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Getting smarter about vegetables

(article, Deborah Madison)

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I really don’t know exactly when it began, but it had to do with my decision to travel less in order to have a garden, then actually growing a few vegetables and watching their every move. 

If you plant something, especially from seed, you begin to notice things that you wouldn’t even know about otherwise: that the cotyledons (the very first greens) are two leaves or just one; or that all the cotyledons in the cabbage family tend to look alike, and that when the plants mature, their flowers look pretty much alike, too. Their petals form a cross, which gives the family the Latin name Cruciferaceae. 

[%image carrottop float=right width=400 caption="A lovely carrot flower."]

In the kitchen, I had noticed already that members of the cabbage family tend to go well with mustard, another member of that family, whether in the form of a vinaigrette, sauce, oil, or seed. I also noticed that the leaves of many of the family members have similar shapes: arugula, radish, daikon, kohlrabi, broccoli raab, broccoli. 

One thing led to another. What about those radish leaves? Might they be good to eat since they do look somewhat like arugula? (Yes, indeed, they are! See my new book's radish-leaf soup.) What about broccoli leaves? Turns out they’re not bad, either. Fry them up with some onions. 

You can eat more than just one part of the plant in this family — and, as it turns out, in others, too.

Over the years, I’ve kept a folder on my desktop called "Vegetable Literacy." It's my way of saying to myself, “Time to get smart about vegetables and go beyond their lineup on the supermarket shelf.” Once Vegetable Literacy started to become a book, I wanted to include lots of families, like the Laurel family, which includes bay leaf, cinnamon, and avocado, for starters — a curious grouping. But in the end, there are limits, so I chose 12 plant families — groups that vary widely from one to another, but all of which we’re likely to encounter in our kitchens and our markets. 

[%image letus float=right width=400 caption="Two rows of lettuce — innocent-looking but, as members of the daisy family, can be bitter."]

One of those families was the mint family — Labiatae — where so many herbs we use congregate. What would our vegetables be without rosemary, thyme, sage, oregano, marjoram, savory, and, of course, mint?

Curiously, most of our other common culinary herbs happen to be in the family that includes carrots and parsnips, fennel and celery: the umbellifer family. Among those are dill, lovage, parsley, cilantro, anise, cumin, and caraway. 

You might notice that all those herbs taste good with their related vegetables. Knowing that might get you to try anise seed with carrots as well as dill. In fact, I thought, maybe knowing something about plant families would make us more at ease as cooks. So in went recipes — 300 of them.

To me, all the families are fascinating. The stories of individual members and how we finally got around to eating them are compelling, amusing, and often accompanied with powerful resistances. Some people once claimed that tomatoes would give you cancer and eggplants, leprosy. The chefs who presented the first potatoes to the English court served the toxic leaves and berries, not the tubers, and the entire court was sickened. They didn’t know better, but they probably set the potato back for a generation.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Kales are well-loved."]

Probably the most difficult family is the daisy family, Asteraceae. My father, a botanist, once referred to its members as some rough stuff, and they are: thistles, artichokes, and spiny cardoons; bitter radicchio, strange Jerusalem artichokes, out-of-favor vegetables like scorzanera and salsify; and bitter greens like the chicories. All need lemon to keep them from browning, and all emit a latex-like sap that is hugely bitter. They’re good for the liver. I like that they’re difficult and odd. Tarragon is their lone herb.

But my favorite name is for the subfamily of the amaranths called the goosefoots, or the chenopods. When I finally met a farmer with geese, I asked him to pick up one and show me its foot. What an orange, rough, claw-like foot it was, but I could see that, indeed, the shapes of spinach, chard, beet greens, and others do resemble it somewhat. Then I recognized its imprint in the dusty ground as some ancient Greek must have done before correlating it with these leafy greens.

My favorite family to grow from, or that I wish I could grow? The sensual cucurbits, or the squash and melon family. But the squash bugs here in New Mexico are too hideous. Black-eyed peas were odd and beautiful, and they did well in a drought, something to consider in these dry times. The knotweed family has three challenging members — buckwheat, sorrel, and rhubarb — plus one fragrant cilantro mimic called rau ram, and a lot of bitter weeds. 

[%image blackeyedpeas float=right width=400 caption="Black-eyed peas in the shell-bean stage."]

Learning about plants and who’s related to whom is great fun. Of course, we don’t have to know any of this to go to the store for a vegetable, but it’s more interesting if we do. When we know who’s in a family, we can assume something about how relatives might behave in the kitchen. We can tell an elm tree from a cabbage sprout in the garden. We can eat much more of the plant that we grow than the single part that comes to market, and we're bound to be impressed with how much biomass it takes to produce a cabbage or a leek.  

But the garden part, while it informed me and taught me so much, is extra. If you don’t have a garden, you can still get a new lens with which to see your world of vegetables.


carrottop, l


blackeyedpeas, l


reference-image, l


letus, l


kales, l