked. Try in a Thai peanut sauce or a coconut curry.
This is another one I learned from the refugees, specifically a Burmese farmer. Roselle is in the hibiscus family and its calyces (flower buds) are used to make Hibiscus Tea or infusions. But my Burmese farmer friend never grew them out to flowering stage. Instead, he harvested the leaves. The deeply veined leaves have a surprising bright, lemon flavor. The Burmese use it to flavor soup and rice dishes and it is one of the staples of their diet. I adore this green. I’ve used it in soups, rice, stir fry, and salads. I love to have people taste it at market and see the look of pleasant surprise in their eyes when they are greeted with a burst of citrus instead of the spicy or bitter flavor they expect. I have not had success with it in Virginia yet, but I am still trying and can’t wait to bring it to market when success comes.
Be sure to try one of these veggies out this year and add a little variety to your plate! I’m always happy to chat recipes with you to help you make the best use of your produce.