David Coon is on a mission. Not exactly a Mission Impossible save-the-world mission; more of a quest. He’s out to educate others about the potential for unusual vegetables in the garden and the kitchen.
Coon, an Oregon State University Extension Service master gardener, knew he was on to something when he’d be stopped in the grocery store by shoppers fascinated by the produce he was sending through the checkstand.
“For instance, a few years ago when I could finally find fennel in the store, I would take it up to the cashier and nine times out of 10 someone would ask me what it was,” he says. “I got used to giving my spiel. I realized a lot of people don’t know about these vegetables. That’s one reason I got interested.”
The lifelong gardener became aware of what people in the United States were missing back in the 1970s when he was stationed in Germany. “I saw a lot of things that people were eating and I came back here and didn’t see any of it,” he says. “After a period of time I could see them gradually moving into the U.S. and wondered how they moved around. They’re like little ambassadors all over the world.”
As much as he can, Coon helps them on their way. He buys them, grows them and urges them on others. In that vein, he offers eight of his favorite largely unknown vegetables. Though seeds can be hard to find, a search online will pull up some sources. Some nurseries will sell starts of a few, including cardoon, kohlrabi and broccoli rabe. Try them out and see what you think.
Shishito pepper: A small, usually sweet pepper that runs around 2 inches. Perhaps one in 10 will surprise you with a little kick, but “never crying hot,” Coon says. He turns the green pepper into snacks by throwing them in a hot pan with some oil for a few seconds and then dresses them with a dash of kosher salt. The plant originally came from the Americas and was one of the first new world peppers to make it around the world, first gathered by Europeans, then passed along to the Far East. This is a warm-weather plant that does best in soil that’s about 80 degrees.
Kohlrabi: Coon’s research shows kohlrabi originating in central Asia and now popping up occasionally on grocery shelves. It looks like a bulb about the size of a baseball and tastes like a cross between cabbage and broccoli. Use it raw, sautéed, steamed, roasted or stuffed. He recommends the variety White Vienna. Kohlrabi is another cool-weather plant to put in the garden spring and fall.
Broccoli rabe or rapini: Related to turnips, rapini arrived in the United States in 1927 from Italy. It looks a little like mustard with tiny broccoli heads and features a pleasantly peppery taste. Coon has been known to sauté, braise, stir-fry and steam it, but advises not eating it raw. Plant in spring and fall.
Mache (also known as lamb's lettuce — not lamb's quarters — corn salad and field salad): This plant — related to broccoli but with small heads — has been cultivated in temperate Europe since Neolithic times, according to Coon. “I saw it when I was in Germany, but never saw it again until recently,” he says. Mache sometimes shows up in the grocery store nowadays, but then drops out of sight when it doesn’t sell. Coon thinks that should change. It’s easy to grow and tastes like sweet, nutty lettuce with no bitterness. Leaves are used in salads. Plant in spring and summer; it overwinters beautifully in much of Oregon.
Spigarello: Common in southern Italy, spigarello is related to broccoli but doesn’t form large heads. Eat the small heads, stems and curly leaves in salads, steam, sauté or throw in soup. The flavor, Coon says, is sweet and grassy, a mix of kale and broccoli. Plant in spring and fall. Frost hardy, but will die out after a freeze.
Sorrel (also called spinach dock or narrow-leaved dock): A perennial herb or salad vegetable native to Europe, western Asia and north Africa, sorrel has leaves used raw in salads or in sauces and soups. The flavor is tart and lemony with a crunch when raw. Coon said it makes a great pesto and pairs well with eggs, cream and pasta. Plant in spring for summer harvest.