Have you ever strolled past a farmers market stall and thought, “What the heck is THAT?” Odds are you’ve kept moving, but I am here to encourage you to buy that wacky-looking veg!
We are a foodie nation that can’t seem to get enough of farmers markets; whatever city I’m in, I can never find parking near the market. Farmers are being challenged and rewarded for offering unique crops. Here's my list of the best of the weirdo things at the market, along with recipes to get you started. Give 'em a try! It's the best way to broaden your culinary horizons.
1. Garlic Scapes
Short lived and pretty to look at, garlic scapes are very easy to use! All plants produce seeds, often through the process of flowering, and garlic is no exception. In June, some garlic varieties will grow a long, curled stalks that farmers remove, allowing energy to go into forming the bulb, not the seed. The fortunate byproduct of cutting the flowering stem is garlic scapes. Scapes are green, thin and more mildly flavored then garlic cloves. They can be used as you would scallions – add them raw to pestos and dips or cook them in soups, pastas, and roast dishes.
Kohlrabi is one of the most perplexing veg you’ll see, at first glance. This green or purple bulb vegetable does not immediately call to mind recipe ideas. Is it a turnip? A tuber? No! It's a brassica, just like broccoli and turnips. If you can imagine a broccoli stem and a turnip having a baby, you've imagined the flavor kohlrabi imparts.
Kohlrabi turns up in early summer and late fall, and can be eaten raw or cooked. Depending on the harvest time, kohlrabi may be peeled or left with the skin on. As with most veg, older plants will have thicker skins and may require peeling.
Slice thinly and add to salads, or layer in thin slices over a butter-slathered baguette sprinkled with coarse salt. Grated, kohlrabi makes for an interesting latke – try substituting half the amount of the potatoes called for in this latke recipe. Much like broccoli, kohlrabi is also delicious when tossed in olive oil and roasted. I leave mine in about 10 minutes longer so the edges burn and offer a bit of char flavor to meals.
3. Sea Beans/Samphire
Don’t miss these sea vegetables next time you’re at a farmers market, especially in the Pacific Northwest, where the cold water produces harvests like fresh salmon, raw oysters, and these "asparagus of the sea. Sea beans (or samphire, as they're more globally called), are short, thin, succulent stalks that can be found on the high beach of salt-water beaches, marshes, and coastlines. Crispy and crunchy, sea beans taste slightly briny and mineral-rich. These sea vegetables can be eaten raw, pickled, or cooked. They do best when paired with other sea creatures – all fish and shellfish dishes are delicious with the addition of sea beans as a side or garnish. To pickle, simply toss sea beans in a bit of vinegar, sugar, and a few cloves of garlic.
4. Zucchini Blossoms
Squash blossoms are gorgeous, compelling, and confusing! What does it taste like? How do you cook with it? First some background: All squash plants make flowers — zucchini, pumpkin, winter squash, etc., but zucchini flowers in particular show up in the markets for summer. There are both female and male blossoms. Male blossoms grow at the end of a long, thin stem, and have a long stamen in the center of the blossom, while female blossoms have no stamen and will develop fruit. Farmers tend to offer both, and I prefer the mildly flavored female blossoms, which taste delicately of squash. There is no shortage of recipes for stuffed squash blossoms. You can also fill them with seasoned rice or meat and bake in the oven.
5. Butter Beans
So often, plants go by several different names, confusing shoppers (but thrilling some growers, who get to offer an exciting "new" item that’s really the same old thing!). Butter beans, also known as lima beans, are large, fat, white beans that are left on the plant to dry. When eaten young, we use the green lima beans – you know the one from your school lunch veg medley? Left to mature, these bad-rep green beans turn white and offer a dense, buttery flavor to meals. Cook butter beans as you would any other: Simmer in salted water until tender and soft. Do as they do in the south, and add a ham hock to the water. This ups the flavor and makes for the ultimate one pot meal. Butter beans can be boiled and tossed in vinaigrette for salads or added to soups or curries – a satiating, pleasing protein source for vegetarians.
This dense globe is intimidating but delicious! A dirty knob of a vegetable -- thanks to its deeply wrinkled skin, where soil catches and sits -- celeriac (also known as celery root) is harvested in late summer and fall. The outer layer must be peeled. Use a sharp knife and shave off hunks of the tough skin – don’t bother with a peeler. Tasting mildly of celery with the texture and starch of a potato, celeriac makes an excellent soup, mash, or roasting vegetable. For mashing, add a few potatoes to the pot, which will aid in adding a creamy, buttery flavor without the need for extra fat. You can even serve celeriac raw in a slaw or salad. Its mild flavor and juicy crispness lends itself well to a raw salad that can be made in advance and served later.
Related: More about celeriac (celery root).
Grown as a tuber (a starchy, fat root grown under ground) from a tall sunflower-esque plant, sunchokes are also known as Jerusalem artichokes. They're easy to pass over, as they are typically covered in soil and harvested in small knobs and limited quantities. These roots are thin-skinned with many wrinkles allowing for soil to settle in and stay – they take some serious scrubbing to clean, but it’s worth it for their unique flavor. A cross between and artichoke heart and a potato, sunchokes can be roasted whole (no peeling necessary) or pureed into soups and sauces – their starchy quality makes for a thick, creamy-tasting base.
Want more oddball farmers market finds?