Farmers markets are back. And that means a whole new chance to make friends with strange and unusual vegetables. Or to rehabilitate some old familiars.
The number of farmers markets has more than doubled during the past decade, topping more than 8,000 in 2013. Matching that proliferation is growth in the variety of produce sold at them. Think rainbow-spectrum radishes, unusual peas and beans; gooseberries and quince.
But trying something new can be intimidating. The best advice is to start slow.
If you like arugula, branch out to watercress. In baby form, it’s a perfect salad green, a sturdier, more peppery alternative. It also makes a stellar pesto, says Diana Henry, the author of the cookbook A Change of Appetite.
“I actually like it better than basil pesto,” she says. “Basil can be quite perfumed. This is a bit more earthy.”
If you like cabbage, try kohlrabi. A stout bulb with a thick skin, the flesh is crisp like a radish and as brightly flavored as cabbage.
“I predict that kohlrabi’s going to be the next big thing,” says Martha Rose Shulman, the author of The Simple Art of Vegetarian Cooking, noting that some companies are beginning to package kohlrabi for lunch boxes.
“Shred it to make a slaw or a stir-fry with kohlrabi and some greens,” she says.
Shulman also is a big fan of pea shoots, slender tendrils from the same plant. They taste like peas, but can be treated like greens.
“Those are just beautiful,” she says. “I like to use those in stir-fries and just cook them up and serve them up as a side.”
Michele Scicolone, whose most recent book is The Italian Vegetable Cookbook, champions zucchini flowers, an Italian specialty that can be chopped for a frittata, tossed in a salad, or stuffed with mozzarella and deep fried.
“It may seem like an exotic delicacy, but to a hungry Italian of a certain era, it’s a vegetable,” she says. “When I was a kid, my mom would make little fritters with them.”
Would you rather just set your sights on new preparations for old standbys? Henry thinly shaves carrots, beets and fennel and dresses them with lemon, oil and salt.
Don’t forget about spinach, Shulman says.
“We’ve gotten so used to bagged baby spinach year round, but there’s nothing to compare with a lush bunch of spinach that’s just been harvested,” she says. Blanch it, steam it or hit it with olive oil, garlic and herbs and toss it into a frittata, gratin or quiche. “They are so sweet, and so worth the time it takes to get the sand out.”