Ben Picks Ten: Heirloom Vegetables January 11, 2009Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, recipes, Uncategorized.
Tags: best heirloom vegetable varieties, best heirloom veggies, sources of heirloom vegetable seed, vegetable seed catalogs
- Suddenly, it seems like everybody’s reading my vintage post, “Ben Picks Ten: Tomatoes.” Given that it’s the dead of winter here in Pennsylvania, when I’d as soon eat a rubber ball as a tomato, and probably couldn’t tell the difference between the two, I was at first bemused by this. But then, in the immortal words of a friend’s mother, our friend Ben had a rush of brains to the head: It’s seed-ordering time, and gardeners are trying to make the best selections for the coming growing season.
- Our friend Ben is by no means a purist when it comes to choosing vegetable varieties. I love ‘Silver Queen’, a white hybrid corn variety that has never, in my opinion, been surpassed, and I have yet to taste a tomato with better flavor than the orange hybrid cherry tomato ‘Sungold’. But in most cases, given a choice between a modern hybrid and an open-pollinated heirloom, I’ll take the heirloom every time.There are many reasons for this, from flavor, texture, and color to distinctiveness, adaptability to your location, long harvest season, and specific uses (cider apple varieties spring to mind, but we’re talking about vegetables here, so let’s say waxy potatoes like the fingerlings that are so perfect for potato salad). But I’ll highlight just two.
- First, hybrid vegetable cultivars (that’s a made-up word combining “cultivated” and “varieties” that you should always use if you want to be taken for one of the horticultural cognoscenti) are so, well, corporate. They’re determined to hog all the profits for themselves, and to hell with the little gardener. You can’t save seed of hybrids and have them come true when you sprout and grow them, unlike open-pollinated vegetables that come true to type every time. You can’t take your own-grown seed to seed swaps or (God forbid) sell it at a flea market or plant sale to make a little much-needed cash to buy that prize peony or a few cloches. (Can you say “Monsanto”? Or, maybe, “lawsuit”?) You have to buy seed of hybrids every single time you want to grow them. For self-reliant and/or budget-conscious types, this is just inefficient, and offensive, too.
- Open-pollinated heirlooms, by contrast, are frankly Libertarian. Anyone can get them, grow them, and save the seed to do with as they like—sell, swap, give away, tinker with for generations until they create their own unique strain. And once you’ve bought that first seed packet (or swapped for it), your seeds are free as long as you’re willing to go to the trouble to save them.Like cogs in the corporate wheel, hybrids tend to be all alike: They drink Starbucks and ludicrous martinis, ski and skydive to show how daring and original they are, wear whatever’s trendy for their particular position, watch the “in” shows, gobble up the latest designer supplement or nutraceutical. God forbid that they should still be doing Pilates when they should be Bollywood-dancing. ZzzzZZZzzzz… Oh, yes, what was I saying?! Unlike hybrids, open-pollinated heirlooms tend to be rugged individualists. They’re not like anybody else; they don’t mind being different, eccentric, or even bizarre; they’re nonconformists. They tend to have fascinating histories. (Do you know the story behind ‘Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter’ tomato?) You can always single them out in a crowd. And unlike hybrids, whose growth is limited to their physical maturing, heirlooms are open to growth and change on all fronts. They’re willing and able to evolve. So many great vegetables, including ‘Prairie Blush’, a golden-fleshed, blush-skinned potato selected by tiny Wood Prairie Farm in Maine, were literally discovered in somebody’s plot or home garden.
Our friend Ben has always been ready to fight for the underdog, be it our beloved golden retriever Molly or a little-known but amazing heirloom vegetable variety. I enthusiastically recommend that you try a few heirlooms in your vegetable garden this season and see what you think of them. To help you out, here’s a list of ten (plus, of course, one) favorites of mine. I try to grow as many great vegetable varieties as I can squeeze in every year, and like everybody, I love to try new things. But I make sure these 11 veggies are in my garden beds each and every year. Trust me, you won’t go wrong with them, either.
1. ‘Brandywine’ tomatoes. As you’ll see if you check out a seed catalogue, ‘Brandywine’ is more like a family than an individual variety: There are yellow, black, pink, and red Brandywines, some with broad, thick “potato-leaf” foliage and others with more typical tomato foliage. Brandywines aren’t the most prolific tomatoes, but they’re certainly the best-tasting. These luscious heirlooms have won blind taste tests across the country, year after year. For what it’s worth, they’re our tomato-addicted chickens’ top pick for tastiest tomato, too. ‘Brandywine’ rules! (See “Ben Picks Ten: Tomatoes” for more great tomatoes, including another must-have, ‘Yellow Plum’.)
2. ‘Dragon Tongue’ beans. The name of this fresh bean cultivar is as eccentric as its appearance: The flattish pods are pale yellow and covered with purple flecks. Our friend Ben is tempted to wonder just what the person was on who named this incredible bean (hey, when was the last time you saw a dragon’s tongue?), and to make matters worse, it’s apparently identical to the racy if oddly spelled ‘Dragon Langerie’. (Maybe dragons do wear lingerie, but I don’t want to hear about it.) But don’t let the names put you off. These bush beans are the best ever, so tender and flavorful, they put regular green and yellow wax beans (both dearly beloved by our friend Ben) to shame. Best of all, they retain their tenderness and flavor as they mature, unlike many green and yellow beans that are only good young and small. (Note: As with so many vegetables, the purple disappears during cooking, leaving luscious pale-yellow beans. No fears of freaking out dinner guests with those purple streaks.)
3. ‘Golden’ beets. Our friend Ben thinks you either love beets’ rich, earthy flavor or you hate it. (And our friend Ben thinks that whether you love or hate it has a lot to do with how much salt and butter you’re willing to slather over hot beets.) Our friend Ben happens to love beets, and will consume any quantity of shoestring beets or small boiled beets or big roasted beets or pickled beets, as long as I don’t have to prepare them and deal with that deep red color bleeding all over everything. Maybe that’s why I love the gorgeous golden-orange heirloom ‘Golden’ beet. It packs a rich beet flavor without all the “blood”! I know that many folks are enamored of ‘Chioggia’ beets, with alternating red and white concentric circles, but while they’re fun to look at, when it’s time to eat them, they seem kinda, well, anemic to me. Give me a deep bloodred beet or a rich orange ‘Golden’ beet any day.
4. ‘French Breakfast’ radish. Our friend Ben loves a nice, crunchy radish, and the hotter, the better. This Gallic variety dates back to the 1880s, and is torpedo-shaped with a red top and white bottom. Silence Dogood and I are not prepared to eat them for breakfast—that seems a bit much, even for devoted radish enthusiasts—but we do enjoy them French-fashion, sliced onto a crusty buttered baguette with a pinch of salt. Ooh la la!
5. ‘Sugar Snap’ pea. ‘Sugar Snap’, ‘Super Sugar Snap’, ‘Sugar Ann’, ‘Super Snappy’, ‘Sugar Bowl’, ‘Sugar Sprint’, lalala. There are many cultivars of sugar snap peas—the fleshy, edible-podded peas that you eat raw in salads or as a dipping veggie or lightly steamed with butter and salt—and our friend Ben adores them all. Oh, yum, the ecstacy of perfectly steamed snap peas with melted butter and salt, raw snap peas adding just the right crunch to a salad, or snap peas dipped in the perfect dressing. (See Silence’s post on “homemade” lemon-ranch-pepper dressing, “Fabulous easy salad dressing,” for a great dipping dressing.) Our friend Ben realizes that it might be a stretch to call a vegetable that was first introduced in 1979 an heirloom, but it totally transformed my (formerly strongly negative) attitude towards peas and added a new taste sensation to my menu. And yes, sugar snaps are open-pollinated!
6. ‘Moon and Stars’ watermelon. Geez, first our friend Ben is claiming a 1979 introduction as an heirloom (well, hey, it’s a future heirloom, anyway), and now I’m listing watermelon as a vegetable! Sorry about that. We eat watermelon as a fruit (even Southerners like our friend Ben who salt every bite to bring up the sweetness), but grow it as a vegetable, so I’m listing it here. I was introduced to this gorgeous variety as an Amish heirloom, but the Baker Creek catalogue insists that it was introduced by a seed company, Peter Henderson & Co., in 1926. Whatever the case, this watermelon is too good and too beautiful to pass up. Who could resist growing a watermelon with a dark green rind splashed with small yellow “stars” and big yellow “moons”? Not our friend Ben. Like ‘Sugar Snap’ peas, this famous watermelon has spawned a number of offspring, including ‘Moon and Stars Yellow Fleshed’, ‘Long Milky Way, Moon and Stars’, and ‘North Star’ (developed for cold-climate gardeners). Try one that appeals to you!
7. ‘Purple Dragon’ carrots. No, our friend Ben doesn’t have a thing about dragons. Much as I love The Hobbit, even in sixth grade, I found Smaug the least interesting part of the story (with the elves a close second). Plant breeders, on the other hand, must find dragons mesmerizing: besides ‘Dragon Tongue’/’Dragon Langerie’ beans and ‘Purple Dragon’ carrots, there are ‘Dragon Wings’ begonia, ‘Fire Dragon’ maple, ‘Silver Dragon’, ‘Red Dragon’, and ‘Dragon’s Eye’ persicaria, ‘Mount Dragon’ lily, ‘Dragon Chip’ phalaenopsis, ‘Dragon Bronze’ paphiopedilum, ‘Black Dragon’ coleus… the list is endless. But I digress. ‘Purple Dragon’ carrots rate their place on my top ten list because of their dramatic coloring—dark purple skin with a bright orange interior—and excellent flavor. Like the other cultivars on this list, they’re open-pollinated. I recommend slicing ‘Purple Dragon’ carrots raw into salads, or to feature on a plate of crudites to amaze your friends. Obviously, you don’t want to peel them, so grow or buy organic, please. And don’t make the mistake of cooking them with anything else, since the purple color runs during cooking. You may not mind a mud-colored stir-fry, curry, or even carrot side dish, but I do. I suggest roasting them instead. Our friend Ben applauds the renaissance of colorful carrots (it took a long time for orange to become the official carrot color; the first carrots were white). Now you can buy or grow yellow carrots like ‘Yellowstone’ or ‘Amarillo’, red carrots like ‘Atomic Red’, even white carrots like ‘Lunar White’ and ‘Snow White’. Vive la difference! Note that ‘Purple Dragon’ appears to be identical to another cultivar, ‘Cosmic Purple’. But read carefully before ordering! Some colorful carrots, such as ‘Rainbow’, ‘White Satin’, ‘Creme de Lite’, ‘Purple Haze’, and ‘Deep Purple’, are hybrids and won’t come true from saved seed.
8. ‘Speckled’ lettuce. Our friend Ben loves lettuces and salad greens of all kinds—arugula, spinach, kale, watercress, frisee, and mustard greens are favorites—so it was horrifically hard to choose just one. This lovely lime-green lettuce with red-purple splashes made the cut because it’s stunning, it tastes great, and it originated with the Mennonites of Lancaster County, just a hop, skip and jump down the road from our home, Hawk’s Haven. An old variety—it dates back to the 1700s—‘Speckled’ is still, in our friend Ben’s opinion, one of the best. But don’t overlook the wealth of other great heirloom lettuces out there—‘Merveille de Quatre Saisons’, ‘Rouge d’Hiver’, ‘Big Boston’, ‘Forellenschluss’, ‘Parris Island Cos’, ‘Oak Leaf’, ‘Black-Seeded Simpson’, ‘Lollo Rossa’, and many more. As for you gardeners who turn your collective noses up at ‘Iceberg’ lettuce, it too is an heirloom, dating back to 1894. So just stop it and enjoy the extra crunch in your salads! Yes, it’s less vitamin-rich than darker lettuces, but think of all that fiber. Fortunately for lettuceholics like OFB who just can’t limit ourselves to one, or even ten, kinds of greens, there are tons of great mixes offered by seed catalogues that you can harvest early for mesclun or baby greens, or thin for salads, ultimately saving a diverse assortment to mature into big heads. I don’t know about you, but our friend Ben is especially partial to the spicy blends. I just have to order a few blends every year along with individual lettuces and greens.
9. ‘Golden Wax’ beans. Oh dear, another bean. But our friend Ben loves fresh beans, harvested at the ideal stage and cooked to precise perfection, then drained and shaken hot in the pan with butter and salt and served. I grew up with green beans and am a relative newcomer to yellow wax beans, but I have to say that I love them even more than their green cousins. Best of all, I love a colorful mix of green and yellow beans (don’t try this with purple-podded beans, they turn green when they’re cooked and may bleed purple onto the yellow beans for a muddy result). Our friend Ben actually prefers bush to pole beans, since I think they’re more productive for the space, so I’m happy that yellow wax types like ‘Golden Wax’ and ‘Buerre de Rocquecourt’ are bush beans. Pair them with a bush green bean like ‘Contender’ or ‘Blue Lake Bush 274’.
10. ‘Early Prolific Straightneck’ summer squash. Other great open-pollinated yellow summer squash include ‘Early Yellow Summer Crookneck’ and ‘Golden Zucchini’, apparently the only open-pollinated yellow zucchini on the market. These squash are prolific, and will keep producing as long as you keep on harvesting. We enjoy them as a side dish, sliced and boiled with diced sweet onion, then drained and served up with butter, salt, and fresh-cracked pepper to taste (yellow squash is a perfect side with mixed green and yellow beans, carrots or sweet potatoes, and corn or cornbread). But they really shine in Silence’s Super Squash Casserole. Check out her earlier post, “Super summer squash recipes,” and try it for yourself. Yum!!!
Okay, when Ben Picks Ten, I always give you a bonus. But narrowing the selection this time was even harder than usual. Some of my favorite veggie crops, including onions, potatoes, asparagus, and garlic, didn’t even get a mention in the top ten picks, though I grow them with great enthusiasm each and every year. I didn’t talk about crops like sweet or popcorn, broccoli, broccoflower (a huge favorite), pumpkins, or winter squash, since they take more room to grow in terms of harvest produced than a small garden like ours can justify. (Though we loved our compost-bin volunteer ‘Butternut’ squash last season, which turned out to be way more prolific than we’d ever have expected.) Nor did I list faves like heirloom limas, dried beans, or okra. Thank heavens for the local farmers’ markets, farm stands, and CSAs, which provide all the faves we simply don’t have room for. How to choose an eleventh vegetable? Well, it turned out to be a no-brainer, thanks to our friend and fellow blog contributor Richard Saunders, a hot pepper fanatic from way back. Our friend Ben and Silence tend to go for the bell peppers, which we especially love if they’re red, orange, or yellow, and enjoy stuffed or in spaghetti sauce if they’re green. (Keep those thin-walled purple peppers to yourself, please.) But Richard would never forgive our friend Ben if I didn’t list a hot pepper as #11:
11. ‘Lemon Drop’ habanero pepper. Left to my own devices, our friend Ben would probably vote for a decorative pepper like ‘Fish’, which grows on bushes with green-and-cream variegated foliage and produces variegated peppers as well (geen-and-white maturing to orange-red). Richard would doubtless go for ‘Bhut Jalokia’, the world’s hottest pepper. Instead, let’s head for the middle ground. ‘Lemon Drop’ is a prolific teardrop-shaped lemon-yellow habanero. Now, the mere word “habanero” is enough to make our friend Ben’s hair stand on end, with visions of being carted off to the burn ward close behind. But last summer, Silence made a batch of salsa for Richard that featured ‘Lemon Drop’ peppers, and you know, it wasn’t bad. In fact, it was good. Nice and flavorful without that horrific macho burn-your-tongue-out idiocy. Because ‘Lemon Drop’ is a small pepper, it dries quickly and easily, too, and you can pulverize them for a condiment or hang them up in bunches until you need them. Note that the “lemon” in the name refers to the color, not a lemony flavor.
So there you have it! Look for these at your favorite local garden center, hardware or general store, or Tractor Supply, or order them from one of the seed catalogues that specialize in vegetable seeds. Some of our faves are Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (www.rareseeds.com), Renee’s Garden Seeds (www.reneesgarden.com), Wood Prairie Farm (www.woodprairie.com), Johnny’s Selected Seeds (www.johnnyseeds.com), John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds (www.kitchengardenseeds.com), Burpee (www.burpee.com), and Park Seed (www.parkseed.com).
Our friend Ben realizes that favorite vegetables are a very personal choice. If you have faves that I’ve failed to list, or favorite sources of seeds that I’ve overlooked, please, oh please, let us know what they are. We want to try them, too!