A growing number of American farmers are sharpening their plant research and botany skills in an attempt to resurrect long-lost vegetable and fruit varieties. All of which is exciting news to adventurous farmers market consumers — including more than a few professional chefs — who are learning to seek out the “odd” bin in hopes of discovering something new. What’s inspiring this revival? Equal parts capitalism and curiosity, as it turns out. The marketplace is more competitive, so farmers need to introduce new products to satisfy their loyal customers. Many of them also turn to restaurant chefs in an “if I grow it, will you buy it?” arrangement. Ultimately, everyone wins, even the environment, which benefits from increased biodiversity.
If your summer menus are feeling stale, try adding some of these oddball and heirloom plants that are growing in popularity across the nation.
PURSLANE: Extremely high in omega-3 fatty acids, this tangy and delicious leafy green can be eaten raw, ideally when its leaves are tiny, and can withstand sautéing and even grilling as the plant matures.
STINGING NETTLES: While it’s necessary to wear gloves when trimming, nutritious nettles offer a delicate spinach-like flavor. For a simple summertime entrée, sauté a handful briefly with garlic and olive oil, and serve under or over grilled fish, with a light drizzle of vinaigrette.
CROSNE: Also called Chinese artichoke, crosne was popular in Europe in the early 1900s and is slowly catching on here. This strange-looking vegetable tastes a bit like a sunchoke.
EGGPLANT: With playful names like Fairy Tale, Cloud Nine, Kermit, Zebra, Neons, Millionaire, Ichiban, and Rosa Bianca, tiny eggplants are wonderful when grilled whole and served antipasto-style with a sprinkle of olive oil and sea salt. Or, toss the grilled eggplant in a food processor with a bit of olive oil for a versatile baba-ganoush-type spread.
CHILES: Immigrant Mexican farmers are bringing their knowledge of peppers, not all of which are hot, to the United States. Look for mild, miniature peppers the size and shape of a jalapeño, in red and yellow and orange. Try stuffing them with a perky ceviche after roasting the pepper and removing the skin.
WATERMELON: Last, you can’t beat the watermelon for a summertime favorite. If you’re lucky, you can find a small, flavorful yellow variety to turn heads at your next picnic.