Old-Fashioned Fruits and Veggies Return to the Table
Of the 7,500 varieties of apples in the world, 2,500 are grown in the U.S., but only 100 commercially. As of the 1990s, 70 percent were Red Delicious; more recently they’re being replaced with Gala, Granny Smith and Fuji types from taller, thinner trees that can be planted more compactly for easier harvesting, yet are more sensitive to disease and require trellis supports.
Mass-produced fruits and vegetables have been modified over the years to make them look appealing and ship well, while sacrificing taste. Consumers in search of health-enhancing nutrients and robust flavor can find them by instead connecting with the past through food and flowers.
“Heirloom seeds have remained intact and unexposed to commercial pesticides,” says Jere Gettle, owner of Baker Creek Seed Company, in Mansfield, Missouri. “They’re reliable—plants grown now will be the same next year; not so with hybrids.” This cleaner, tastier alternative to the status quo is typically packed with more good vitamins than good looks. Heirloom produce often also delivers a unique regional flavor, such as Vidalia onions or Hatch chile peppers.
Fine restaurants like to feature Yellow Wonder wild strawberries because they taste like cream. The fragrant Baron von Solemacher strawberry, an antique German Alpine variety, is small and sweet, red and full of flavor; it’s been around since the Stone Age. For pies and preserves, pair them with Victorian rhubarb, which dates back to 1856. Eat only the rhubarb stalks; the leaves contain poisonous oxalic acid.
Aunt Molly’s ground cherry (husk tomato) hails from Poland. “It’s sweet, with a hint of tart, like pineapple-apricot,” says Gettle. “The Amish and Germans use them in pies. Their high pectin content makes them good for preserves. Heirlooms send people in search of old recipes and they end up creating their own variations. It’s food as history.”
Trending this year are purple veggies like the brilliantly colored Pusa Jamuni radish. Pair it with bright pink Pusa Gulabi radishes, high in carotenoids and anthocyanins, atop a stunning salad with Amsterdam prickly-seeded spinach’s arrow-shaped leaves, a variety once grown by Thomas Jefferson. Add a fennel-like flavor with Pink Plume celery.
Brighten salsas using the Buena Mulata hot pepper, a deep violet that ripens to a sweet red. Serve with pink pleated Mushroom Basket tomatoes or Lucid Gems, with their black/orange peel and striking yellow/orange flesh. Purple tomatillos are sweeter than green varieties and can be eaten right off the plant.
“Purple sweet potatoes are found in Hawaii, but aren’t common on the mainland,” explains Gettle. “Molokai Purple sweet potatoes keep their deep purple color even when cooked, and are much higher in antioxidants than the orange variety.” To be novel, serve the Albino beet. Baker Creek’s customers use it raw in salads, roasted or fried and don’t let the greens go to waste.
Monique Prince, a clinical social worker in Chester, New Hampshire, grows heirloom organic radishes, greens, herbs, tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers and pumpkins in eight raised beds.
She received Ganisisikuk pole beans (seventh-generation seeds) and Abnaki cranberry runner beans from a Native American client. Rather than eat the bounty, she’s accumulating the seeds to save the varieties.
Thai basil loves summer heat. Make batches of pesto, then freeze it in ice cube trays for later. Christina Major, a nutritionist in Trevorton, Pennsylvania, grows heirloom herbs that include borage, with its edible flowers, and marshmallow, which is a decongestant when added to tea. Her 300-square-foot garden supplies summer veggies such as scarlet runner beans, more than 50 kinds of perennial herbs for year-round use and heirloom raspberries, gooseberries and blackberries “that are eaten as fast as they’re picked,” she says.
Heirloom enthusiasts like to exchange seeds to try new varieties. “From December to March, traders swap seeds and plot their gardens,” says Major. “I got 20 kinds of tomatoes by connecting with other traders on Facebook.”
Of 400,000 flowering plants in the world, 20 percent are in danger of extinction. “Instead of marigolds and petunias, consider old-fashioned annuals. Trying new things is fun,” says Gettle. Four O’clocks, familiar to many Midwesterners, come in a several colors and are easily cultivated from their abundant seeds. The succulent Ice plant, with its white-pink flowers, looks like it was dipped in sugar; its edible leaves taste like spinach. Black Swan’s burgundy poppies have a frill-like edge, while Mother of Pearl poppies offer subtle watercolors.
“Save seeds, share with neighbors and pass them on to the kids,” advises Gettle. “They’re evidence of our culture.”
Connect with the freelance writer via AveryMack@mindspring.com.
Look for Non-GMOs
The Non-GMO Project label on U.S. food products assures consumers they have no genetically modified ingredients. Now a few seed companies are starting to display the butterfly label, as well.
“As demand for non-GMO choices continues to rise, farmers are seeking more non-GMO seed,” says Megan Westgate, executive director of the Non-GMO Project. “Similarly, smaller farms and home gardeners are choosing to plant more organic and non-GMO varieties.”
High Mowing Organic Seeds, in Wolcott, Vermont, is the current leader, with 700 Non-GMO Project-verified seeds. Company President Tom Stearns explains, “We continue to hear about GMO concerns from our customers and while we are certified organic, that doesn’t say anything about GMO contamination.” His team helped develop a verification program for seeds because they wanted third-party verification of their claims. “We’d spent a huge amount of time implementing preventative measures and did GMO testing, but felt this wasn’t enough,” he notes.
Stearns reports that there are many more genetically engineered plants than most people realize. “Some 40 GMO plant species include petunia and endive,” he says. Plus, “Contamination risks exist even when a GMO crop isn’t commercially approved, like when GMO wheat escapes field trials.”
Homegrown Heirloom Cookery
Vegan Tuscan Kale Soup
Yields: 4 servings
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup finely chopped celery
½ cup finely chopped onion
½ cup finely chopped carrot
¼ cup finely chopped fresh purple basil leaf
1 lb ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and finely chopped
1 Tbsp fresh thyme leaf
1 lb waxy boiling potatoes, peeled and cut into ½-inch pieces
1 lb lacinato kale, washed and cut into ¼-inch-wide strips
½ cup dry cannellini beans, cooked until tender
2 qt vegetable stock
Sea salt to taste
Heat olive oil in a heavy soup pot over medium-high heat and sauté the celery, onion, carrot and basil until they’re almost soft, about 8 to 10 minutes.
Add tomatoes and continue cooking until their liquid has almost cooked out, about 20 minutes more.
Add in the thyme and boiling potatoes, sautéing them for another 5 minutes.
Add kale and reduce heat to low, cooking until wilted, about 10 minutes.
Add the stock and cooked beans, return heat to high and bring to a boil.
Reduce heat to low and simmer for at least an hour.
Serve with toasted slices of bread.
Source: Adapted from Mediterranean Vegetables by Clifford Wright.
Yields: Five cups (five 8-oz jars)
1½ lb sweet green peppers, seeded and chopped
8 oz Violet Buena Mulata hot peppers, seeded and chopped
1 cup organic sugar
1½ Tbsp pickling salt
2 Tbsp powdered fair trade unsweetened chocolate
1½ cup vinegar (preferred variety)
2 tsp ground coriander
1 Tbsp ground hot chile pepper (optional)
Place the green pepper, Buena Mulata, sugar, salt, chocolate, vinegar and coriander in a heavy preserving pan.
Cover and boil gently for 20 minutes.
Remove from heat and let stand for 2 to 3 hours or until the peppers are completely soft.
Purée to a smooth creamy consistency using a blender.
Reheat in a clean preserving pan and bring to a boil. Cook for 3 minutes, and then adjust the heat factor with additional pepper to taste.
Pour into sterilized jars and seal.
Source: Adapted from a recipe courtesy of William Woys Weaver.
Vegan Eggplant, Chickpea and Spinach Curry
Yields: 4 to 6 servings
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil, in all; 2 Tbsp reserved
1½ lb eggplant, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 Tbsp fresh ginger paste
2 hot green chiles, deseeded and minced
2 tsp whole cumin seed
¼ tsp asafoetida resin
2 cup tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1 Tbsp coriander seed, ground
1 tsp paprika
¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
¼ tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp turmeric
½ cup filtered water
2 cup cooked chickpeas
1 lb fresh spinach, coarsely chopped
2 tsp sea salt
¼ cup chopped cilantro leaf
1 tsp garam masala
Heat 6 tablespoons of the oil in a large, heavy pan. Add in the eggplant cubes and sauté until browned and cooked through. Remove from pan and set aside.
Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil to the pan and increase the heat to medium-high.
Add the ginger, chiles and cumin, and fry until the cumin seeds have turned brown.
Add the asafoetida and stir fry for another 15 seconds.
Add in the tomatoes, coriander, paprika, black pepper, cayenne and turmeric.
Reduce heat to medium and cook until the oil separates from the tomato sauce, about 10 minutes.
Add water and bring the sauce to a boil.
Reduce heat to low and add in the cooked eggplant cubes, chickpeas, chopped spinach and salt. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
Before serving remove from heat and stir in the chopped cilantro and garam masala.
Serve warm with brown rice or naan flatbread.
Source: Adapted from Lord Krishna’s Cuisine by Yamuna Devi.
Safe Seed Sources
In switching to heirloom varieties, first replace species known to have been subjected to higher concentrations of pesticides. The Environmental Working Group’s no-go list includes apples, peaches, nectarines, strawberries, grapes, celery, spinach, sweet bell peppers, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, imported snap peas, potatoes, hot peppers, kale and collard greens. Here are sources of alternative garden heirloom species.
Directory of heirloom nurseries by state
Seed Savers Exchange, Decorah, Iowa, nonprofit
Hosts largest U.S. seed swap
BBB Seed, Boulder, Colorado
Regional wildflower seed and grass seed mixes
Strawbery Banke Museum, Portsmouth, New Hampshire