Want to know a simple trick that will allow almost any veggie grower instantly to double their harvest with little or no extra effort? Well, hiding in plain sight there are a whole range of fantastically flavorful crops that we walk past unawares, borne on the very same plants we tend to every day.
You see, many fruit and veggie plants produce more than one edible part, yet we scandalously often eat the least flavorful, high-value bits and chuck the tastiest morsels on the compost heap. It’s like throwing away the cereal and eating the box!
In this section, I reveal the secret bounty of overlooked harvests that are just as edible, if not downright more delicious, than the parts we know and love. Introducing my ultimate edible multitaskers…
The beautiful, butter-yellow male flowers of squash plants may never turn into fruit like their female counterparts, but that does not mean they have no merits to the greedy grower. They have an irresistible egglike flavor much like that of yellow zucchini. The great news is that by harvesting just the male flowers you can gather as many as you want without denting your harvest of the fruits, as zucchini are borne only on the female flowers.
Black Currant Leaves Ribes Nigrum
Packed with up to five times the aroma compounds that give the berries their unique herby fragrance, black currant leaves have been used for centuries in all sorts of recipes to amp up the flavor of their fruit.
When infused into hot syrups or cream, either teamed up with black currants or on their own, the leaves form the basis of some of the best sorbets, ice creams and custards imaginable. Picked young and shredded into fine confetti, the leaves also impart their incredible blackberry-meets-bay leaf aroma to fruit salads, salsas and marinades for fish and chicken.
Want to know the best part? The ideal time to prune black currant bushes is just after harvesting the fruit, meaning that you will have plenty of leaves on hand just as you need them the most.
Turnip & Beet Tops
If you have ever wondered what those fancy-looking cima di rapa in little, beautifully designed jars of oil in Italian delis are — well, I have news for you. They are simply chopped, fried turnip leaves. These pleasantly bitter, slightly peppery leaves are cut off young turnips that are harvested as trendy “baby” veggies and used like an ultra-refined cabbage. Fulfilling the continental love of bitter flavors, they are prized in Spain, Italy, France and Greece, where they are wilted and served with pasta, fried and served with polenta and sliced sausage, stirred into egg dishes and stuffed into sandwiches. I love them tossed into orecchiette pasta, with orange rind, crumbly Wensleydale cheese, olive oil and a squirt of lemon juice to balance out their earthy bitterness. Radish leaves can be used in a very similar way.
Although barely heard of nowadays, beet leaves were the first part of the plant to be eaten, centuries before anyone thought of breeding the new-fangled varieties with swollen, sweet, “superfood” roots. Packed with even more phytonutrients than the roots themselves, the leaves taste much like their close relative the chard and can be used in all the same ways. They are particularly delicious chopped into creamy coconut vegetable curries or stirred into clear chicken broths. I love the variety “Bull’s Blood,” which kicks out plenty of lush, intensely red leafy greens atop sugary-sweet, non-earthy tasting roots.
Across Latin America, Asia, Africa and the Mediterranean the young tendrilly tips of all pumpkins (as well as trailing zucchini and winter squashes) are harvested and eaten as a much-loved green vegetable. In fact, it seems the only people who haven’t cottoned onto their charms are we in the West! With a pleasant nutty flavor, like a hybrid between spinach, asparagus and stem broccoli, the young leaves have a satisfying juicy crunch with no hint of bitterness.
A world away from murky brown spinach, these leaves keep their vibrant color and firm texture when cooked, with their cute whorls of whiplike tendrils tasting as good on the palate as they look on the plate. In Korea and Japan they are usually stir-fried or gently steamed and topped with spiced chili oil, shards of slivered ginger and a splash of rice wine. In West Africa they are chopped and stirred through rich coconut-cream sauces or in a béchamel flavored with a touch of ground peanuts, while in the Mediterranean they are blanched and added to salads and omelettes. Snipping back the tips of the rampant sprawling plants even helps keep them from devouring your garden in mid-summer, so it is win-win all round!
Hardneck varieties of garlic (Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon) not only produce much more flavorful, nutrient-rich (not to mention expensive!) bulbs than the softneck types (Allium sativum) so beloved of supermarkets, but as a nifty bonus they also throw out garlic scapes. To me, these deliciously nutty, edible flower buds make for far more interesting eating than the bulbs themselves.
Harvested as an early summer treat before the buds burst, these edible flowers are one of the truly elegant garden veggies, up there with artichokes, spring peas and asparagus — but with a more complex flavor than any of those. The stem portion has the meaty crunch of asparagus and a similar irony, “green” flavor, but with an added chivelike sweetness. The tightly closed flowers at the tips, on the other hand, have the texture of broccoli and a similar nutty bite, making this vegetable a real all-rounder.
I like to cook and serve the scapes just like asparagus, steamed and dressed with fresh hollandaise. They are popular grilled, sautéed and served with pasta, but are probably at their very best sliced, flash-fried in butter and added to creamy scrambled eggs. It is important to remember, however, that most scapes are produced by hardneck varieties of garlic, not softneck types. These will be clearly marked next to the variety name in all good catalogs, nurseries and garden centers.
Broad Bean Tops
If you are an avid grower of broad beans you will know that all gardening books tell you to pinch off the top 21⁄2 inches (7 cm) of the plants once the beans begin to form. The removal of these uppermost leaves hastens the development of the pods, making for an earlier harvest, while also greatly reducing the risk of a pest called blackfly that can infest the young, tender growth later in the season. However, no one ever seems to mention that these soft, succulent leaves make great eating and are in fact a delicacy in northern Spain.
With a sweet, fresh broad bean flavor and delicious fleshy crunch, they are wonderful either raw in leafy green salads or cooked as a green. Having the added virtue of being one of the earliest leaf crops each spring, they are lovely flash-fried in garlic and unfiltered olive oil, stirred into wild mushroom risottos and even scattered over pizza with black olives and lardons just before popping them in the oven. Try them wilted in a salad with toasted pecans, chicory and blood oranges for an early spring treat.
Reprinted with Permission from Grow For Flavor: Tips and Tricks to Supercharge the Flavor of Homegrown Harvests by James Wong and Published by Firefly Books, 2016.