The raw and the cooked 

Exploring the possibilities of home-grown vegetables

The weather is still settling down, but I’m already thinking about my spring and summer plantings. I’d rather think about that than about the fact that I’m still going to have to eat winter foods for another month or so. I’m in a rush for fresh veggies, which leads me into rashness, like the person who catches cold from walking around in new spring weather without a coat. I jump ahead and eat peppers and tomatoes and cantaloupe when it just isn’t time yet.

My tastebuds suffer for my optimism, but I can’t wait. My thoughts linger on visions of fresh produce, still warm in the sun or cool from the shadows of great green leaves. My mouth waters, triggered by memories of last year’s harvest.

Last year I shared some garden space with a friend. We always had a grand time touring the garden and shouting with glee at each new discovery: perky little peppers, green buds of tomatoes, summer squash that grew big enough to scare a cat. One day we peeked under a jungle layer of bean leaves and found quite a few slender pods. Grinning, my friend crunched her teeth into one and offered me another. I accepted the bean with some bemusement. I was supposed to eat this raw? My gardening companion didn’t notice the pause when I discovered yet another childhood food prejudice.

In my childhood, see, the choice of vegetable was canned or frozen. You can’t do it any other way in a large suburban family. We had a garden, but the vegetables inevitably came out of the pressure cooker dull and overdone. Then of course there were the church potlucks, with countless vegetable dishes whose only claim to crunchiness lay in their crumb or potato-chip toppings. It was hammered into me from the baby-food beginning: salads and celery stalks are crisp. Everything else must be boiled into oblivion.

As I grew older and ventured out into the world, I encountered exceptions to the rule. Raw spinach, it turned out, makes a perfectly acceptable salad, and tastes way better than cooked. Broccoli was fine on the crudité tray, with enough ranch dressing. Even raw onions were OK, if the burger was hot enough to warm them up. Through college and beyond, the vegetable kingdom continued to surprise me, with sweet, milky corn that needed no cooking, or peas that could be eaten both raw and in their entirety.

Why didn’t I find out about these things sooner? Well, exploring the spectrum of vegetable possibilities takes time and money that some families just don’t have. Produce has to be truly excellent to warrant any treatment—or lack of treatment—that depends entirely on the flavor alone. Corn needs to be fresh, a few hours picked at most. To eat it raw, you pretty much have to be standing in the corn field. Peas ought to be newborn, barely big enough to notice between twice-daily visits to the garden. For people who shop once a week, as my mother did, this sort of on-the-spotness just isn’t possible.

Above all, adherence to the raw/cooked dualism makes meal preparation easier for harried housewives and otherwise too-busy-to-care people. It draws boundaries, limits the possibilities that can both inspire and intimidate. Of course crispness must be relegated to the salad bowl and the fried chicken, or else who knows what kind of alien anarchy might ensue! Why, you might get barely blanched young asparagus, marinated and served at room temperature, or wilted salad with warm drippings, or fava beans served raw and dipped in saucers of salt, or chopped raw tomatoes tossed with hot spaghetti. Or, say, raw string beans in the garden, crisp and green-tasting and untouched by anything but my fingers and a splash of sunlight.

Call the produce police. It’s spring, and another vegetable outlaw is on the loose.
How Does Your Garden Grow?

The first time I planted a garden, I wanted something of everything. I wanted to be a pioneer and have every vegetable and herb that we ate to come from a plot that was maybe 100 square feet. In successive years, I learned to discriminate. For every vegetable that must be grown at home (tomato and basil, for obvious delicious reasons), there are a half-dozen that don’t need to be.

Bell peppers: If you must try some exotic variety, go ahead. And having chili peppers on tap in the yard definitely spices up your cooking. But I’ve never had much luck with the standard sweet bell pepper. It always comes out bitter and thick-skinned.

Carrots: You can get hard and crunchy from any half-way decent carrot in the bin. And homegrown carrots are notoriously sensitive to soil that hasn’t been sifted through mosquito netting. One clod in the way, and they turn into mutant, multi-branched creatures.

Cilantro: Goes to seed on the first hot day of summer.

Eggplant: Needs a lot of heat, and it’ll still end up tough.

Kale: I like it, it grows well, it looks good in billowy rows. But honestly, home-grown kale doesn’t taste that different from a cut bunch at the store. Then there are the cabbage worms.

Zucchini: You’re kidding, right? If you don’t pick the vine twice a day, you’ll end up with boats. And even as little canoes, zucchini doesn’t have much going for it in the flavor department. You have to get them when they’re barely the length of your finger, or just eat the blossoms. It’s not worth the risk.

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