It’s all too easy to find garbage for sale and poorly described as “Fresh Veg”. Too often the length of time from harvest to kitchen results in something limp with little flavour and texture. Nor is the resultant item demonstrative of the diversity, taste or the rich history of vegetables. Is it any wonder that some people find vegetables a chore when there is so little choice and the produce purchased is far from its best?
The most important thing to consider when buying vegetables is the variety and whether or not it’s in season. Out of season produce has been frozen, transported, stored and is generally treated like a “product”. Not produce.
Cooking to preserve or enhance the flavour is also important. A good omnivorous cook should have plenty of vegetable dishes up their sleeve! An interesting diet is a diverse one; it should be rich with vegetables with the meat as an accompaniment. And let’s face it, boiled vegetables become tiresome very quickly.
So let’s all get better acquainted with vegetables and matters of deliciousness.
Turks Turban is a very attractive pumpkin that I grew one year—tasted a few times—and, well, won’t grow again! Now I’m sure that some people like it, but I believe it’s a decorative pumpkin, not a great eating one…
Butternuts, on the other hand, are delicious stuffed or chopped, roasted and added to salads. Jarrahdale pumpkins are great for soups and baking. In the U.S. there are pumpkin varieties exclusively used for Jack–o’–Lanterns and others for pie. One U.S seed company has 65 varieties to choose from. Each variety has its own history, growing culture and—most importantly—methods of preparation.
I hated eggplants as a child. Mum, normally a fantastic cook, made a ratatouille that I found hard to stomach! Flash forward several years to eggplant fried with anchovies, stewed in a tomato sauce with loads of flavouring herbs. Suddenly, Baba Ganoush and grilled marinated eggplant became regulars in my diet!
Eggplants have a long and distinguished history; their earliest mention in text is from China in 544 AD. The vegetable is a mainstay in Indian, Persian, Arabic, Chinese, Italian and many African cultures. Yet if you were in your local grocer you’d be forgiven for thinking there is only one kind. If you really want to see (and eat) the diversity you will need to go to a grocer that supplies Indian, Chinese or South East Asian communities. There are small black finger Eggplants, white ones, long purple ones or tiny green and white striped Thai ones. Each culture has its own preparation and preservation techniques that allow this versatile vegetable to absorb any number of flavourings.
The watery, slightly bitter and flavourless zucchini varieties on offer poorly represent this delicious vegetable.
Now to clear any confusion—or perhaps add to it—a zucchini is a small vegetable, a marrow is a large version of the same thing and Americans seem to call zucchinis and some pumpkins Squash…
An easy vegetable to grow, the zucchini can come as the familiar small green or black varieties through to ribbed lime green and trumpet shaped varieties. In the last couple of years I’ve found that pickling them with oregano, chilli and garlic served with crusty bread is a great way to enjoy the tastes of summer during the depth of winter. Grilled and covered with vinaigrette or shredded into a chocolate cake zucchinis should be in every garden and on everyone’s plate.
Pak Choy, Tatsoi, Gai Laan and Wombok are all what we generically term “Asian Vegetables”. Almost genetically identical, they illustrate the different selection by farmers of different characteristics over a very long period time. The diversity of the Pak Choy alone is staggering: tall ones; short ones; spreading ones; white-stemmed varieties and green-stemmed varieties. All of them have a lovely “mustardy” flavour that diminishes in heat with cooking (if that makes sense) and couples well with fermented soy beans, ginger, soy sauce, fish sauce, stewed pork dishes and… the list goes on and on to cover the cooking traditions of East and South East Asian cooking.
Eat them fresh and cook briefly!
These vegetables are all grown very quickly—sometimes as fast as 4-6 weeks—and are best consumed the day they are purchased. Steam lightly, until they change to a lovely dark colour and maintain their shape; they’re delicious covered with soy sauce and sesame oil. If you’re stir-frying or making a noodle soup, throw them in at the last minute, allowing the heat to just cook them.
The leek has been found in Egyptian tombs dating to the second millennium BC and is Wales’ national symbol. It is an ancient member of the same family as onions and garlic, yet is quite different to both. Primarily used for its mild flavour, it is indispensible in stocks, soups and pies in many cultures worldwide.
It’s important to ensure that leeks are properly cleaned. Cut a slit along the plant without fully cutting it in half and hold it open under running water to remove any soil that may have gotten caught in between the leaves. The white stem is the most edible part. The dark green leaves are also edible—yet they tend to be tougher—and so need extra time cooking. Like any of the alliums (i.e. onions, garlic and leeks) don’t fry leeks too dark otherwise they’ll lose some of the flavour; garlic is the same. Over-fry it and it becomes bitter.
The best way to gain an appreciation of the diversity of vegetables—and there are hundreds of different types of tomato and thousands of different types of potato—is to grow them yourself. Seed catalogues are the best education I can imagine; even if you’re not a grower, they’ll inform you of the wonderful diversity of vegetables that Coles and Woolworths deny you.
Steve Fleischmann began growing vegetables when he was a university student in refusal of cheap fast food. He is pragmatically organic with 20 years experience of growing both in Australia and internationally. Once a bush regenerator and project manager for youth environmental projects, he now works at Mamre Farm in Western Sydney with refugees, people with a disability and youths. Building soils, encouraging biodiversity and growing heritage varieties allows Steve the opportunity to feed his family, develop small scale enterprises and pass on knowledge and skills.
CC photos by Steve, aturkas, phoebe and muffet.