Spring is back and so are farmers markets. And that means a whole new chance to make friends with strange and unusual vegetables. Or to rehabilitate some old familiars.
The number of farmers markets has more than doubled during the past decade, topping more than 8,000 in 2013. Matching that proliferation is equally wild growth in the variety of produce sold at them. Heirloom tomatoes and carrots in funky colors? That’s just the start. Think rainbow-spectrum radishes, unusual peas, beans and legumes; gooseberries and quince.
But trying something new — whether it’s an unfamiliar vegetable or an exotic preparation — can be intimidating. The best advice is to start slow.
If you like arugula, branch out to watercress. In baby form, it’s a perfect salad green, a sturdier, even more peppery alternative to the more ubiquitous arugula. It also makes a stellar pesto, says Diana Henry, author most recently of the cookbook “A Change of Appetite” (Octopus Publishing, 2014). “I actually like it better than basil pesto,” Henry says. “Basil can be quite perfumed. This is a bit more earthy, more peppery.”
If you like cabbage, try kohlrabi. A stout bulb with a thick skin, the flesh is crisp like a radish, and as brightly flavored as cabbage. “I predict that kohlrabi’s going to be the next big thing,” says Martha Rose Shulman, author most recently of “The Simple Art of Vegetarian Cooking” (Rodale, 2014), noting that some companies are beginning to package kohlrabi for lunch boxes.
“Shred it to make a slaw or a stir-fry with kohlrabi and some greens,” she says. “I recently had a really great salad — feta, olives, a little diced kohlrabi. It really absorbs the dressing.”
Shulman also is a big fan of pea shoots, slender tendrils from the same plant. They taste like peas, but can be treated like greens. “Those are just beautiful,” she says. “I like to use those in stir-fries and just cook them up and serve them up as a side. They’re very good with grains.”
Cardoons, a member of the thistle family that’s a foraged food for many Italians, also can be found at some farmers markets. “Certainly cardoons are a vegetable that people are mystified with when they do see it,” says Michele Scicolone, whose most recent book is “The Italian Vegetable Cookbook” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014).
“You have to blanche it and peel it and then you can bread it and fry it or gratinee it with butter and cheese, and it’s very tasty,” she says. “It tastes like artichoke hearts.”
Scicolone also champions zucchini flowers, another Italian specialty that can be chopped for a frittata, tossed in a salad, or stuffed with mozzarella and deep fried. “It may seem like an exotic delicacy, but to a hungry Italian of a certain era, it’s a vegetable,” she says. “When I was a kid, my mom would make little fritters with them. We would eat them like that for an appetizer.”
If you’re more the type to stick with the usual vegetable suspects, we’ve made it easy to at least take them for a spin in a new direction. For zucchini, we’ve given you a simple, but delicious recipe for grilling. And for eggplant, we turn it into a bruschetta topping that packs tons of flavor.
Grilled Eggplant Bruschetta • 1 large eggplant, sliced into 1/2-inch-thick slices
• 4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
• Salt and black pepper
• 2 medium tomatoes, seeds removed, diced
• 2 ribs celery, diced
• 1 orange or yellow bell pepper, cored and diced
• 3 scallions, sliced
• 6 cloves garlic, minced
• 1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, torn
• Balsamic glaze, to serve
• Baguette or pita, to serve
NOTE: This eggplant mixture also is delicious over grilled chicken or haddock.
Heat the grill to medium. Use 2 tablespoons of the oil to brush each eggplant slice on both sides. Sprinkle the slices with salt and pepper. Grill until tender, 3 to 5 minutes per side.
Allow the eggplant slices to cool until easily handled, then dice. In a large bowl, gently mix together the eggplant, tomatoes, celery, bell pepper, scallions, garlic, basil and the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Allow to sit for at least 2 hours for best flavor. Serve on baguette or pita bread and drizzled with balsamic glaze.
Nutrition information per serving: 100 calories; 70 calories from fat (70 percent of total calories); 7 g fat (1 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 0 mg cholesterol; 9 g carbohydrate; 4 g fiber; 4 g sugar; 2 g protein; 140 mg sodium. Smoky Grilled Zucchini • 3 medium zucchini
• 1 tablespoon olive oil
• 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
• 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
• 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
• 2 teaspoons brown sugar
• Fresh limes, for squeezing
Heat the grill to medium-high. Cut the zucchini in half lengthwise, then rub them all over with the olive oil.
In a small bowl, combine the salt, pepper, paprika and brown sugar. Sprinkle all over the zucchini. Grill the zucchini until tender and charred, 5 to 7 minutes per side. Serve with lime wedges for squeezing.
Nutrition information per serving: 45 calories; 20 calories from fat (44 percent of total calories); 2.5 g fat (0 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 0 mg cholesterol; 6 g carbohydrate; 1 g fiber; 3 g sugar; 1 g protein; 170 mg sodium.Start to finish: 15 minutes active, plus 2 hours resting Yield: Makes 8 servings Source: Recipe from Alison Ladman Start to finish: 15 minutes Yield: Makes 6 servings Source: Recipe from Alison Ladman