Most of us plan our grocery shopping excursions as we would a strategic surgical strike. We go in, grab our usual ingredients and prepared foods, and git out.
If you approach your shopping errands like Seal Team Six's raid on Osama bin Laden's compound (crashed helicopter notwithstanding) you might be so focused on your standard carrots, broccoli, lettuce, and apples that you barely acknowledge all the other produce varieties.
When it comes down to it, turning a blind eye to what we don't know or understand pretty much makes us ignorant of all the delights and diversity our produce stands, farmer's markets and our own gardens have to offer.
I Ain't Et That Since Granny Went Toes Up
Food has cultural significance. We might have access to all sorts of exotic produce, but one reason we don't bring it home is that we don't have a personal history to connect us with a particular food item, or we've never lived in a region in which it was part of our culinary heritage.
Those living outside the South might never have had fried okra, grits, or collard greens, and many folks living far from the upper Midwest haven't enjoyed the juicy northern cherries and sweet rutabaga dishes for which Michigan and Wisconson are famous (after beer-battered perch, cheese curds, and casseroles, don'tcha know).
Fresh, tree-ripened avocados? Expat Californians will go on and on and ON about eating them with nothing more than a pinch of salt or stuffed with crab (that's with a "c", not a "k") freshly trapped off a central coast jetty. Central and South Americans might crave the produce they enjoyed south of the border, settling instead for North-Americanized versions of traditional cuisine.
We might wax nostalgic about the food our parents or grandparents prepared for us back in our childhood hometowns, but can we break free from our current routines and habits? What cherished family recipes can we reintroduce to our repertoire?
Even though exotic and regional produce is available pretty much anywhere—thanks to shipping and hothouse production—our cultural relationship to food often prevents us from straying outside our norm.
That Done Look Like Thangs I Saw Last Time the Aliens Come'n Got Me
Some foods don't make it into our shopping carts because they just plain look odd. We might get a wild hair and grab some parsnips off the shelf because we figure they can't be that much different to use or prepare than carrots, but...what the heck do you do with kohlrabi?
If something looks like an alien hybrid—Romanesco broccoli, for example—we might just throw our hands up into the air and run screaming toward the safety of the boxed wine aisle, even if the shape and color of this unique variety have no bearing on its preparation or overall flavor.
(Trust us when we say it's de-lish!)
Ahrite. I'm brave. Edjamacate me!
Let's take a look at the produce we neglect not for its usefulness, nutritional value, or flavor, but because they might be outside our realm of familiarity. Follow the links to find out how to purchase seeds for your own garden, and to learn how to use these fruits and veggies in your own kitchen!
Collards (Brassica oleracea)
The South's version of stir fry would definitely feature collard greens. Not as tender as spinach and lettuce, collard leaves are more like kale and are best served sauteed or steamed with seasoning and, according to tradition, lots and lots of bacon.
You just can't throw a Carolina barbecue without collards and cornbread, but just as you can break out of your routine, collard greens can't be pigeonholed. They're delicious when sauteed in olive oil and tossed with pasta, or finely diced and added raw to coleslaws and salads. Here are a few recipes and growing tips to get you going:
Southern-Style Collard Greens: Bacon, garlic, and ham? Why, tomorrow's another day. Tonight, let's raise our mint juleps in a toast to our arteries!
Vegetarian "Southern-Style" Collard Greens: Because this blog topic is about inclusion, and besides, your cardiologist is your neighbor. And she has binoculars.
Lemony Collard Greens & Pasta: Lemon is a common pairing with kale, spinach and collards, and a delight when combined with pasta—in this case, spaghetti.
Asian Collard Wraps with Peanut Sauce: Yes. Just...yes.
Cucamelon (Melothria scobra) (wait. Melothria's cobra? Not in MY kitchen!)
You probably won't find this little oddity in your chain grocery aisle, but you just might encounter cucamelons in farmer's markets or neighborhood bodegas.
Also called "Mexican sour gherkins" or "mouse melons", Cucamelons look like adorable tiny watermelons on the outside, and when sliced, they look a bit like cucumbers or green peppers. Cucamelons are usually pickled, eaten raw, added to ceviches, or used as a garnish to iced beverages. Their flavor has been described as "like eating a cucumber sprayed with lemon".
Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus)
Okra originated in North Africa, where it was dried and used as a coffee substitute. Now, it's another Southern staple, though many shoppers who aren't familiar with the long, tapered pods are put off by the slimy texture they take on if improperly prepared.
This slime, which actually acts as a thickener for gumbos, shouldn't prevent you from enjoying its mild flavor, likened to eggplant. Here are some tips for "de-gooing" okra and making it a must-have for your next trip to the market:
- Soak okra in vinegar for about an hour, pat dry, then proceed with your recipe
- Avoid slicing too thinly; the more surface area you expose, the more mucilage will seep from the pods
- Use fresh, crisp okra within 1-3 days of harvesting, or flash-frozen okra from your store or garden
- Wait to wash okra until immediately before preparation or immersion in a vinegar bath. Pat dry before cooking.
Grow your own Clemson Spineless okra for the freshest, most flavorful fruits. Fried Pecan Okra is just one among a dozen on Southern Living's "Our 12 Best Okra Recipes" list, which we highly recommend.
Tomatillos (Physalis philadelphica)
Like tomatoes, tomatillos are a member of the nightshade family. Both plants share the same name origin (tomatl) from southern Mexican and Central American Nahuatl cultures; tomatl pretty much just means seedy, juicy fruit-like vegetable, which leads us to believe that Aztecs also had the "is tomatl fruit or vegetable?" argument, just like we do.
Tomatillos are commonly used in Mexican and Guatemalan sauces, ceviches, and salsas. The crisp, somewhat tart flavor helps complement the kapow factor of peppers in chile verde. Their husks are used to flavor rice dishes, or add sponginess to tamale dough.
Tomatillos are an interesting specimen for vegetable gardens. Their fruits can be bright orange, yellow, purple or green, and their papery husks (our horticulturist friends are screaming "calyces! CALYCES!" right about now) give tomatillos a "paper lantern" appearance.
Tomatillo Chicken Stew: Grab some cilantro, cumin, and oregano from your garden, and swipe a chicken from your neighbors. This dish has a kick!
Roasted Tomatillo Salsa Verde: Inspired Taste has a great article and video tutorial on creating the foundation of so many Mexican favorites.
Tomatillo Rice: Though it's not made with the husks, the tomatillo flavor dresses up an otherwise bland side dish.
Kohlrabi (Brassica oleracea)
One of the most commonly-encountered "weird" vegetable, kohlrabi's bulbous shape might remind you of an early Soviet satellite, or maybe an alien octopus. And that's just the "normal" green variety!
With a taste similar to but—slightly sweeter than—broccoli stems, kohlrabi is prepared much the same and is delicious raw or cooked.
We've also got some great Kohlrabi recipes on our blog, in case you want to try a few bites before you decide to include them in your vegetable garden!
Rutabaga (Brassica napus)
Rutabaga is as much fun to cook as it is to say out loud. This cool-season root vegetable has a sweeter, nuttier flavor than the turnip, which is perhaps its closest cousin in the Brassica family.
Rutabaga is prepared much the same way as turnips, however; mashed, steamed, stewed, or pureed. Chop and roast it, slice and fry it, glue googly eyes on it...there's no end to what you can do.
Rutabagas are easy to grow, too. Grab some seeds, check out our growing tips, and extend your gardening season with a fall harvest of these rich, buttery root veggies. While you're waiting for your fresh, non-GMO seeds to arrive, you can find rutabagas at most grocery stores or farmer's markets, and enjoy these recipes:
Roasted Rutabaga: This is an extremely easy alternative to oven-roasted potatoes and something even your picky kids will love.
Mashed Rutabaga with Sour Cream and Dill: Sour cream and dill are huge favorites among Midwesterners of Nordic descent. If you're not daring enough to have pickled herring in sour cream sauce, then try out this recipe. Baby steps!
Winter Stew with Braised Rutabagas, Carrots, Potatoes, and Parsley Sauce: Whew, that's a mouthful. We found this recipe at Full Belly Farm, which reminds us...
Broader Tastes Support Small Farms, Family Businesses, and Our Food Heritage
Community supported agriculture (CSA) programs are those in which customers "subscribe" to a small farm's harvest before Spring planting begins. As produce becomes ripe, customers receive boxes of mixed veggies. All too often, customers complain that they don't know what to do with "unusual" vegetables. Many request that they only receive the usual suspects, prompting market and CSA farmers to pass out recipe and information sheets whenever they try to sell these delicious but neglected "oddballs".
Small farmers promote more unusual varieties because they don't have to worry about the tight constraints of long-distance shipping and buyer demand for packable shapes. Where commercial produce packers are forced to trade flavor and nutrient content for veggies developed through genetic modification or hybridization for extended shelf life and uniformity, small-scale, local producers can provide abundant variety and optimal nutrition with organically-grown heirloom varieties.
Gardeners, growers, and seed distributors who appreciate and use heirloom plants and unusual varieties help preserve our culture and our food heritage. Diversity is just as important to our food supply as it is to society.