Chile leaves, Broccoli Stems and Pea Shoots...Expanding What we Eat

I find the ways we define ourselves by what we eat fascinating.  We do this project of self-definition both through what we DO eat and what we refuse to eat.  In Martin Jones' fascinating book _Feast: Why Humans Share Food_, he observes that our taboos about food can be so powerful that they are actively detrimental - observing that are indications that ancient peoples in coastal areas have had such a strong taboo against the ocean and fishing that they starved to death with easy access to plenty of fish.  Most of us have a powerful sense, instilled culturally, about what we do and don't consume - and we may not have thought much about it, at least until we encounter another culture's rather different assumptions.

One of the fascinating projects of cross-cultural exploration is looking in your own yard and garden and finding that there was perfectly edible, often delicious food staring you right in the face, and you never knew it was there.  In a situation of shortage, this is a critical difference, but even for the ordinary person who wants to save money, try new tastes and reduce waste, this is good, important stuff.  I was inspired to write this post by a participant in one of my classes who asked about sweet potato leaves - reminding me that we're all in different stages on the journey of discovery to make full and pleasurable use of anything in our gardens.  Most of us know already we can pickle or fry our green tomatoes and eat our turnip greens, but how many people eat rutabaga leaves (a mustard) or more unusual bits.

First, a caveat- new foods are new foods, and some people are more sensitive than others to some things. Moreover, there are a few parts of common vegetables that you should NOT eat - they are actively toxic, like rhubarb leaves.   In other cases, it is fine to eat some, but not fine to eat a huge quantity (that is true of many common foods we eat now - nutmeg, for example, is toxic in large quantities, but none of us object to its use on our eggnog.  Buckwheat greens are delicious in salads, but can cause photosensitivity in very large quantities.  So start small, work up, and make sure you know what you are eating.

Let's start with common things in your garden you might not be eating (and how best to enjoy them):

Broccoli Stems - I assumed everyone ate these until recently, but apparently not.  We use the stems in stir-fries and soups, but they make a great raw crudite if you peel the fibrous outer part. My mother likes broccoli stems better than broccoli heads.

Cabbage Wrapper leaves: The outer leaves of cabbages can be a bit on the tough side, but they are also delicious and because of their greater exposure to light, more nutritious than the inner leaves.  Sylvia Thompson's wonderful _The Kitchen Garden Cookbook_, which has a lot of recipes for bits of garden vegetables not commonly eaten in American gardens suggests

"Cabbage Wrapper leaves from Ceylon" (also good with broccoli. cauliflower and brussels sprout leaves).  Wash and thinly slice outer leaves.  Sautee 1-2 onions, 2 (or more) fresh hot chiles, 3 garlic cloves and a hunk of fresh ginger.  Sautee on high for a minute, add the slice leaves, and keep stirring.  After a couple of minutes, add a handful of unsweetened coconut, 1/4 tsp curry, salt, pepper and half a cup of water.  Simmer for a minute until leaves are tender, and devour.

Pea Shoots - This is a great option for all of us who are trying to pull together a fall garden in hot weather.  Peas are a cool weather crop, and grow beautifully in autumn, but can be tough to start in the heat of summer.  But there's no reason you can't start a crop of pea shoots when things start to cool down a bit.  Pea shoots are an expensive luxury green in China, and absolutely delicious, with a light pea flavor.  We eat them in spring as thinnings, and then in fall for the joy of it.   Snow pea shoots are traditional, but all pea shoots are yummy.   Just barely sauteed with garlic and sesame oil is perfect!

Lettuce that has started to bolt: The chinese cook lettuce, and I find that partly bolted lettuce (before a seed stalk has formed) is perfect for strong flavored sautees like lettuce with fermented black bean paste (a recipe I've modified a little from Eileen Yin-Fei Lo's wonderful book _From the Earth: Chinese Vegetarian Cooking_.    Heat oil in a wok or cast iron pan, and sautee ginger and garlic to taste for 2 minutes.  Add chunks of lettuce (not individual leaves), stir fry for one minute, and add a sauce made of  equal parts oyster sauce (we use the vegetarian mushroom version, since oyster sauce is not kosher), Shao-hsing wine, toasted sesame oil and black bean paste.  Turn off heat, and add sugar and chile oil to taste.

Sweet potato leaves are delicious, and eaten over most of the African continent.  This is great for me because in some cool years (not this one!) I get more leaves than I do actual sweet potatoes. It is also good because sweet potato leaves will grow over winter in a pot, even in fairly low light conditions, so can provide a welcome fresh home-grown green in a hanging pot in your window all winter.  I like this recipe for them quite a lot.  But also use them wherever I might use greens in soup or stir fry.  They are tasty and mild.

Chile pepper leaves aren't that mild - they  have a stronger (and quite delicious) flavor that is almost herbal - in a nice way.  This is one you might want to know something about- some varieties may be mildly toxic.  We learned to enjoy them from our Filipino neighbors in Lowell MA years ago, though, and have experienced no ill effects - nor did our neighbors who have been eating them their whole lives.  C. Frutesca and C. Arbol are definitely edible, so know what you are getting.  Tinola is the way I first learned to make them.  I have not yet tried drying them and making them korean style, but I'm sure going to!

Okra leaves make an amazing thickener - they have the same high fiber glutinous qualities of okra, without the sliminess some people find objectionable (I love okra meself.)  I find them to be most useful dried and added in small quantities - fresh, you have to be careful with how much you add.  I have heard that too many okra leaves can be constipating, so eat them with things that aren't.

Squash seeds  and vine tips- Not everyone knows that you can eat all squash seeds, just like pumpkin seeds, but you can, and should.  That's something you can do with monster zucchinis and any kind of winter squash.  We like them roasted with cumin, garlic powder and dried chipotle.  The Hmong use the tender vine tips of winter squashes (if you do this with summer squashes, you'll drastically reduce production), and the last few inches of the vine after a leaf are peeled, chopped and used in stir-fries.

I don't need to mention that squash blossoms are delicious right?  We stuff them with homemade goat cheese and bake them, or use them in risotto.  Yum!

Radish leaves, flowers and pods: There is a variety of radish (rat tail) grown specifically for its tasty pods, and these are great (I like them better than the radish roots, actually, and I do like radishes),  but any bolted radish is edible.  The leaves are best when small and tender- don't dump them when you pull spring and fall radishes.  Once they start to bolt, add the flowers to salads, or wait, and make pods for yummy, spicy stir fries.  They are also great in kimchi.

Not a true natural part of a vegetable, I have never had corn smut myself , but I'd love try Huitlacoche, the corn fungus that is a well known Mexican delicacy.   The area I live in tends to be too wet to promote it, but if you are lucky enough to have some, enjoy!

Remember, there's a lot more food in your garden than you may think!


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I planted a horseradish root that had started growing while in my crisper drawer in the fridge, and have discovered that the leaves are edible, and with a hint of the fire of the root. I've been adding the greens to mixed vegetable sautees, a handful or so at a time, and it's great.

I love horseradish leaves! When they are young, they are fabulous on sandwiches, and later, great in stir-fries. Garlic scapes too. I should do another post on this subject - I left out artichoke stems as well!

I just started dehydrating the big brassica leaves, on the principle that if you can dry kale leaves and powder them for smoothies and such, you ought to be able to do it with the others too. Seems such a waste to only eat the broccoli flower sprouts, or the kohlrabi baseball!

By Kevin Wilson (not verified) on 23 Aug 2012 #permalink

My Italian grandmother used to fry squash blossoms with a bit of parmesan cheese, and serve them for breakfast, with eggs. Ate them myself, for years, sometimes stuffed first, but somehow I'd forgotten that this summer. Thanks for the memory.
Good to know about the sweet potato leaves; am trying to grow sweet potatoes for the first time this year.
Everyone knows about rapini, too, don't they? All those bolting cole crops in late spring are excellent food.

I too love broccoli stems more than the heads. I wish I had read the last bit about radishes last week! I threw a great bunch of them out! :( Boo hoo!

By Anisa/The Lazy… (not verified) on 23 Aug 2012 #permalink

My high-summer greens mostly failed, so I've been eating more of the weeds, especially lambs quarter, purslane and wild sorrel. If anyone knows of a way to eat sedge, then I'll be in great shape!

By Andy Brown (not verified) on 23 Aug 2012 #permalink

I have three books which are directly relevant here - they would be very useful for anyone looking to enlarge her/his gardening, cooking, and eating repertoire:

1. 'The World in Your Kitchen', by Troth Wells - Wells has a few more recent books along this line, which look interesting, too, but I've not seen them. I have a copy of 'The World in Your Kitchen' so I can recommend it.

2. 'Global Gardening', by Hank Bruce and Tomi Jill Folk - this one is of most use to those in warm climates - Florida, Alabama, and the like. But it's of some use even to those who live in cold areas.

3. And of course: 'Perennial Vegetables: From Artichokes to Zuiki Taro, A Gardener's Guide to Over 100 Delicious and Easy to Grow Edibles', by Eric Toensmeier .

4. (Yes, I know I said three....) 'Plants for a Future: Edible & Useful Plants for a Healthier World' by Ken Fern and Joy Larkcom. A must-read and probably, a must-own as wel!.

Amazon has them all.



By Pat Meadows (not verified) on 23 Aug 2012 #permalink

I love sweet potato greens--I've also seen them called boniato. Sautéed in a little olive oil with some salt is good enough for me.

Just wanted to say I am really enjoying your more or less once a week posting. I used to gobble your posts and look for more without digesting them, now I savour each one.

ps I prefer daikon tops to roots

By southernrata (not verified) on 23 Aug 2012 #permalink

Whenever I go hunting for boletes after a rain, my colleagues all worry that we will die from eating mushrooms we picked ourselves. Does everyone know that the new growth of green brier is not just edible, but tasty? Strangely, the one time I've been faintly poisoned from eating wild plant was at a relative's house, who told me that he had heard the berries from a bush I didn't know was edible. I ate one. It didn't taste bad. But my lips turned numb for a half hour. I'll pass on it from now on.

I know the subject at hand here has to do with eating parts of plants in our gardens that we might not think of eating, as opposed to wild foraging, but I'd add just the same that some of the weeds in our gardens are pretty decent greens. I personally like lemon sorrel and purslane. Both add zest to most salads. Purslane in particular is enjoyed worldwide, outside of the US.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 23 Aug 2012 #permalink

I live with people from other cultures coming here to teach or study at the local university. I watch them stir fry lettuce or wash every fruit and vegetable with salt and then water. Or the young guy who knew how to fit my various bread pans together for a perfect bain marie even before I got out of bed to get coffee one morning. I love watching as I learn so much of their little methods, and ask questions, and sometimes beg for a taste. I cook zucchini brownies, chilli, spaghetti in return...

As a side note: I too am loving your once a week posts. It's more calming for me, I don't feel so behind and as your'e one of my favorite writers.... :D

I also got your book in the mail this last weekend, in the middle of canning tomatoes. I have one note. Your book freaked me out but something. If I count how many people my house could hold, not counting children on the floor, and JUST counting full-size or larger beds with two adults, plus japanese style futon on the floor in rooms with doors for privacy I count 18 people!! There is NO way I can store enough food to feed 18 people, much less water!! I can't even imagine the bathroom situation at that point...

So yeah, coming to grips with that picture. Or not coming to grips at all. :D

This year all my allotment really wants to grow is stinging nettle (we've had a *very* wet 'summer' & therefore slugaggedon), so I've just gone with it and started eating stinging nettles. Fortunately the family are all very fond of Nettle Oatcakes

KiwiRach, please could you share the recipe for nettle oatcakes? I've used nettles as a herb for many years in soups & stews, and regularly go down to the local riverbank & "harvest" young shoots to pop into my dehydrator; I'm most intrigued by the idea of using them for other dishes, or even frying them up as crisps - or chips, to our cousins in the US.

BTW, tall nettles also make a good spinning fibre when stripped, aka "ramie" - many army uniforms were woven from nettle in WW2.

Hazel & dandelion leaves make good salad greens in Spring, and I've heard - but never tried - that burdock roots and even bindweed roots are good in stir-fries. Not that I want to encourage bindweed...

nettle oatcakes -- we ate them at homeschool outdoor cooking event and then I conjured a recipe by combining several I could find on line. I cook a punnet of nettles in a little water in a covered pan until they're all limp and they don't sting any more. Let them cool and remove stalks and chop finely. In a bowl mix equal quantities of rolled oats and oatmeal, say 1.5Cups of each and about a cup of sunflower oil. Add about a cup of grated cheese and a few tablespoons of boiling water and the nettles. Form into small balls and pop on a baking tray, flatten somewhat and bake for 15-20minutes at about 200C / Gas Mark 6. They're a bit crumbly, but great with a slice of cheese and a glass of cider :-)

Huitlacoche soup is absolutely delicious - had it a few times when we were living in Mexico. Taste is closest to some sort of wild mushroom (much tastier than commercially grown ones), with a hint of corn in there.

One of my favorite garden vegetables is collard flowers. In fact, I raise collards mainly just to get the flowers. (Of course, I also eat the greens after there is a frost.) Cut off the entire flower stalk down to the first large leaves just before the flower buds open. They are best steamed.

I have also eaten corn smut. It is delicious -- like a combination of mushrooms and corn.