Another Kind of Baby Food



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.


I planted way too many string beans this year, because I expected low germination from 8 year old seed. I picked as many as I could of the very small beans, and they were sweet, aromatic, and delicious. Then I picked the big ones [roma type – Greencrop] and they were strong and meaty, though not as tasty. They squeak when we bite into them. Then I picked lots of small shell beans, which were difficult to shell, but they were the most buttery beans I have ever eaten. Next were the large shell beans which had almost no flavor, but were firm and mealy for soup. They came the dry beans – several pounds of them, which are pulpy and good for refried beans rather than firm baked. We got 5 different good crops from one planting of beans. Sometimes preparation matters, too.

You are so right about cafes not being interested in buying good vegetables because their customers don’t notice. Their taste buds are dead. Killed by the industrialisation of farming. We grow tomatoes with flavour and it is hard to get the attention of even the most top end restaurants.

Amen Gene.
I’ve managed to lose twenty pounds this year eating mainly garden fresh vegetables coupled with home grown meat and/or that porcine derived health food “bacon”. I’ve tried to eat store bought beets but they taste like dirt, unlike the sweet well-colored gems fresh from the garden.

I’m finding that lots of folks don’t believe that fertilizing vegetables with manure pack and adequate watering if rain doesn’t suffice coupled with just minutes from garden to kitchen preparation can make vegetables taste wonderful. However once they actually taste such produce, it can be an almost religious experience albeit gustatory in nature. Please keep spreading the good word about garden farming. It truly can change the world for the better.

What a coincidence! I officially celebrated Baby Cabbage Day last week at work by bringing in the little baby cabbages that grew after I harvested the main head. I’d have eaten the babies myself, but I’m still working on the big ones. By the way, you don’t need to cut an X in the top of the stalk to get them to grow – just cut the head off leaving behind as much stalk as you can and (maybe) take off the top few leaves.

We’ve switched to heirloom veggies. Having grown both types I would have to say heirloom is the way to go! The flavor is phenomenal!! Give them a try!

We used to grow ‘King of the Garden’ pole Lima beans up a trellis on the south side of the house and they were fantastic but a pain to shell out. We tried vegetable soybeans and have found them even better, provided you process then within 30 minutes of picking. They too are somewhat tedious to shell after boiling a bit, but the flavor is exceptionally sweet. Mixed with sweet corn off the cob with a bit of sweet butter is my favorite. Edible podded peas are ok but don’t try using them as shell peas – I did and they aren’t anything like good Lincoln or Green Arrow peas.
It’s good to see more interest in good vegetables in restaurants, but nothing beats fresh from the garden. Those of us who ‘farm’ are very blessed.

My first food memory is of fresh picked shell peas simmered in still warm Guernsey cream at my Great -aunt,s Genesee Valley farm. We grow both shell and sugar pod peas. Different uses for each.

Rattlesnake pole beans are what graces our tepees and table. My wife feels that they are the best, especially when gently steam and then smothered in a sweet and sour bacon sauce.

Younger is better is true when eating fresh vegetables. Mature stores better. Carrots are a good example. My late Father-in-law would dig the last of his carrots for the Easter feast. They were much sweeter than in the Fall and mid-winter.

We have found that roasted vegetables are more palatable to our nephews than boiled. They ask for cauliflower and Brussels Sprouts after a visit from my vegetable bearing wife some years back. It is all in the preparation.

Enjoy the last of the Summer garden as we transition into Autumn.

Add tomatoes to the list if a person has only eaten supermarket tomatoes they haven’t eaten a good one.Timeliness also is a big factor with good vegetables,sweet corn needs to be eaten within 30 minutes from the time it was picked.McCaslin pole green beans are also one of the most tasty and the seed mostly comes from Heirloom seed companies and like you said cooked with a cured ham hock.The only way to really be able to eat good these days is to grow or slaughter the food ones self in my opinion..

I had scarlet runners as “green beans” recently- they were wonderful! More substantial in a way. There does seem to be a trend towards the unique and heirloom veggies in restaurants lately, where they really do give veggies a major spot on a plate, not just a side dish. Tonight we’re having lard-fried garlic pureed in pinto beans, with pork tongue tacos. I didn’t grow the beans, but I did raise/grow everything else!

Also, Gene, I wanted to tell you I raised 3 baby beef this year, after reading your thoughts about it in the Contrary Farmer. Pastured veal is absolutely delicious, and what dear animals they were to raise as my first intro to cattle. We harvested at 12 weeks, they would watch me milk my goat and moo, waiting for their bottles. Now beef prices have hit a crazy high, even dairy bull calves are going for insane amounts, so I’m not sure we can make it work to raise them again this coming year. We paid $50 a piece in the early spring, but now they are going for upwards of $500. I would LOVE to read your thoughts about the beef market going on right now.

…and just-picked-after-the-frost kale!!

We have to harvest our sweet corn early or the raccoons will do it for us.

My wife and I have converted a number of “I hate peas” teenagers into lovers of real fresh shelled peas. We’ll leave the limas to you as a conosewer. You probably like favas, too. There is an exception to the young/barely mature rule. Chantennay carrots get better as they get bigger. As with some people people, older can be better.

Gene, I don’t know who I quoted more in my book The Local Yolk, you or Wendell Berry, but one quote I remember specifically is your comment that few people have seen “a healthy egg” before (i.e., one with an orange yolk). I thoroughly enjoyed Michael Pollan’s latest book, Cooked, but was afraid getting into it that he would emphasize only the contribution of cooking technique to the quality of taste, and not the raw material itself. He does, to his credit, mention a small movement towards pastured pork from industrial CAFO pork in his chapter on barbecue. And there are other references. But this topic you hit on today should be a book all its own. Organic farmers have gotten into the habit of defending their product only with reference to the avoidance of chemicals. Local growers should not fall into the same trap. TASTE is the ultimate marketing tool. For too long the sustainable food movement has been associated with asceticism. Ridiculous! We should be competing on flavor, not just health and environmental benefits (as important and substantial as they both are).

Thanks as always for your decades of inspirational thinking and writing.

You are so right. My two grandchildren will not eat any vegetables that “papaw” does not grow and can or freeze. They are 7 and 10 years old and will fight over my homemade sauerkraut. My grandson last Christmas wanted to go with his dad to get a cucumber for a dish he was making at our house. He ran out the door and around the house only to realize my garden was plowed up. He came back in crying and told his dad he did not want to go to the store to get a cucumber. To say the least I make sure my grandkids get all the fresh vegetables they can eat. Hopefully they will some day carry on the tradition.

I purposely put up more than we need and give away much of my produce in hopes of more people planting and harvesting their own vegetables. I give away scores of tomato and pepper plants you can not buy at the local stores. It is just astounding how may people have no idea what fresh vegetables taste like.

You’re talkin’ down my alley, now, Gene. Nothing like fresh … PICKED AT THE RIGHT TIME … veggies from the garden. I’m a horrible pea-picker. I always wait too long…. Same with lima beans. Gave up because I just can’t find that “magic” moment to pick. I do, however, have to disagree with sugar snap peas. We grow Super Sugar Snap. And the trick with them is … don’t pick them too soon! They really, really, honestly (trust me) have to be nice and plump before you pick them. I’m always tempted to pick them too early because they look pretty good to me … BUT … for really sweet snap peas, let them fill out just a bit more. We were going to bring you a head of buttercrunch … might it be too old? 😉

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