Crazy and Colorful Vegetables

July 21, 2011

Since I’ve gotten more into local produce (and started going to the Boulder Farmers’ Market every weekend), I’ve come across some crazy-looking varieties of vegetables – varieties I didn’t even know existed. When I say crazy-looking, I don’t necessarily mean they are bizarre shapes – often it’s the colors that are just unbelievable.

Beets!

Everyone is familiar with dark red beets – the ones that are available year round in the grocery store. The ones that most kids hate (myself included).  But I had no idea of the variety of beets that you can find at the Farmers’ Market. Red Wagon Organic Farm has had a huge wall of multicolored beets in front of their stand lately. If we had had red and white bullseye-patterned beets where I grew up, it might not have taken so long for me to fall in love with beets!  (They are chioggia beets, in case you want to ask for them by name.) And look at those vibrant yellow ones – I almost didn’t want to eat those ones because they were too gorgeous.

I used to make snide comments about heirloom tomatoes – why would I want to eat something that belonged to someone’s great grandmother in the 1890s?  But heirlooms of all types (not just tomatoes) truly do live up to their name – they are special, and valuable.  Heirlooms are varieties that have been around a lot longer than the standard large-scale monoculture crops you’re used to getting at the grocery store.  The exact ‘qualification’ for heirloom seems to be up for debate, and ranges from requiring that the cultivar be at least 100 years old to just letting them squeak by if they have been around since about 1950.  Heirlooms are open pollinated non-hybrids (pollinated by bees, birds, wind, etc.) as opposed to plants whose pollination is strictly controlled in order to guarantee uniformity.  (As an aside, it’s not uncommon for the genetic material of commercial seeds to be patented, so that growing a new generation from the seeds of the first is a patent violation – if the seeds haven’t modified to be sterile, that is).  Heirlooms are much more diverse than conventional monoculture plants.  And in general, immensely more flavorful.  For large-scale conventional farming, the number of different vegetables and types is decreased in order to allow a more assembly-line, large-scale process. One of the most unfortunate things about this is that since this food has to be shipped large distances, it is bred for the ability to store longer, and travel better – at the expense of taste.  In most cases, these hybrids tend to be pale, rather bland shadows of their more flavorful ancestors. Since they are less diverse, monoculture crops are also more vulnerable to disease, because they lack the variation that would help some survive. Because heirlooms are bred for flavor, they don’t necessarily ship or store well – so you have to get them locally. And by the way, the picture above is of what is probably two of the most boring looking heirlooms you could find.  They come in absolutely crazy colors and shapes.

Potatoes and corn are other vegetables that were eaten in a huge variety at one point in time, but have been generally reduced into just a few commercial varieties in North America.  Heirloom potatoes are gorgeous.  I had had purple mashed potatoes before at restaurants, but they were always sort of pale purple – more lavenderish.  So when I cut open these potatoes from 2 R’s stand at the Boulder Farmers’ Market, I was completely stunned at how vivid they were.  Well, not too stunned to make some amazed exclamation out loud, despite being the only one in the house.  It’s become apparent that the visual component of food is huge with me, and bright colors seem to be a big winner.  Seriously though – who wouldn’t want to eat hypnotic-looking beets and deep purple potatoes?

These little space alien-looking guys are kohlrabi. I grew up eating the green ones, which we grew in our garden. But when I saw purple ones, I was thrilled. (Yes, yes, I have an unnatural affinity for purple. And I was slightly disappointed to find them to be white on the inside.) I think they actually taste better than the green ones, but am still in the middle of taste testing.

Purple radishes? Red and yellow carrots? Awesome!

And then there are the vegetables that you just don’t really see anywhere but at the Farmers’ Market.

Garlic scapes are one of my favorite Farmers’ Market finds. They almost look like cables, don’t they? They are sort of a 2-in-1 veggie – they have a texture kind of like a green bean, and a mild but vibrant (those adjectives don’t seem to go together, but I don’t know how else to describe it) garlic flavor and scent.

Fava beans are another Farmers’ Market treasure. I was mainly familiar with fava beans in their dried form, which are a brownish-gray color. I had no idea that you could eat them in their raw form which is a wonderful vibrant green. They are laborious to prepare with the multi-phase process of removing them from their pods, then blanching them, and then removing the peel from each individual bean. But they really are worth it at least a few times a season. They make a great pesto, or just an addition to a salad or other dish. And they are crazily high in protein for a bean.

I love mushrooms, and thought that I had tried quite a few different types, but came across some really interesting ones at the Farmers’ Market – cinnamon caps.  You can see a small shiitake in the lower right corner of the picture, so you can see how small each little cinnamon cap is.

It’s really fun to go explore the stands at the Farmers’ Market, looking for things you’ve never had before. I’ve started just asking the people working the stands what vegetables I don’t recognize taste like, how they differ from other things I’m familiar with, and what you do with them. They are always more than happy to share. The woman at the Far Out Gardens stand is awesome – always willing to talk about her offerings, and I’ve gotten some great greens from her – wild arugula and mizuna. I can’t wait to see what the rest of the summer and fall bring!

Check out Real Food Whole Health for some great information and ideas on how to use the real food that you find in Farmers’ Markets.

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