Selecting and cooking for vegetable flavor

In response to the frequent question "What's that!? and what do I do with it?" here are some guides to judge freshness as well as some cooking tips that highlight the produce instead of the sauce. I realize we may not share tastes, and that there is a universe of fine recipes out there. And no, there's nothing wrong with a good cream or garlic sauce, or intense hot pepper seasoning, or whatever addition lights your taste buds. So what follows is idiosyncratic in its selection and opinion. Finally, to repeat what you likely already know, not all these foods will be available from us or other local growers at all times.

In general, select immature vegetables. The old ones will often have tough flesh and less flavor. So you will not usually want big unless you like a starchy taste. This fact is unfortunate for farmers, since a big squash or cuke takes the same work as a small one, and when sold by weight earns more. Of course there are exceptions to the maturity rule: immature corn is not sweet corn yet; a mature tomato has the best flavor. Mouse over the vegetables below for my flavor opinions.

Note: other vegetables I commonly grow include basil, cabbage, carrots, chard, garlic, kale, lettuces, onions, sweet potatoes, turnips.

arugula

I am embarrassed to admit I long rejected arugula because of its unaccompanied too-piquant flavor. So tasting it in a sandwich or coupled with dressing or cheese was a revelation. My analogy is salt: too strong raw, but combined with other food it magically changes the taste of both. In any case, I'm addicted.

Photo includes blossoms, which come long after the plant toughens. You can eat them too if you really appreciate fibrous texture.

Spring thru fall.

arugula

snap beans and long beans

beets

bok choi

Bok choi or boc choy--one of the many varieties of "Asian" leaves and shoots--works well for either texture and taste contrast in salad; a mild addition to a soup; or stir fried alone or other vegetables. Its mild flavor will not overpower its companions. A favorite of insects and therefore a good way to identify an organic gardener: there will be holes.

spring and fall

bok choi

broccoli

Broccoli is another that can taste dramatically better fresh, maybe because of holding time. If you grow your own, try the leaves, too. I like to stir the buds in olive oil at medium high heat so that some have brown scorch marks, then add a bit of water and salt, cover, and cook until just tender.

spring and fall

Green (or yellow, or purple) beans should have a delicate skin and lack seed bumps. A bean with tough skin and big bumps will likely be, yes, tough. Generally, the more mature the bean and the longer the time since picking, the more sugar will have converted to starch. But not all varieties follow the rules, and there is surprising difference in taste. Ask the farmer.

Sauteed green beans will retain crispness better, but I prefer the flavor of steamed (boiling is OK, but the beans absorb more water, diluting the taste). You have find your own preference as to time: start with 4 minutes in an already-steaming pot, which time will give you a crisp bean. I prefer longer, 10, even as long as 30 minutes depending on the bean, which gives a sweeter taste and tender texture (have mercy, devotees of quick-cooking). Salt, and butter or olive oil them.

In the photo, the top two beans are sketchy, reaching the point where sugar converts to starch. Look for beans like those at bottom, without pronounced bumps.

spring and fall

green beans

Long beans are actually peas, which gives a hint as to their flavor and cooking. They taste like immature Southern pea pods, and can be sauteed or steamed. Like beans, they should lack seed bumps. Their flavor and ease of prep deserve a tasting.

summer

long bean and blossom

corn

cucumbers

eggplant

kohlrabi

melons

mustard

If you like horseradish or wasabi, mustard is for you, raw on your salad, stir fried, or braised. If you like some of that mustard piquancy, but not that much, blanch first. The longer you blanch, the milder mustard will become. Drain, and stir fry with your preferred seasoning--garlic, soy sauce, sesame oil, your choice.

A leaf of the purple variety we grow, strangely left unbitten by the flea beetle horde.

spring and fall

purple mustard

okra

squash

te you

Te you is one of the Asian stalks, crisper and of more intense flavor than the bok chois. Good diced raw, or sauteed with garlic. Like asparagus, any woody lower part of the stem should be removed. If a knife can easily be forced (as opposed to slicing) through the stem, you're good.

spring and fall

te you

tomato

Corn is one of the few vegetables that has been improved in flavor by the plant breeding of the past decades (consider the contrast with supermarket tomatoes). Depending on the variety, corn will now remain sweet long after being picked, instead of converting its sugar to starch at harvest. Some varieties are intensely sweet, if you like that. And that free worm on the end of organic corn--just cut out the damage. Better a worm than insecticide.

You will have to ask the farmer about relative sweetness or starchiness, since flavor varies by variety. As a guide, moderately full kernels equal sweeter ears. Tiny kernels lack sugar, but then as the kernels overfill, they convert sugar to starch. For freshness look at the stem: the drier the cut, the greater the time since harvest. Try corn raw--you may not even want to bother cooking it.

summer

If you were curious enough to click on kohlrabi, or even if it was accidental, stay with me. It is good raw, and can add a nice crunch to a salad. I like it even better simmered in butter until it has the consistency of a baked potato. You should usually avoid the big ones, although in moist, cool weather, big can be fine. You just don't want the tough fiber below the skin you peel off. If you or the seller store them too long, they will lose moisture and become tough, so this is a good one to buy at the farmers' market. The leaves can be eaten for a kale-like taste, but the largest are often tough.

fall

kohlrabi

We too often settle for insipid cucumbers. Like tomatoes, the supermarket variety is usually bland, which in cucumber terms means almost tasteless. So buy one from the super and several kinds from the farmers market and stage a tasting. Like squash, look for the smaller fruit with delicate skin. The fat ones are often too mature for good flavor. Don't confuse fat with long on ripeness, because some of the really long ones have excellent flavor. If you open it and see evident seeds, it stayed too long on its vine.

Don't buy the one to the far right! Unless you're saving seed. All except the blonde one are of the "pickling" variety, but at a small size they taste better or as good as any other.

summer

cucumbers

Eggplant doesn't get enough respect. I prefer the Asian, long varieties because they are less likely to turn bitter in dry weather. Eggplant is one of the few vegetables (along with peppers, squash, long beans, and okra) that likes July-August heat, so I try to keep a good recipe file for it.

It's your choice, but I peel because I don't like the texture of the skin. Because it is so mild, you can cook eggplant to tender with a little liquid and add any seasoning you think will work. Experiment. Tomatoes and curry work well, and taste even better with sour cream or yogurt. Or mix a spoon of peanut butter in a little hot milk, then add cumin/comino.

I do not know the name of this green variety. It came from Boggy Creek Farm in Texas, and they received the seed from a customer. In any case, its sweet flavor makes it the best eggplant I have eaten.

summer

green eggplant.

Melons will fool you. At least me. I've grown cantaloupes and watermelons since I was 13, and I am still unable to consistently pick a good watermelon if it is not lying in the field. Cantaloupes will slip off their vine when ripe, leaving a shallow cavity on their end. If they have a stem, leave them at the market, because they were not ripe when taken. Still, one without a stem can be too ripe, or just lack flavor. Too much rain absolutely kills melon flavor, and some varieties just don't taste that good.

Like cantaloupes, watermelons put you at the mercy of your dealer. The Allsweet varieties (cylindrical, background dark green, with yellow stripe) are dependably sweet. Watermelons do not even give notice by slipping from the vine. Some say a yellow belly indicates ripeness. Maybe, but the only decent indicator I have found is their sonic response to a thumping. If they resonate well (like the sound you make saying the word thump), they are likely good. If they sound flat, they are too ripe, and if they respond with more of a "tick," they are not ready, and they will never get there, not off the vine. The trouble is, if you pile them on each other or a table, the sound changes. And by the way, where I'm from you can go to hell for putting salt on a good watermelon. Which fact does not keep some from doing it.

summer

I think of beet flavor as ranging between sweet and starchy. Look for a more delicate skin--the harder beets have likely been stored longer, will take longer to cook, and may not be as sweet. As a experiment, buy a beet at the supermarket, and a bunch at the farmers' market, and cook in the same batch.

Each to his own, of course, but to me a beet pickled in vinegar tastes like, well, vinegar. To get to the beet taste, just cut off (and stir-fry) the tops, drop bulbs into hot water, boil until you can poke a knife through them, run them under cold water, and squeeze them out of their skins. Lime juice heightens their sweetness. Beets rarely need salt. If you are baking anyway, cook them in the oven for a more intense flavor. The young leaves resemble chard in texture and taste.

spring and fall

red and orange beets

There are so many tomatoes with so many flavors that I hesitate to comment. The cherries can be the most intensely flavored, wherever they fall on the sweet-sour scale. Yellow varieties tend less acidic. Sauce varieties, including Roma, have less water. The so-called heirlooms can have superior flavor, but are less productive, especially in hot-humid climates where disease is prevalent. I believe that most tomatoes CAN taste good, given they do not have too little or much water, too little or much heat, and above all, they have started to ripen on the vine. After they start to ripen, they will continue to ripen in the kitchen, faster in a paper bag to concentrate the ethylene they produce (plastic will retain moisture and more likely rot them). If you really want to irritate your farmers, squeeze their tomatoes. Squeezing bruises these fruit, and bruises rot quickly. So PLEASE DON'T SQEEZE! Judge on intensity of color or ask the farmer to select ripe ones. In summary, experiment to find your favorite varieties. Organic farmers struggle to keep tomaotes bearing into late summer, since disease is so deadly in the southeastern US, and since we have few remedies against fungus.

summer

Copia, Green Zebra, and Cherokee.

tomatoes

Summer squash--yellow, zucchini, scalloped--should have delicate, almost sticky skin. Smaller is usually better, although big zucchini can be good, especially for stuffing. You don't want a dull, tough skin or overly large, seedy squash. If you did, you would just buy a pumpkin.

Heat butter or oil in a skillet to medium. Slice squash thin and don't cook much more than a single layer at a time, along with salt and diced onion (and garlic?). Turn often enough to avoid burn, and don't cover. You want to caramelize both squash and onion. Squash will be soft and a little sweet when done. If you don't cook it long enough, with enough oil, it still tastes like raw squash, which to me is not much taste at all.

Squash to the left glistens, while the larger, seedy ones have a flat color. For reasons I have not determined, the larger, less tasty size dominates the market. Try the smaller ones.

summer

squash

In contrast, winter squash should be hard, with a skin that resists a fingernail (still, don't go poking holes in it). I am partial to the delicata and sweet dumplings. They can be baked at 325 until soft, or try them in the microwave. Some eat the skin. The sweet/nutty taste is SUPERB. OK, flavor is subjective. Other winter varieties have their own good traits, too.

late summer and fall

Okra is best under three inches long; its fuzz should be peachy, not spiky. Even under refrigeration it grows its own black mold quickly, so use it quickly. The thin-pod, ridgeless okra--ex. Emerald or Louisiana Green Velvet--can grow a bit longer than ridged varieties before toughening. You may have the slimy issue. I don't. But if you do, cook as below--no steaming or cooking with water.

Cut the stem off, heat a skillet filmed with oil, and either stir fry at high heat, or simmer longer at medium, turning so the okra will not burn. You may cover momentarily. It will soften--experiment to decide which softness/flavor you prefer. Salt, yes, but possibly garlic, pepper, chili powder, whatever seasoning you wish. Or if you are already baking, butter a tray and bake until soft. I like an occasional pod raw.

summer

okra