So how do you cook red amaranth? We love its leaves, with their spinach/pot-herb flavor, in clear broth with shreds of chicken or pork and rings of scallions. The red glow in the leaves seeps into the broth, turning it deep rose. I pick the leaves, also known as Chinese spinach, when they're the size of my hand, rather than let them get enormous, which they can do.
Say, is your komatsuna in a greens patch or mixed into the border? I put it both places--can you believe that plant? On the face of it, it's nothing more than another Asian leaf, but it seems to have all the virtues. It's as good in stir-fries as in salads. Its flavor is bright without sharpness. I've seen people lift their eyebrows in surprise when they first tasted it. Once I even scorched some komatsuna leaves in the skillet and found I'd created a fine recipe--what the Japanese call a happy accident. Like most greens, komatsuna's lovely with basil, by the way.
And how's your African blue basil doing? Great, isn't it, to have fresh basil nonstop? Since it's a perennial (has a long life), you don't have to fuss over starting new plants every spring, as you do with sweet basil. I don't think of its light musky flavor as a substitute for sweet basil, mind you, but as a worthy basil on its own, superb in all the basil ways. Pretty plant, with leaves that are veined with purple on top and brushed with purple beneath. Here in the mountains, where I live, there are hard frosts, so I pot it up and bring it indoors for the winter, but maybe you can keep yours in the ground the year around.
Speaking of herbs that are considered substitutes for something better known, is your lovage still going strong? Are you keeping the soil moist?
And have you ever sat down and tasted its leaves against celery's? Boy, what a surprise. Much more complex, spicy. Lovage is traditionally suggested as a substitute for celery. I substitute celery as a flavoring when I'm out of lovage! If you haven't tried it, use lovage's flat-leaf, parsley-like, leaves and skinny stalks to make a cold pureed soup.
Another sort of substitute--absolutely delightful--is exchanging fresh flowers for dried in making chamomile tea. Remarkable flavor, don't you think? Do you grow the Roman or the German sort of chamomile? I find flowers of the Roman have more of the characteristic apple flavor, but the German's flowers are thought to be more reviving. And this tea, made out of dried flowers and a handful of fresh chamomile blossoms steeped five minutes in a mug of freshly boiled water, is heaven. Don't forget to try it.
What about tea with fresh leaves of your pineapple sage? Save that for a day when the megrims have got you, because it will lift your spirits enormously. I don't think there's a fragrance in the garden more delectable than that contained in these pineapple-like, faintly sage-like leaves. I'm experimenting with using them whenever a recipe calls for a splash of liqueur as flavoring. When crushed, the flavor of the leaves is at once pungent and delicate. And tiny trumpets of flowers sprinkled in a fruit cup, oh my.
Speaking of fruit, pineapple reminds me: Have you decided which of the exotically perfumed melons from the Mediterranean you'll grow this year? Aren't their flavors fabulous? Some people call them tropical melons because they taste as though they sprang from a South Seas bower, with hints of one or another tropical fruit in their flesh. But these melons were developed around the Mediterranean. I'm going to save a trellis for Casablanca, a hybrid from Morocco with creamy sweet flesh that turns butter-gold when ripe.
OK. Game's up. Am I driving you crazy? Am I right in guessing you've never heard of any of these things, much less tasted them?
What makes a fresh vegetable, herb or fruit unusual, anyway? It's unusual when it's rare, which means in short supply. It's in short supply because there's little demand for it. There's little demand for it because nobody knows about it. Nobody knows about it because it's in short supply.
If you've never tasted one of the Mediterranean melons, it's because they ripen very little off the vine, and once picked, they're extremely fragile and perishable. No way to get them to market without charging a fortune for them, which, when markets can find and buy them, markets do.
For me, tasting the unusual is the raison d'etre of my kitchen garden. Why eat basic zucchini forever when you can have the adventure of zucchetta rampicante-tromboncino , squashes nearly a foot long with firm, mild flesh . . . and a ridiculous little bulb on the end that makes children laugh and eat more of their vegetables.
You like laughter? Wait till you harvest your podding radishes and serve them to guests (kids won't touch 'em). These are nothing more exotic than the seed pods of radishes. But the pods are very long and skinny and supple, and they whip in the wind, and they're colored muddy purple--kind of like a rat's tail. But they're delicious, crisp with a splendid radish bite! Just ignore the shrieks and offer cold beer with the rat tails on a hot summer afternoon. Everyone will calm down and enjoy the new taste treat.
After you've amused your friends over drinks, best serve something else they've never tasted before, something with a glamorous past. With the roast or grill, bring out a bowl of your Chinese artichokes. These are tiny tubers, whorled like seashells, ivory and crisp as jicama, but nuttier. They were introduced to France from Japan in the 1880s and were soon on every fashionable table. Because they're so decorative, don't swathe them in sauce; just saute them in butter and sprinkle with lemon juice and minced chives.
Convinced? I hope so. If you haven't done it, my advice is to start your garden in a small way, with even just a container or two filled with a plant you're dying to taste.
You can break any rule in gardening as long as the plant prospers. Experiment. Enjoy. You'll love it and never again be satisfied with the ordinary.
Here's where to send for seeds so you can taste these pleasures for yourself.
Red stripe amaranth: Sunrise Enterprises, Box 1960, Chesterfield, Va. 23832.
Chamomile, komatsuna , lovage, seed pod radish and zucchetta rampicante-tromboncino : Pinetree Garden Seeds, Box 300, New Gloucester, Me. 04260.
Casablanca Hybrid melon: Park Seed Co., Cokesbury Road, Greenwood, S.C. 29647-0001.
Plants of pineapple sage and tubers of Chinese artichokes: Richter's, Goodwood, Ontario, Canada LOC 1A0.