Name That Vegetable
...for $200, Alex.
Growing up with a dad who didn’t cook, a working mom who did, and a fixed budget, I only knew about the vegetables that showed up on the table, usually from cans or from the freezer.
Canned green beans, corn, mushrooms, waxed beans, beets, yams. Frozen peas, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, and the ever popular vegetable medley. Garlic was in a jar in the fridge, already minced.
Lettuce was iceberg. Potatoes were Idaho. Onions were yellow.
I didn’t know about any greens except spinach.
I only heard about asparagus because my dad hated it.
The only squash I saw was zucchini and everyone used it to make bread.
One of the things that thrills me to this day is finding a new vegetable that I haven’t heard of or seen before.
I remember when this produce learning curve started, years before I started cooking.
Around the time I went to college, Mom bought this cookbook:
This book singlehandedly taught me about new/red potatoes.
A lemon horseradish new potato recipe was the gateway. I still remember Mom telling me that peeling the center of the red potatoes was a fancy way of serving them.
Our favorite though was the picnic potato salad. It’s still my go-to recipe for summer potato salad.
Gradually, I started to discover a literal cornucopia of vegetables.
(She mostly gave away the kohlrabi to Michiganders who grew up loving it. Sometimes she’d roast it or slice it for slaw.)
In culinary school, I found out about fava beans. I mean, I knew about fava beans from Dr. Lecter, but had I seen them or tasted them? Not until a chef instructor bought bushels of them and to use over and over one spring semester.
Unfortunately, the chef’s devotion to fava beans did not transfer to me. Guess who cleaned and prepped all of those fava beans? This girl. All I remember is shelling the beans, cleaning them, boiling them, and then peeling them. I think I was too resentful by that time to bother eating them.
Visiting farm markets wherever I lived or traveled acquainted me with a watercolor palette of produce.
My dad loved the everyday red radish you find at the grocery store. I had no clue there were other types until I was in my thirties. I found out about the French breakfast radish, watermelon and Easter radishes, and Daikon.
I remember the first Thanksgiving I spent with G’s family in southwestern New York. It was so different than the ones I had growing up.
G’s uncle John had been a fireman, so at the holidays the family would gather at the local fire station’s dining hall. So many relatives would come! Growing up, we had maybe six adults and two kids at the Thanksgiving table. At that New York Thanksgiving, I felt like I was at a conference with so many people milling around.
Some of the men even did the cooking! Again, this was a sight to behold after my upbringing. As a kid, I watched the women get up early or even start cooking the holiday meal the night before. The men sat in the living room and watched TV until dinner was ready. After dinner, they went back to the couches for more TV while the women cleaned the table and washed dishes.
G’s uncle John made a pureed squash side dish that was my favorite thing on the buffet table. I asked for the recipe and he described squash I’d never heard of. Because of him, I learned about buttercup squash which led to delicata which led to pattypan…
My mom made stellar salads. I don’t know what she did, maybe it was some kind of mom magic. I use the same vegetables, the same lettuce, but hers were always better.
Still, every summer Sunday, I spend some time prepping vegetables to use as salad fixins for the week. (My time spent in Tennessee requires me to use the word fixins.) I chop raw vegetables. I blanch heartier vegetables like green beans or broccoli.
Besides a big plate of salad in the summer, I’m a sucker for a tian. A tian is a Provençal dish that’s similar to ratatouille. Ratatouille is more of a stew; a tian is a layered casserole.
G doesn’t care for squash nor eggplant, so I usually make a small tian for myself. Layers or slices of squash, eggplant, and tomatoes accompanied by garlic and herbs, simply roasted in the oven. Sometimes I just eat it right out of the casserole dish with crostini. Sometimes, I boil some pasta and mix in the roasted vegetables with a dusting of parmesan.
Do you have a favorite vegetable that you can’t get enough of in the summertime? Do you find the act of shelling peas relaxing? Are you a person who just bites into a ripe tomato like an apple? Let me know!
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Thanks again for reading! I care about you. And hey, keep eating those greens.
***Written to Patty Griffin’s Silver Bell.