On the trail of strange seeds

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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!

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8 responses to “On the trail of strange seeds

  1. Do you like the cardoon? I would like to plant it since it would fit nicely in my Colonial theme garden. But when the vegetable hit the menus in fancy NYC restaurants the reviewers panned it. Does you family like to eat it? It can also get quite large, yes?

    Robin at Bumblebee

  2. I know cardoon, but I had no idea what it’s flowers look like. I’m debating on whether or not to plant milk thistle in my medicinal garden—thistle’s the bane of my existence out in the fields, so I can’t quite justify why I should purposely plant it.

    Thanks for the recommendations!

  3. Oh, and do let us know whether Good King Henry is any better than run-of-the-mill lamb’s quarters., which grow like, um, weeds here.

  4. Hi Robin: yes, we do like the cardoon. It’s another one that needs to be blanched, but this one’s at least easily done by tying the whole bunch up (thus bleaching the inner leaves). I think it is quite beautiful. It gets to be about 2′ wide by 3′ tall…but those blooms are a good 7′. It doesn’t “need” to go to bloom; I just thought it would be pretty. Anyway, even if you didn’t eat it, it would look great. That sage-y white/green of its prickly leaves is quite attractive.

    Danielle: Yeah, as you can see, it’s a kissing cousin to artichokes, too. I grow them next to these guys. What intrigued me about Good King Henry is the fact that it comes up in shoots: yum. Oh, and it’s a weed, too! BUT personally I have nothing against eating weeds: I love lamb’s quarters and pursulane…the latter being one of the best sources of omega 3s out there. It’s kinda tart, but I also grow a cultivated, more upright golden pursulane. Great in salads!

  5. What fun! You’ve got me wondering about perennial veggies now…

    When you purslane gets really big, try purslane pickles. Snap the thickest stems into 3″ lengths and drop into a jar of your favorite pickle brine; steep for a couple weeks in the fridge. Crunchy, tangy, yum!

  6. I’d gladly grow cardoons for the flowers and foliage alone, but they’re too delicious to waste. Perhaps I need to plant more for show.

  7. Yes, I let my artichokes go to seed this year, and their flowers were like huge outerspace thistles, though I didn’t make that connection until seeing your cardoon.

    I gave my CSA purslane last year; this year, I plan to add lambs quarters and perhaps chickweed to the lineup.

  8. Emily, what a great idea, pickling them! I will have to remember that to give it a try.

    Steven, well, no surprise, as you’re an Italiphile too (is that even a word?). It’s up to you if you want to devote the space to them, though; they do get large.

    Danielle, my old CSA gave us lambs’ quarters, which I had absolutely no idea what to do with! They weren’t so good at giving out recipes, or even a list with what came in the box, but wow, was that ever fun, getting my weekly box on Wednesdays. These guys delivered to my door. Boy, was I spoiled back then! I am sure your shareholders feel the same.

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