Summer’s Weirdest Vegetables (and what to do with them)

Brooke Newberry
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How many times have you had a stare-down in the produce section of the grocery store with an alien looking vegetable wondering, “WTF are you!?”  Wouldn’t it be swell if there were some sort of produce guru at every store, just standing around in the mist, awaiting our hungry questions?  We all have our security blanket vegetables that we seasonally rotate in our grocery lists, but there are many, many tasty veggies just waiting to get 15 minutes of fame. One of the best ways to discover new crops is by heading to the Farmer’s Market –more often than not the farmers will have samples to taste and are will be more than happy to educate you on a strange vegetable.  Community gardens are also a great place to visit to ask questions.  It’s time to be fearless and take charge of summer’s bounty!  Below are some special summer veggies you may have eaten before, and some you may need to get more familiar with.

Escarole

Escarole

Members of the endive family and also commonly referred to as the common chicory, these dark, leafy greens are a nutritional thrust in salads.   Peeling back a layer of dark leaves in a bunch reveals a lighter shade of green.  Its leaves will continually lighten as layers are stripped, and as the shade of the leaves lightens, the level of bitterness decreases.  Often suggested as a salad addition, try tossing this green in soups instead.  The heat and moisture of a soup will soften its leathery leaves.

 

Kohlrabi

Kohlrabi

Kohlrabi looks like a potato but tastes like a crunchy baby that broccoli and radish conceived.  These are found in green or purple and can be eaten raw or cooked.  Widely used in Central Europe and Asia, these guys haven’t become too popular yet in the U.S.  Could be its Summer of Fame!  Eat kohlrabi raw if it is tender and young, just don’t eat the skin.  You can also cook the greens attached to the root.  We think this kohlrabi with honey butter recipe looks divine.

 

Chayote

Chayote Squash

Chayote is a pale green smooth-skinned little squash with a fold that almost looks like a grandma’s mouth puckered up ready for a birthday kiss.  It’s commonly used in curries or seen raw in salads.  Chaoyte’s crisp and firm flesh makes it versatile and compliant to the flavors of other ingredients in a dish.  We think a great option for this squash is to quick-pickle it.  To quick-pickle:  peel squash, remove the small pit, and cut into slices (think apple slices).  In a bowl, mix together 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar, 1 tablespoon soy sauce, and a little sesame oil.  Take tiniest, tiniest bit of a chili pepper, and mash it together with a garlic clove.  Whisk this mash into vinegar mixture.  Soak the squash in the mix for a few minutes, and then enjoy as a snack.

 

Winged Bean

Winged Bean

The winged bean is one of the newer Asian vegetables showing up to produce isles, but still most commonly found in Asian markets.  All parts of the plant are edible – the pods, the beans inside, the shoots, and the flowers.   The pods are long, flat and covered with frilly “winged” edges. They taste like something between a snow pea and asparagus. They are easy to grow and some say add more flavor to stir fries than the more typical snow peas.  Next time, sub in some of these funny beans for your snow peas.

 

Daikon

Daikon

Daikon radish is a versatile East Asian root vegetable that resembles a whitish-looking carrot.  Daikon is crunchy, spicy, a bit tart, and can be enjoyed raw or cooked.  Try slicing and adding to a crudité for variety.  In Asia, the veg is often served along alongside meaty dishes because it is said to aid in digestion.  A traditional Japanese cake, known as “Daikon mochi,” is made by combining shredded daikon radishes, rice flour, chopped vegetables, and dried shrimp. Check out this version!

 

Purple Sweet Potato

Purple Sweet Potato

These potatoes have gorgeously dramatic purple insides.  They taste relatively similar to regular sweet potatoes, but are said to have more antioxidant powers.  These tubers come in a number of varieties and are becoming more mainstream.  Use them in place of regular sweet potatoes for a fun pop of color, or roast and toss them together with other root vegetables for color contrast.  A dish of mashed purple sweet potatoes looks almost cartoonish; make them for kids and tell them they’re purple alien guts.

 

Hen of the Woods

Hen of the Woods

Also called maitake.  The soft flesh of these mushrooms looks reminiscent of sea coral – ridged, wavy, and abstract.  The flesh is organized in large, feathery, smoky- brown clusters and are found near the bases of oak trees.  Expect a deep, gamey flavor and chewy texture.  These can also be a pain to clean, as dirt gets stored in the heaps of little caps.  Since these are so full of flavor, try them out as a simple side dish first: sauté in butter, shallots, garlic, and thyme.

 

Salsify

Salsify

This root is also called the “oyster vegetable” because its taste is often compared to the shellfish.  This vegetable is tedious to prep and turns off-color easily.  But just like oysters, pomegranates, and coconuts– it’s worth the time.  The root is similar in appearance to a long, thin parsnip, with creamy and tender white flesh and a thick skin.  Use the same way as any other root vegetable – it’s a great alternative to parsnips in soups.

 

Cardoon

Cardoon

These are seasonal mainstays in the Italian markets and are a bit harder to find here.  The plant itself is a wild-looking thistle and is popular for its ornamental values.  Cooked, they look like supersized celery with wide leaves, and their taste resembles an artichoke.  Cardoons have thorns in their stalks, so they do require some maintenance and careful prep.  They usually require parboiling before cooking, and are delicious fried or baked in creamy gratins.  

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