Getting smarter about vegetables

‘Vegetable Literacy’

March 18, 2013

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

There are 8 comments on this item
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1. by vintagejenta on Mar 19, 2013 at 8:35 AM PDT

So, if rhubarb is in the knotweed family, is it related to Japanese knotweed? And could planting it where Japanese knotweed grows crowd it out? Just curious.

I like that you grouped the veggies by biological family - makes it so much more interesting!

2. by Deborah Madison on Mar 19, 2013 at 11:45 AM PDT

It is in the same family (Polygonaceae) and it is considered an invasive weed, as you seem to know from experience. It has some interesting names:Donkey rhubarb,German Sausage and Hancock’s curse among them. As to whether rhubarb will grow in its place, I think that depends on things like soil, water, shade, sun and other such factors. I don’t know where you are, but you can look up rhubarb and see if it would fit with your conditions. I think I might start with that. Good luck!

3. by Deborah Madison on Mar 19, 2013 at 11:50 AM PDT

Also - the Department of Ag. in California has some tips on getting rid of it. Sounds like it’s a tough one because it spread via rhizomes.

4. by vintagejenta on Mar 20, 2013 at 11:04 AM PDT

It was growing in shade in sandy/poor soil on the west side of our garage. So probably not ideal conditions for rhubarb (I live in the Hudson Valley of NY).

As for getting rid of it - I find the most effective way is to wait for a very wet day and very carefully pull it up by the roots, trying to get as many of the rhizomes as you can. It won’t get rid of it entirely, but it does seem to drastically reduce its spread and proliferation. Especially since Round-Up (which I hate, but we have a lot of climbing poison ivy) seems to have no effect on it.

Any that comes up this spring I am going to try to pay attention to so I can get it in the edible “rhubarb”/"asparagus” stage before it leafs out and eat it!

5. by Deborah Madison on Mar 20, 2013 at 2:18 PM PDT

That sounds as vicious as kudzu! Sounds like what you’re doing is pretty much
the way to battle it into submission of some sort. Rhubarb should do well in your area. It likes a challenge. Good luck!

6. by Lauretus lauretus on Mar 24, 2013 at 12:18 PM PDT

The best way to get your own back on Japanese Knotweed seems to be to eat it! I’ve never tried it myself, but several sources suggest it is apparently edible, including.... :-)

7. by Lauretus lauretus on Mar 24, 2013 at 2:03 PM PDT

Great article, by the way, thank you. If anyone’s interested, a really good book for learning plant families, including their shared herbal and edible qualities, is ‘Botany in a Day: the patterns method of plant identification’ by Thomas Elpel. I thoroughly recommend it!

8. by Deborah Madison on Mar 24, 2013 at 4:39 PM PDT

Indeed, “Botany in a Day” was one of my valued sources. It’s an excellent, concise book - glad your brought it up!

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Deborah Madison, the celebrated cookbook author and local-food advocate, feeds us with her occasional reflections. Her latest book is Vegetable Literacy.

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