You are what you eat. The cuisine you’re familiar with can be defined by the culture you were born into, the region you’re from – even the supermarket where you shop. Luckily, the rise of farmer’s markets and the resurgence of backyard gardening in recent years have expanded our horizons at the dinner table, providing us with access to a variety of veggies that might not make the cut at the local grocery store (usually for shelf life reasons). Experimenting with some lesser-known vegetables – and getting creative with some more common varieties! – can be a fun way to go beyond the norm and shake up your palate.
Did you know you can substitute broccoli leaves for kale in any recipe? Or that you can use nasturtiums to add a kick to salads? Many familiar veggie, herb and plant parts are edible but usually pitched because we’re not used to utilizing the whole plant. Using these lesser-known plant parts (often routinely used in other cultures) requires some basic knowledge of plant anatomy.
Common Plant Parts (And How We Eat Them)
- Roots: beets, radishes, carrots
- Stems: celery, asparagus, rhubarb
- Leaves: spinach, lettuce, swiss chard
- Flowers: broccoli, cauliflower, artichokes
- Fruits: peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes
- Seeds: snap peas, sunflower seeds, and peanuts
Thinking outside the box when it comes to leafy greens is a good way to start to change your mindset about the parts of a veggie you consider edible. Many leaves from the common veggies in the list above are perfectly tasty and work great in some favorite spring and summer dishes:
- Broccoli Leaves. A perfect substitute for collard greens, broccoli leaves carry a slight broccoli flavor. Broccoli belongs to the Brassicaceae family that also houses kale, collards and cabbage. To get the most out of your broccoli plants, harvest in the early spring on young plants when the leaves are tender. Use them as you would kale or collards in any of your favorite dishes.
- Radish Greens. One of the most underrated, fast-growing edible leaves. Radish greens carry a subtle radish flavor – which is great for diners who don’t care for the punch of spicy radishes but still want to incorporate this versatile plant into the garden. Harvest these well before a radish develops for delicate leaves and don’t be afraid to use in place of basil for a killer spring pesto.
- Sweet Potato Leaves. In many parts of the world, sweet potato leaves are a staple on the dinner plate. This nutrient-packed, protein-rich leaf tastes similar to spinach and can be used as you would any tender green.
- Sweet Pea Shoots and Leaves. Commonly found in Asian cooking, sweet pea shoots are fast-growing and tender – sometimes, peas are strictly grown for their shoots. Use raw shoots in salads or sauté for a slightly nutty flavor and serve over rice. Clip 4 to 5 inches of the top shoot when plants are young or still putting on growth for the most succulent tendrils.
Flowers and herb parts also have lots of unconventional uses in the kitchen. The strong essential oils in many garden herbs and some types of flowers can add a bright, fresh flavor to seasonal dishes or be preserved and used as kitchen staples.
- Nasturtiums. Typically regarded as an ornamental plant and sometimes a weed, nasturtiums (tropaeolum majus) can be used for its edible flowers and leaves. This fast-growing vine with circular leaves produces a peppery flavor due to high concentrations of mustard oils in the leaves. Use sparingly to brighten up a salad or add a kick to garden pesto and sauces.
- Herb-Infused Vinegars. These sound like something you’d find in an ultra-expensive restaurant – but infused oils are extremely easy and cheap to make at home. Use in marinades and dressings or on raw tomatoes for a tasty snack straight from the garden. For simple herb vinegars, use the flower blossoms from chives, thyme, basil or oregano. Use a small saucepan and warm your favorite vinegar over medium heat to a simmer. Fill a jar with your flower blossoms of choice and pour the warm vinegar over them. Let the oil steep out of direct sunlight for two weeks, then get creative with it in the kitchen!
By no means is this an exhaustive list – there’s a host of edibles in the garden that we don’t typically use in their entirety. Whole use of garden plants takes a little creativity, a willingness to explore new flavors and a little garden know-how. Try these beginner secondary vegetables and see how you can get the most out of your garden this season by exploring new flavors and textures from your garden.