Cardoon flowers from a long-ago September: Thistles with an education?
So my seed orders have been placed, and many have arrived. Yet (yet!) my annual seed quest lives on.
Every year I try a few new-to-me, “out there” vegetables. You know, the kinds of things you would never find in a grocery store and would rarely find in the stall of a farmer’s market. For the most part, these items don’t travel well…that’s the main reason they’re hard to find. Plain old unfamiliarity account for their rarity too. Both of these things (their relative fragility and their rarity) really are a boon, though, to someone with a large vegetable garden and an even larger vegetable curiosity. Someone, in other words, like me.
I will say that most of these botanical oddballs have been hits here with my family. Sorrel, which is a perennial, is a wonderful green leafy thing that melts to a buttery lemony-ness in a pan with the smallest hint of water. Orach, all the dandelion-y chickories, mache, and claytonia are nice cold-weather salad items we’ve enjoyed as season-extended greens; they now grow all winter long in the greenhouse. Skirret, though it’s a bear to clean, has a nutty taste to it that is wonderful if browned in butter (like parsnips). Same with scorzonera and salslify, frankly; all three of these root veggies have successively taken over more and more of the root veg beds, moving plain carrots and parsnips aside. Hamburg parsley can be grown for both its root and its leaves: I concentrate on the root, though, as its taste is so green, despite the fact that that vegetable is white: it, like celeriac or kohlrabi, are great grated in a salad. Sea kale needs a bit of fussing in its first years, but this perennial can be blanched under a cloche to make its young cabbage-family shoots tender to the tooth. Cardoon is a strikingly gorgeous plant that should be grown for beauty alone. Its stems slightly peeled, steamed, and dunked in a bowl of aioli…well, this, with a big glass of red, is my idea of a perfect August dinner.
This year, though, my list of oddballs is only three deep: rampion, turnip-rooted chervil, and Good King Henry. I am especially excited about this latter one, Chenopodium Bonus-Henricus. Here, from my favorite (and sadly out of print) go-to primer of all things vegetable, the esteemed English translation of MM. Vilmorin-Andrieux’s The Vegetable Garden (1885): “(it) yields an abundant supply of delicious shoots a fortnight before Asparagus come in, and for some weeks afterwards. When properly grown, the little shoots should be almost as thick as the little finger, and in gathering, it should be cut under the ground something the same as Asparagus.” Another perennial veg, coming in before asparagus? Sign me up!