From GENE LOGSDON
As a society, we strive valiantly to get people to eat more vegetables. That always brings up a question in my mind: why don’t we have to strive valiantly to get people to eat more filet mignon, chocolate, and whipped cream? Answer: Obviously, these foods taste good while vegetables still often taste like seaweed floating in the backwaters off New Orleans. I know, I know. Vegetables can taste good too, but the fact is that more often than not, even today, they don’t live up to the good taste that they are capable of. The skill and especially the knowledge involved in coming up with a really good plate of vegetables is still rather rare and there’s no excuse for it. Small scale garden farmers can take advantage of the situation and squeeze a lot more market opportunity out of it. Most short order restaurants don’t know diddily about good-tasting vegetables because their customers don’t either, so why bother. Mass production won’t work because in many cases the vegetable, to taste really delicious, has to be harvested before it can be handled by field machines. Even pricey restaurants have a hard time getting the good stuff which is why some have started their own gardens next to their restaurants. But in most cases the demand isn’t there yet because the consumers don’t know what they are missing. Too many of us merely tolerate vegetables going back to childhood when, if we didn’t eat the stuff, we wouldn’t get dessert. We’ll pay $30 a pound for a restaurant steak quicker than they will pay half that amount for a succulently fresh salad. Just as happened with breads and beers, there needs to develop a market for specialty boutique vegetables and that means dedicated and enlightened garden farmers and cooks to spread the word.
A good case in point is shelling peas. I dare say, with quivering voice because I don’t have statistics to prove this, that four-fifths of the human race does not yet know what a really good pea tastes like. That’s because four-fifths of the people aren’t aware that peas need to be harvested before they are mature enough to fill the pod out to be really tasty. The pea must be immature— a baby yet. What most people eat when they buy commercial peas are those harvested past the optimum time. But it is more time-consuming to shell out immature peas. The compromise most gardeners adopt is to grow and eat edible pod peas and pretend that they taste just as good as shell peas because they weren’t eating the shell peas at the proper baby stage in the first place. Carol and I have quit growing edible pod peas altogether and I bet if you start eating shell peas at the right stage of immaturity, you will switch back too even though it means more work.
The same is true only even more so with lima beans. They need to be shelled out when still very young and tender. The job is sort of grueling. Takes Carol and I about 20 minutes to shell out a meal’s worth before supper, but since that’s when we relax, sip a little bourbon and discuss the day’s events, the time passes pleasantly. The plant industry has tried to solve the lima bean problem by coming up with what it calls “baby limas” but unfortunately, although they look smaller, like immature limas, they are when harvested by machine as bland and mealy as other commercial limas. Also, I learned this year that young lettuce tastes so much better than older lettuce, even though once picked there is not much difference in their appearance. Lots of progress has been made to upgrade the taste of lettuces, but even the most attractive ones in the stores do not usually compare in taste than young, freshly picked leaves straight from the garden.
Another observation that is not well known. Pole type beans of whatever kind taste better than bush types. I was pleased to see that well-known garden writer, Carol Deppe, in her new, as yet unpublished book, The Tao of Vegetable Gardening, specifically mentions Kentucky Wonder pole type string beans as being especially tasty, if cooked slowly and a bit longer than many health advocates advise. Right on, Carol. Helps if you put a ham hock in the cooking pot too.
At any rate, we shouldn’t expect school children to eat tasteless, mass-produced commercial vegetables and I predict that as more interest and more tongues are put to the challenge, better school vegetables will happen, just as has happened with meat, grains, milk, and fruit and now boutique wines, beers, and whiskeys. A whole world of new specialty “baby” vegetables are going to come on line— baby carrots have already arrived followed by baby arugula and baby brussels sprouts. Those small heads of cabbage that grow on the plant after the big head is picked are another treasure as yet mostly undiscovered. Baby peas yes, but also baby sweet corn, harvested still in the late pimply stage when it is so much more succulent than that camera-attractive stuff you see in stores and ads that has already grown too waxy for the best eating stage. And now becoming popular are squash and zucchini blossoms— can’t get a vegetable more immature than that.