Everyone is familiar with the 10 or 12 standard vegetable varieties available in every supermarket. But the grocery store selection is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to food plants.
Turk's turban squash is an example of an heirloom squash variety that few people ever have the chance to eat, much less grow in their garden. Its bizarre appearance makes a great conversation starter in the garden or at the dinner table, but flavor-wise you'll notice little difference between this variety and common winter squashes like butternut and acorn squash. Likewise, its growing requirements are the same as other winter squashes - sow seeds directly in the garden in late spring.
This bizarre type of broccoli originates in Italy and has recently enjoyed a surge of popularity among chefs. Instead of the usual broccoli heads, Romanesco features tightly bunched spirals of pointed heads arranged in a fractal-like pattern. Its flavor is midway between cauliflower and broccoli - use to turn a vegetables dish into an art piece. Growing conditions are the same as any other type of broccoli or cauliflower - plant in early spring for harvest in early summer.
Horticulturalists are capable of all sorts of weird tricks, including turning vegetables into colors that aren't typically found in nature. Purple asparagus is the result of a naturally occurring genetic mutation that plant breeders have isolated into a unique cultivar. Purple asparagus like deep, rich soil like any other asparagus and unfortunately, when cooked, it reverts to the same green color as any other asparagus.
Because of its higher sugar content, purple asparagus is much sweeter. It's also tender enough to eat raw and very suitable for use in salad.
Continuing on with the purple theme, there is also a type of potato that looks like it has been dyed with purple ink, but is actually a product of nature. Cultivated in the Andes mountains for thousands of years, purple potatoes have an slightly sweet, earthy taste and nutty texture compared to your standard white potato. There are several varieties available from specialty nurseries, such as Purple Majesty. Purple potatoes can be planted as soon as the ground can be worked in spring and are typically harvested when they are fingerling size.
Candy Cane Beets
These beets don't taste like candy canes -- they just look like something you would find in your Christmas stocking. However, candy cane beets are known for having a sweeter, less earthy flavor than their deep red relatives. They are yet again an example of breeders exploiting the diversity of genetic material contained in a single type of plant. Candy cane beets grow just as easily as the blood red kind and should be planted in when the weather is still cool in spring.
If candy cane beets sound like something well-behaved children might get in their stocking, a black radish would be the vegetable equivalent of a lump of coal. Black radishes are an exceptionally large, strongly flavored type of radish with spherical shape and warty skin. They are possibly the only vegetable that is black as night. This old Spanish variety can be sown in midsummer when it is too hot for most radishes and will keep through the fall and winter in cold storage.
Here is a strange root crop unlike, and unrelated to, any found on the grocery store shelf. It is, however, closely related to a common flower: nasturtium. Mashua is an ancient crop of the Incas, cultivated high in the Andes mountains for millennia. The top portion of the plant has the round leaves and orange flowers of any other nasturtium, but the roots are small, colorful edible tubers. The flavor is strong and a bit spicy, more like a radish or a turnip than a potato. Plant the tubers in early spring for a fall harvest and makes sure to provide a trellis for the beautiful vines to grow on.
Prickly Pear Cactus
Some people are familiar the bright red edible fruit of the prickly pear cactus, but few realize the cactus pads themselves are considered a delicacy in Mexico. They are used as a vegetable in enchiladas, burritos, and other traditional dishes. The pads have a slightly gooey texture, but the flavor is mild almost like that of zucchini. Plant prickly care cactus in full sun and well-drained soil and avoid irrigating it. The pads are most tender if harvested when they are small.
Another popular Mexican vegetable that very few Americans are familiar with is the chayote squash. These vegetable taste similar to summer squash, to which they are related, and are used in a similar manner in the kitchen - i.e., soups and casseroles. Unlike summer squash, they have one huge pit of seed in the middle and the vines can grow to 20 feet in length. They like heat, lots of water, fertilizer and a long growing season.
Chayote seed is not commonly available in nurseries because it must be planted when fresh. The easiest way to grow is to pick up a chayote at a Mexican market and place the entire fruit in the ground -- the vines will sprout from the seed right through the top of the fruit.
Fiddleheads are a traditional food of indigenous peoples all over the world. A number of ferns species can be used but in North America it is mostly to be the ostrich fern. They are typically harvested from the eastern forests where they grow wild, but you can also buy the plants and establish them in your shade garden. The flavor is complex and nutty with slightly acrid notes that are an acquired taste for many.
Consider adding a few of these exotic foods to your garden this year and get to know some of the vegetables that can't be found in most grocery stores. Many of these unusual vegetables are fascinating purely from an aesthetic point of view, but they also sure to liven up conversation around the dinner table.