Six surprisingly delicious, healthy edible plants from your 'secret' garden
You won't find these edibles on a greengrocer's shelf. Gardening expert Jane Griffiths shares her top picks, and how to use them in your dishes...
One of the joys of growing my own food is discovering the hidden surprises my garden provides — secret edibles seldom found on a greengrocer's shelves. Another benefit of putting the effort into growing edibles is the reluctance to waste any part of them; many surprising plant parts are unexpectedly delicious and healthy.
Too often gardeners remove mustard, broccoli, tatsoi and pak choi plants when they go to seed. However, unlike bitter bolting lettuce, these buds are delicious steamed until tender or quickly stir-fried. And if you do forget to harvest them, the small yellow flowers are yum in salads, wraps and sandwiches.
Many herbs and vegetables have edible flowers, which add unique flavour to salads and desserts or can be frozen in ice cubes for use in drinks. I used to ignore recipes for squash blossoms, thinking I was destroying a potential squash fruit for every blossom eaten. Then I discovered that only the female flowers produce fruit. Male flowers can be eaten as long as four or five remain on the plant to pollinate. If you look inside the blossom the difference is obvious: the male blossoms, which appear first, have a straight stem and single stamen. The female flowers, which follow about a week later, have a distinct bulge just below the flower and inside you will see a far more complicated pistil with four parts.
Flowers from all summer squash (zucchini, patty pan, gem squash etc.) are edible. Squash flowers are delicious stuffed with herb-flavoured cream cheese or ricotta. Eat these raw or dip in batter and fry until crispy. Or simply tear them into strips and add to pasta and salads.
LEAVES OF ROOT VEGETABLES
Although these are often chopped off and tossed (hopefully into the compost!), the leaves of turnips, sweet potatoes, beetroot, carrots, radishes, parsnips and more are edible, particularly when harvested young. Bigger leaves (such as beetroot and radish) can be cooked the same way as Swiss chard or spinach. Young feathery ones (carrot and parsnip) are ideal for pesto.
One of the delights of growing asparagus is the beautiful fern-like plant that develops after the spears are harvested in spring. The more established the plant becomes, the bigger this grows. And — no surprise here — the young leafy tips taste just like asparagus. These are best harvested when stalks are just starting to spread and the tiny buds haven't quite unfurled. Be selective in your harvest, leaving sufficient for the plant to keep growing. Asparagus fronds are best lightly steamed and added to a salad or as a base for grilled vegetables or fish.
ROOTS AND STEMS
Don't toss the tough roots of coriander, parsley or fennel — these have a unique flavour, and as long as they're washed well, they can be roasted, braised, blended or stir-fried, adding depth and aroma to soups, stews and curries. The tough stalks and stems of other herbs and vegetables can be chopped and used in slow-cooked stews and stocks, and thick stems, such as those of broccoli, can be peeled and the tender inner section used.
When you start saving seeds, you realise just how many seeds plants produce — far too many for us to sow. But seeds have many other uses. Green seeds (such as coriander, with its flavour combination of earthy dried seed and fresh green leaves, or nasturtium, with its pungent mustardy bite) can be pickled or ground into a paste to top roast vegetables or add to sauces. Mature dried seeds of many plants can be used to make mustard spreads, sprouts and microgreens. Large ones such as pumpkin can be roasted.
• Griffiths is the author of several popular vegetable gardening books. Visit janesdeliciousshop.co.za