Summer brings another chance to try new vegetables

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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.

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Smoked grilled zucchini.  MATTHEW MEAD/ASSOCIATED PRESS
MATTHEW MEAD/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Smoked grilled zucchini.

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.”

GRILLED EGGPLANT BRUSCHETTA

This mixture also is delicious over grilled chicken or haddock. Start to finish: 15 minutes active, plus two hours resting; serves eight.

Ingredients

  • 1 large eggplant, sliced into ½-inch-thick slices
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • Kosher salt and ground black pepper
  • 2 medium tomatoes, seeds removed, diced
  • 2 ribs celery, diced
  • 1 orange or yellow bell pepper, cored and diced
  • 3 scallions, sliced
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • ½ cup fresh basil leaves, torn
  • Balsamic glaze, to serve
  • Baguette or pita, to serve

Directions

Heat the grill to medium. Use 2 tablespoons of the oil to brush each eggplant slice on both sides. Sprinkle the slices with salt and pepper. Grill until tender, three to five minutes per side.

Allow the eggplant slices to cool until easily handled, then dice. In a large bowl, gently mix the eggplant, tomatoes, celery, bell pepper, scallions, garlic, basil and remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.

Allow to sit for at least two hours for best flavor. Serve on baguette or pita bread and drizzled with balsamic glaze.


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