When I first started growing vegetables, I found myself waiting for the precise moment when my veggies looked like the stuff I'm used to seeing at the supermarket: big plump broccoli heads, lettuce grown tightly into a ball, tomatoes perfectly uniform and spotless -- all the old familiars minus the plastic packaging. While I waited, flavorful micro greens wilted and half my crop went to seed.
It turns out, supermarket aisles tend to represent a woefully limited selection of veggie varietals. When you grow your own, not only can you explore uncommon veggie species, but many plants can also be enjoyed throughout their life cycle. To truly get the most from your garden, plan on harvesting often (daily even) and cooking quite a bit.
And to make it easy for yourself at the start, whip up a Simple Garden Veggie Stock (www.simplesteps.org/recipes/ simple-garden-veggie-stock) and freeze it for use in the months to come. Read on for uncommon garden harvest opportunities from these common plants, along with tips for successful long-term storage.
If you wait for your broccoli plants to produce the large, tight bunches found at the market, you may miss the ideal harvest window for this plant, which is just before it flowers and when the individual buds are each no bigger than a match head. Depending on your sun and soil conditions, the center head on a plant can be anywhere from 1 to 6 inches across at harvest time, though equally delicious at any size. Slice the shoots off about an inch below the head. After the first harvest, the plant will usually grow fresh shoots off to the sides, often up until the first frost, though the heads will be smaller after each cut.
If you miss the prime harvest moment and your heads develop flowers, eat them anyway. The broccoli will be a touch more bitter and the flowers add an elegant and edible garnish. And don't forget the leaves, which can be prepared like any bitter green and are high in protein, calcium and vitamin A and C. Too bitter for your taste buds? Use them as one ingredient among many in a soup stock.
Storing: Ideally, fresh broccoli should be eaten within three days of harvest. Because raw broccoli needs air circulation to stay fresh, wrap it loosely in damp paper towels and refrigerate. If you must cover in plastic, poke a few holes to allow air in. For longer storage, cut florets and stalks into pieces and steam them. Immerse them in iced water to stop cooking and drain thoroughly. Store freezer safe bags or containers for up to 12 months.
No crop is more anticipated each summer than the fresh, ripe garden tomato, but in many regions, mine included, other crops will have given their second and third big harvest before the tomato plant bears any fruit. Meanwhile, few plants are as fragrant as the leaves on a tomato plant, teasing the gardener with wafts of tomato aroma while he glumly picks everything but.
That very tease sent The New York Times food science writer Harold McGee on a search in 2009 to find out why we don't eat tomato leaves. What he found were centuries of beliefs about the poisonous quality of tomato leaves, but not a lot of evidence to back them up. Part of the nightshade family, tomato leaves do contain the alkaloid tomatine, but a human adult would have to consume at least a pound of tomato leaves to reach harmful tomatine levels. In fact, some researchers have found evidence to suggest that the alkaloid helps reduce cholesterol and may even prevent cancer. In any case, tomatine is found in abundance in green tomatoes, which are widely -- and safely -- consumed.
Until more research is done, it's probably not a good idea to eat platefuls of the leaves in one sitting, but McGee recommends using them as a spice, a garnish, and as an ingredient in sauces and pestos.
Storing: If your tomatoes are ripe, store them in a cool (around 55 degrees), dry place like a cupboard, rather than in the refrigerator, which diminishes texture and flavor. Store any that aren't quite ripe in a brown paper bag at room temperature for a day or two to help ripen the fruit. Cut tomatoes should be wrapped and refrigerated, and eaten as soon as possible.
Summer squash, like the curved yellow crooknecks, flat scallop squash and zucchinis are favorites for their tender skins and mild flavor. They can grow to be quite big, but don't let them. Longer than six or eight inches, and the skins start to harden and the flesh gets bitter. Picking them early not only preserves the tender skins, but also encourages the plant to start new fruit, increasing yields.
And the higher the squash yield, the more squash blossoms bloom in the garden. The big orange flowers are as edible as they are beautiful, and provide an ideal vessel for stuffing with the filling of your choice. The blooms are the precursors to the squash fruit, and soon fall away as the squash grow. Before that happens, give them a gentle twist and they will pop right off. Pick them in the morning when they open in the direction of the sun. If you pick them after they've closed in the afternoon, you may find an insect trapped inside. After you pick them, they won't last long, so it's best to enjoy them the same day. Here's a squash blossom recipe: www.simplesteps.org/recipes/beer-tempura-goat-cheese-stuffed-squash-blossoms
Storing: Sprinkle squash blossoms with water, wrap them gently in paper towels and refrigerate before use. Squash should be stored in an airtight bag or container and refrigerated for up to five days before use. It also freezes well and can be stored this way for up to twelve months. Follow the method for freezing broccoli described above.