High Fashion Vegetables, our what's hot and what's not list

Are you seduced by curvy Golden Crescent beans? By blue purple Purple Dragon carrots, pear shaped orange Jilo Tingua Verde Claro eggplants or yard long Red Noodle beans?

Red Noodle beans on the vine

Red Noodle beans on the vine

Welcome to the club. I’ve never been able to resist oddball vegetables –  show me a shape or color that’s different and bam, it goes on the order list.

This has been happening for 30 years and although most of these bizarro thrills have been consigned to the dustbin of “interesting experiment,” quite a few have become staples in our gardens. 

STAPLES

* Ronde de Nice zucchini, not the best for slicing but ace for stuffing.

Ronde de Nice en route to stuffing

Ronde de Nice en route to stuffing

Instead of the conventional canoe, you get a tidy little bowl that stays firmer in the oven and looks prettier on the plate. My favorite filling is the cooked insides combined with caponata and topped before baking with a thick layer of coarse breadcrumbs tossed with olive oil. Most delicious at room temperature, neither hot nor cold.

* Long beans, aka yard long beans (Vigna unguiculata). You get a lot of bean with each bean, so they’re quick to harvest and prepare. The taste is unique, sort of nutty and meaty instead of sweet and light like snap beans (Phaseolus vulgaris). They’re not as crisp and juicy as snap beans, either, and are not helped by being lightly steamed. It takes thorough cooking to bring out their best.

Most published recipes seem to be Chinese or Indian and involve many ingredients, but I usually just stir-fry them over medium high heat in olive oil or bacon fat until many brown spots appear.

Note: the red ones are great in flower arrangements and for the general wow effect, but they don’t taste quite as good as the green ones, take longer to grow, and lose a lot of the color when cooked.

* Currant tomatoes, especially white currant. A labor of love. They’re very easy to grow; plants are right next door to weeds, resistant to common tomato diseases and always grow to huge size with no help from us. The labor part is harvesting. They’re tiny ; each cluster ripens sequentially so they must be picked one by one and the calyxes tend to hang on, so if you’re not careful the ripe fruit comes away with a hole in the top. Why bother? The love part. Beyond delicious. They are to full sized tomatoes as wild strawberries are to the cultivated kind.

* Yellow (Golden) beets. Everything that’s tasty about the best beets, with no bleeding, and as easy as any beets to grow if you don’t count chronically lousy germination.

More on beets anon; in the spirit of advocacy inspired by hearing that our new president hates them. No doubt he grew up on boiled and/or canned, and I’m sure that wasn’t Hawaii though as I write the specter of pineapple raises its omigosh not-with-beets! head …

where were we?

A FEW WILL DO

(They’re fun, but they’re not must-haves)

* Rat Tail Radishes. These are long skinny seedpods, not roots, an excellent alternative for anyone who has had trouble with root maggots, bolting or the numerous other ills that make me wonder why people say radishes are easy to grow. Nobody ever knows what they are, which is of course gratifying; they’re very tasty; and they grow in large bunches on gangly bushes about 3 feet tall that seem to withstand all pests and diseases.

What’s not to like? Two things:

1) Each pod is more or less wired to the main stem; unless you have iron fingernails every one must be individually cut from the plant.

2. The window of harvest is narrow. Picked too small, they’re burning hot and tough; too large, they’re hot, tough and unpleasantly strong flavored. Those that are heading toward large but not there yet are tasty stir-fried because cooking gentles them. And – calling Goldilocks ! – those that are just right are radishes: juicy and crisp and peppery, terrific on the relish tray and heaven with brown bread, butter and coarse salt.

* Crescent (Annelino) beans come in green and yellow and are both tasty and handsome – especially when presented as a tangle of mixed colors. Downside with these is the same as their raison de bother: the uneven crescent shapes. You can’t stack them, so they’re laborious to trim. And because the sizes tend to vary you have to sort them into little piles and add them to the pan in batches if you want them to cook evenly. 

DIDN’T WORK OUT

( we’ve tried all these at least twice, just to be sure, except for the litchi tomatoes.)

Orange eggplants.  As catalogs now have begun to admit, the ultra-zingy orange stage is fully mature, aka inedible. You eat them before they start turning color and there are plenty of other eggplants – green, purple, lavender and white – that taste and yield better, at least where summers are mostly on the cool side

Purple, yellow and white carrots. Have to confess we finally gave up on all these before the latest round of new introductions. None we tried tasted anywhere as good as the best orange carrots and the purple ones were especially frustrating: flavor was unpleasant raw but cooking them bled out the color.  

Cylindrical beets.  

Cylindra beet. Dark line is the soil line.

Cylindra beet. Dark line is the soil line.

 Seems like such a good idea: a beet that gives even slices from end to end. And they lift their shoulders way out of the ground so they’re almost worth it just for the dirty joke factor. Unfortunately the ones we grew were never as tender, sweet and flavorful as the rainbow of round varieties: red, orange, white and candy striped, that produce well every year.

Litchi tomatoes ( Solanum sisymbriifolium): Like a lot of exotic solanums ours grew easily into large bushes – bigger in New York than Maine but plenty big there, too. The plants are quite fabulously thorny: stems, branches, leaves, fruit calyxes … even the tiny seedling leaves have prickles stiff enough to hurt if accidentally pressed, so every stage of care and harvest was literally a pain. And when the fruit was finally fully ripe? Phoey. Thick skinned, bland and almost fleshless; filled with hard little seeds. Maybe back home in South America, but not in the Northeast… where I have no doubt they’d have self-sown like bandits if  we hadn’t yanked them up, shortly after the third taste test. 

To quote from the global invasive species database of the World Conservation Union

Solanum sisymbriifolium is best known for its use as a trap crop for potato cyst nematodes (PCN), such as Globodera rostochiensis and G. pallida. Using S. sisymbriifolium in potato fields helps prevent the potato crop from being infested with PCN, and has been shown to reduce populations of PCN by 50–80% (Timmermans et al., 2006). S. sisymbriifolium is an excellent trap crop because it stimulates the hatching of juvenile PCN from their cysts by root diffusates, yet is completely resistant to infestation by the juveniles once they hatch, preventing reproduction of the pests (PCN Control Group, 2004; Scholte, 2000; Timmermans et al., 2006). The species is also highly resistant to the nematodes Meloidogyne, Trichodorus, and Pratylenchus (PCN Control Group, 2004). Additionally, the roots ofS. sisymbriifolium are resistant to a number of strains of the bacterica wilt pathogen Pseudomonas solanacearum.

The fruits of S. sisymbriifolium are edible and are consumed regularly by indigenous birds (Hill & Hulley, 1995) and infrequently by the Chorote Indians of Gran Chaco, Argentina (Arenas & Scarpa, 2007). The fruit is also a source of solasodine, a glycoalkaloid used in the synthesis of corticosteroids and sex hormones, and a large component of oral contraceptives (Hill & Hulley, 1995).”

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6 Comments »

  • Ali Said,

    VERY amusing. Yes, I grow the golden beets, tried the rainbow carrots, have ordered currant tomato seeds for this year. My clay-ey Kennebec soil just hates carrots, or rather they hate it so I swore off carrots this year. Maybe. The purple ones would be so cool. I ordered the cylindra beets, not for fresh eating but for pickled beets, which my companion planter adores. Have you ever grown skirret or salsify?
    Ali in Maine

  • leslie Said,

    Hi Ali, fellow golden beet grower.

    Had a go at salsify many years ago, stupidly before I tried some to see if I liked it. Didn’t. Prefer the genuine article, oysterwise. Growing success was not stellar; the roots I got were even skinnier and hairier than the standard. Probably would have done better if I’d been more vigilant about weeding when the thin shoots first came up…

    Never grown skirret but have been tempted from time to time. Please report back if you decide to try it.

    The purple carrots I’ve grown – and bought – have all looked a lot cooler than they tasted. Unfortunately. They really are gorgeous. Solution might be to serve ’em as dipping sticks with a guacamole so ferocious (Bulgarian carrot peppers!) it overcame all else.

    As for the beets, the cylinders were ok, just kind of woody and flat compared to our tasty favorites. Pickling might well give them just the lift they need – and yours might well be much better than ours. Terroir matters with vegetables even more than grapes, imho. Given that you’ll definitely be growing these I do hope you’ll tell us how they came out.

  • Hi Leslie,
    I am an absolute sucker for beautiful and less common vegetables in my garden. I just posted a photo of my chinese red long beans that I have growing up my patio column as an “ornamental vine” on my blog. People always ask me, “what plant is that?”

    Needless to say, when I tell them it is an edible plant, they get even more excited and interested. Edible plants are scattered throughout my California garden because I believe in creating a foraging experience for my family and friends.

    May I interest you in a pen pal from Los Angeles?
    Shirley

  • leslie Said,

    Hi Shirley

    a pleasure to hear from you – of COURSE I look forward to your comments and observations; that’s the great thing about blogging. Always new people to meet and new things to learn from them. It’s especially nice to hear from the (lower) left coast, being as to how we’re on the (upper) right one. So much in common, so much that’s utterly, completely different – including the beans, which undoubtedly grow more lavishly in your toastier climate.

  • Lindy Said,

    I am growing the chinese red noodle beans. There are many of them. I am not sure when they are ready for harvest? Can you give me any suggestions of when to start picking them? Can they be canned? I saw that you could blanch and freeze them is that true?

  • leslie Said,

    Hi Lindy –

    Congratulations on your crop!

    Noodle beans have a fairly wide window for harvest: they start tasting good when about 5 or 6 inches long, still thinner than a pencil and very tender. Flavor keeps developing as the beans do – commercial growers pick the green ones when they’re over a foot long and pencil thickness or a bit thicker. They’re a little sturdier then but still toothsome rather than tough.

    At about that point the beans inside start bulging; the skins get tough and quality starts slipping, although the pods remain edible until they’re truly leathery.

    I’ve never tried to preserve them except as part of fully cooked harvest stews, but I don’t see any reason you couldn’t can – or blanch and freeze – them just as you would regular beans.

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