Some days I go down the produce aisle in the supermarket and pine for a new vegetable. Sure, the broccoli and green beans are fine, the tomatoes and corn are lovely. But I’ve been eating them since I was a kid.
I’ve taken the turn for the slightly unusual: parsnips, with their sweet yet pungent flavor in soup stocks, or Jerusalem artichokes, which steam up nicely and retain their crispness. And I’ve developed a full-on love affair for eggplant in its various sizes, shapes and colors.
Still, there are days when the taste buds cry out for a new flavor, a new texture, a new approach.
Now, gardener, food historian and author William Woys Weaver has come through with the book 100 Vegetables and Where They Came From (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 320 pp., $18.95), a virtual treasury of vegetables that run off the beaten path. There aren’t that many vegetables you’ve never heard of; most of these are variations or offshoots of the familiar.
Potatoes fall into that category. The spud is about as basic as you can get and most of us know three or four varieties. But I’ve never had one such as the all-red potato (aka cranberry red), a vegetable with red flesh that grows well in the driest of climates. Weaver describes its flavor as “rich, like English walnuts, and fulsome, even a bit earthy.” He discusses a number of varieties, including the deep blue-black negresse potato that is closer to the truffle than the common spud and the Arran victory potato, a Scottish variety that Weaver writes “is enveloped in a skin that can only be called delicate lilac … the color is so intense that they resemble candy imitations.”
Or the apricot tomato, or naranjilla, as South Americans refer to it. A bit hairy like the kiwi fruit, the apricot tomato is tart and used in fresh salsas for red meats. Its stem is used in a folk remedy for hypertension.
The book covers all kinds of greens, nuts, peppers, beans, roots, gourds and more.
A vegetable I’ve never heard of is the cardon de Tours, a cousin to the artichoke. Cardoons are thistles — to be eaten when young. Weaver reports that this little beauty was known to grace Thomas Jefferson’s presidential table. Not surprisingly, one finds that the cardon de Tours is the oldest variety of cardoon known in France and Jefferson, a Francophile extraordinaire, would naturally gravitate toward it.
It’s little anecdotes such as this that make 100 Vegetables a fun read. There is no repetitive format ordering the way each entry reads. Weaver lets each discussion go where it is naturally more interesting. This is not a steadfast where-did-it-come-from investigation. He might mention the first notice of the vegetable in literature. But he might as well discuss the look of the leaves or flowers, how one is traditionally eaten or his own experiences growing them in his garden. Some entries include growing tips and general recipes for preparation.
In discussing the Ethiopian yellow lentil, he goes so far as to proselytize the plant’s merit as a mainstay of sustainable agriculture with its edible flowers, pods and greens, the animals it feeds and the manure they produce as fertilizer. Weaver points out that all of these things need to be accounted for when assessing the value of a crop and not just what can be sold for cash.
This is hardly a vegetarian-save-the-world treatise. Rather, Weaver revels in the joys of growing and eating the interesting and unusual. He’s an organic gardener in Pennsylvania with first-hand knowledge of all that he writes about. He participates in seed exchanges with like-minded growers and knows specifically when and where many varieties first appeared.
This should give hope to folks who fear the oppression of genetically engineered plants. Weaver shows that new varieties of plants are developed all the time by gardeners and farmers who either breed them for specific traits or discover natural mutations they want to propagate.
There’s a world of vegetables out there that’s not even hinted at in most stores; it’s up to the intrepid palate to find them. Now if I can just decide whether to search out the aji limon pepper for a spicy salsa, or the black pindar peanut for one of those traditional Southern delights.
Champagne season is here, and you can celebrate at Morels: A Michigan Bistro (30100 Telegraph, Bingham Farms). There’s a five-course champagne feast on Tuesday, Dec. 5, beginning at 6:30 p.m. For $135 per person, you can get all gourmet and bubbly, and learn your way around the most famous French wine. Call 248-642-1094, ext. 3, for reservations.Got a food tip? Write Eaters Digest c/o the MT, or e-mail email@example.com