Getting into a veggie rut? It’s easy this time of year, when the pickings for local food are still pretty slim. Asparagus and spinach are tasty, but they can get old after a few weeks. Try some fiddleheads instead! Or swap out your standard spinach for a New Zealand variety. We dug up 6 of the most unusual, and healthiest, vegetables you’ve never heard of—so eat up!
If you love weird-looking vegetables, you’ll love fiddleheads, the tender young coiled forms of fern fronds that unfurl as a fern matures. Similar to asparagus in taste, the curlicued greens have a nutty, slightly bitter flavor and can be used just as you would asparagus or asparagus tips. Most fiddlehead aficionados recommend eating them the day you buy them, as their flavor diminishes quickly. Their short, fleeting season lasts for just a few weeks in early May, so grab them while you can! (Note: Buy your fiddleheads from a reputable market grower. If you plan to harvest your own, do some research first, as some fiddleheads may be toxic and improper harvesting may kill the plant.) For cooking ideas, the University of Maine has some suggestions.
Photo: Mitch Mandel
New Zealand Spinach
Spinach is one of the best, healthiest crops to peek above ground in spring. Unfortunately, its love for cold nights and mild days means it doesn’t grow past May. That’s when you should start looking for New Zealand spinach. A warm-weather cousin of the regular stuff, New Zealand, or ‘Maori’, spinach will start appearing in stores and farmers’ markets just when local spinach disappears. And it grows all summer, so you can get all the iron, calcium, and vitamin K of regular spinach when that crop is out of season.
Photo: (cc) John Tann/flickr
People who love garlic will love garlic scapes, the long green tendrils that shoot out of garlic plants around mid-June. With a milder flavor than pure garlic, scapes have been described by some foodies as a garlic lover’s nirvana. Because their flavor is so mild, you can use them in everything from scrambled eggs to pesto without drowning your food in pungent, garlicky aroma. You can even eat them whole as you would green beans. Belonging to the garlic family, they also provide all the same benefits as those aromatic cloves: helping to prevent heart disease, cancer, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure, and even warding off infections.
Photo: (cc) Eli Duke
Salty with a slightly briny aftertaste, sea beans taste like what they sound like. They belong to the Salicornia family of plants that grow wild along salt marshes and seashores, although a number of farmers are starting to cultivate them. Eat them raw to enjoy their salty flavor, or blanch them and treat them just as you would green beans. Keep an eye out for them at farmers’ markets or at gourmet grocers, but keep in mind they’ll cost you a pretty penny. Even though they were referred to as “poor man’s asparagus” in the past, Earthy.com sells them for $14.99 per pound.
Photo: (cc) John Herschell/flickr
Can’t find any oysters at the seafood counter? Grab some scorzonera instead. Originally from the Mediterranean, this root vegetable has a distinctive oysterlike flavor that diminishes quickly once it’s harvested. So keep an eye out for it at farmers’ markets and eat it the day you buy it. The roots are great sources of calcium and iron and can even be tossed into a mock oyster stew. But the best way to eat it is either roasted or sautéed in a little butter. Boil the roots first, which makes it easier to remove the skin; then drizzle them with olive oil and roast them or sauté them in butter. A lot of European chefs recommend serving scorzonera with some sour cream on the side.
Photo: Christa Neu
Anyone who suffers from seasonal allergies needs to stock up on stinging nettle while it’s in season, which is now. Iron-rich and loaded with vitamin C, the leaves also contain histamine, the chemical your body produces during an allergic reaction. So eating it helps you build up your body’s immunity. But more than just a medicinal aid, stinging nettle will add a peppery zip to any dish with greens. Use it as you might use spinach, but always blanch the leaves first to get rid of the chemicals in the plant that cause it to sting you (by the same token, always handle raw leaves with gloves on). Try them in this Wild Greens Risotto.
Photo: (cc) brew books/flickr
Continue reading: How to find the best local food.