A few years ago, I interviewed a gardener from Bangladesh who grew exotic gourds like fuzzy melon and snake melon in the Fenway community garden in Boston.
She pointed out that the growing season is short, certainly compared to her home country, so before she got the gourds, she made sure to enjoy eating the flowers and the tender shoots of the vines. Huh, I thought stupidly. I didn’t know squash vines were edible. That same summer, my Thai sister-in-law Na wandered my garden and pinched off and ate some carrot tops. She told me her dad would make a delicious egg dish with them. Huh, I again thought stupidly, I didn’t know those were edible.
The truth is, what we do eat is severely limited by custom and by no means captures the full bounty of nature. In The Diversity of Life, E.O. Wilson points to chronic “underutilization,” estimating that while just 20 species provide 90 percent of the world’s food, there are 30,000 species of plants that have edible parts.
And in my experience, we underuse what we do use. I recently glanced through a vegetable how-to that said the leaves of kohlrabi were worthless. Not true! Kohlrabi, possibly the world’s best soup vegetable, makes an even better soup when the black-green of its chopped-up leaves is there for contrast. Kohlrabi leaves are like the world’s tenderest kale.
Friend of Rant Willi Galloway’s recent book Grow Cook Eat is particularly good at encouraging the gardener to try some new bits of familiar vegetables. Thanks to Willi, I used pea shoots for the first time, in a fried rice. And thanks to Willi, last night I harvested two million radish seed pods after yanking the gone-by radishes out of the school garden, which I then pickled.
Radishes–well, I should admit that I adore a variety called ‘Chinese Red Heart.’ But otherwise, they hold only limited interest. They are a long-day crop that always bolts in June. They have to be thinned…there, two major strikes against them. But radish pods! A subtler radish flavor, but just as delicious. And while one plant will produce just one root, it will produce dozens and dozens and dozens of tender pods. There is actually a variety of radish called ‘Rat Tail’ bred just for its long flavorful pods. Next year, ‘Rat Tail’ in the yard.