Chile leaves, broccoli stems and pea shoots … expanding what we eat
I find the ways we define ourselves by what we eat fascinating. We do this project of self-definition both through what we DO eat and what we refuse to eat. In Martin Jones’ fascinating book _Feast: Why Humans Share Food_, he observes that our taboos about food can be so powerful that they are actively detrimental – observing that are indications that ancient peoples in coastal areas have had such a strong taboo against the ocean and fishing that they starved to death with easy access to plenty of fish. Most of us have a powerful sense, instilled culturally, about what we do and don’t consume – and we may not have thought much about it, at least until we encounter another culture’s rather different assumptions.
One of the fascinating projects of cross-cultural exploration is looking in your own yard and garden and finding that there was perfectly edible, often delicious food staring you right in the face, and you never knew it was there. In a situation of shortage, this is a critical difference, but even for the ordinary person who wants to save money, try new tastes and reduce waste, this is good, important stuff. I was inspired to write this post by a participant in one of my classes who asked about sweet potato leaves – reminding me that we’re all in different stages on the journey of discovery to make full and pleasurable use of anything in our gardens. Most of us know already we can pickle or fry our green tomatoes and eat our turnip greens, but how many people eat rutabaga leaves (a mustard) or more unusual bits.
First, a caveat- new foods are new foods, and some people are more sensitive than others to some things. Moreover, there are a few parts of common vegetables that you should NOT eat – they are actively toxic, like rhubarb leaves. In other cases, it is fine to eat some, but not fine to eat a huge quantity (that is true of many common foods we eat now – nutmeg, for example, is toxic in large quantities, but none of us object to its use on our eggnog. Buckwheat greens are delicious in salads, but can cause photosensitivity in very large quantities. So start small, work up, and make sure you know what you are eating.
Let’s start with common things in your garden you might not be eating (and how best to enjoy them):
Broccoli Stems – I assumed everyone ate these until recently, but apparently not. We use the stems in stir-fries and soups, but they make a great raw crudite if you peel the fibrous outer part. My mother likes broccoli stems better than broccoli heads.
Cabbage Wrapper leaves: The outer leaves of cabbages can be a bit on the tough side, but they are also delicious and because of their greater exposure to light, more nutritious than the inner leaves. Sylvia Thompson’s wonderful _The Kitchen Garden Cookbook_, which has a lot of recipes for bits of garden vegetables not commonly eaten in American gardens suggests
“Cabbage Wrapper leaves from Ceylon” (also good with broccoli. cauliflower and brussels sprout leaves). Wash and thinly slice outer leaves. Sautee 1-2 onions, 2 (or more) fresh hot chiles, 3 garlic cloves and a hunk of fresh ginger. Sautee on high for a minute, add the slice leaves, and keep stirring. After a couple of minutes, add a handful of unsweetened coconut, 1/4 tsp curry, salt, pepper and half a cup of water. Simmer for a minute until leaves are tender, and devour.
Pea Shoots – This is a great option for all of us who are trying to pull together a fall garden in hot weather. Peas are a cool weather crop, and grow beautifully in autumn, but can be tough to start in the heat of summer. But there’s no reason you can’t start a crop of pea shoots when things start to cool down a bit. Pea shoots are an expensive luxury green in China, and absolutely delicious, with a light pea flavor. We eat them in spring as thinnings, and then in fall for the joy of it. Snow pea shoots are traditional, but all pea shoots are yummy. Just barely sauteed with garlic and sesame oil is perfect!
Lettuce that has started to bolt: The chinese cook lettuce, and I find that partly bolted lettuce (before a seed stalk has formed) is perfect for strong flavored sautees like lettuce with fermented black bean paste (a recipe I’ve modified a little from Eileen Yin-Fei Lo’s wonderful book _From the Earth: Chinese Vegetarian Cooking_. Heat oil in a wok or cast iron pan, and sautee ginger and garlic to taste for 2 minutes. Add chunks of lettuce (not individual leaves), stir fry for one minute, and add a sauce made of equal parts oyster sauce (we use the vegetarian mushroom version, since oyster sauce is not kosher), Shao-hsing wine, toasted sesame oil and black bean paste. Turn off heat, and add sugar and chile oil to taste.
Sweet potato leaves are delicious, and eaten over most of the African continent. This is great for me because in some cool years (not this one!) I get more leaves than I do actual sweet potatoes. It is also good because sweet potato leaves will grow over winter in a pot, even in fairly low light conditions, so can provide a welcome fresh home-grown green in a hanging pot in your window all winter. I like this recipe for them quite a lot. But also use them wherever I might use greens in soup or stir fry. They are tasty and mild.
Chile pepper leaves aren’t that mild – they have a stronger (and quite delicious) flavor that is almost herbal – in a nice way. This is one you might want to know something about- some varieties may be mildly toxic. We learned to enjoy them from our Filipino neighbors in Lowell MA years ago, though, and have experienced no ill effects – nor did our neighbors who have been eating them their whole lives. C. Frutesca and C. Arbol are definitely edible, so know what you are getting. Tinola is the way I first learned to make them. I have not yet tried drying them and making them korean style, but I’m sure going to!
Okra leaves make an amazing thickener – they have the same high fiber glutinous qualities of okra, without the sliminess some people find objectionable (I love okra meself.) I find them to be most useful dried and added in small quantities – fresh, you have to be careful with how much you add. I have heard that too many okra leaves can be constipating, so eat them with things that aren’t.
Squash seeds and vine tips- Not everyone knows that you can eat all squash seeds, just like pumpkin seeds, but you can, and should. That’s something you can do with monster zucchinis and any kind of winter squash. We like them roasted with cumin, garlic powder and dried chipotle. The Hmong use the tender vine tips of winter squashes (if you do this with summer squashes, you’ll drastically reduce production), and the last few inches of the vine after a leaf are peeled, chopped and used in stir-fries.
I don’t need to mention that squash blossoms are delicious right? We stuff them with homemade goat cheese and bake them, or use them in risotto. Yum!
Radish leaves, flowers and pods: There is a variety of radish (rat tail) grown specifically for its tasty pods, and these are great (I like them better than the radish roots, actually, and I do like radishes), but any bolted radish is edible. The leaves are best when small and tender- don’t dump them when you pull spring and fall radishes. Once they start to bolt, add the flowers to salads, or wait, and make pods for yummy, spicy stir fries. They are also great in kimchi.
Not a true natural part of a vegetable, I have never had corn smut myself , but I’d love try Huitlacoche, the corn fungus that is a well known Mexican delicacy. The area I live in tends to be too wet to promote it, but if you are lucky enough to have some, enjoy!
Remember, there’s a lot more food in your garden than you may think!