This time of year, supermarkets overflow with colorful peppers and squashes, piles of cabbages and tomatoes, and bins of potatoes and onions.
But these cornucopian displays do not tell the whole story, for there is a hidden feast few supermarket shoppers ever experience--a feast of fruits and vegetables available only to privileged heirloom gardeners, shoppers at farmers markets and a handful of savvy cooks.
The bountiful selection at the local grocery shelves represents agriculture at its most efficient and productive. But where are those sweet round baby carrots from France, the choice paprika peppers from Hungary? And the red-striped radicchio from Italy? Where are those succulent German sauerkraut cabbages with the thick, crisp cores?
It’s not as if they didn’t exist in this country. These culinary treasures have been grown here and enjoyed for generations. In fact, immigrants made sure to bring their prized seeds with them, even if they had no better way of carrying them than in their hat bands or in the hems of dresses.
Also missing are most of the vegetables and herbs that were here when the Pilgrims landed. Native Americans grew a vast selection of lima, dry and string beans; every color of popcorn and grinding corn imaginable; and numerous shapes and colors of squashes.
Absent, too, are hundreds of vegetables and fruits bred in this country in the last few hundred years: corn such as Howling Mob, so tasty that growers nearly got trampled selling it in the market; Moon and Stars watermelon with its black skin sprinkled with yellow stars and a moon; and the Pink Pearl apple with its tart blush-colored flesh for making rose-pink applesauce.
The fact is that when you visit the produce section of many grocery stores, you find one variety of brown and one variety of red potato; one variety of green string bean and maybe one variety of wax bean; and, of the most significance to most cooks, only one variety of tomato--you know, the pale red one that’s as hard as a golf ball.
Why do we end up with the golf-ball tomato? The reasons are very straightforward: economics, standardization and either ignorance or submissiveness on the part of the buyer. The varieties we have available are productive and, therefore, inexpensive. They are uniform and, therefore, easy to market. They can withstand picking, washing, sorting and shipping without bruising. And some will store for as long as six months without spoiling.
If you want to try old-fashioned vegetables, where can you turn? First, you can get involved with food gardening. Now is the time of year that seed companies and nurseries are putting out new catalogues. Many companies are offering heirloom seeds and plants, and more will be offered in the future as the demand increases. And, if you want to get really involved, you can hook up with one of the seed-saving networks listed on this page and start saving and exchanging seeds.
Another option is to frequent local farmers’ markets. Most sophisticated truck farmers know all about the old-time varieties and make them their stock in trade. Fall is also the time to order dried foodstuffs such as Native American grinding corns, old-fashioned New England varieties of dried beans, and numerous superior chile varieties from the specialty mail-order houses listed below.
Here are a few of the many varieties of vegetables and fruits that have special historical or culinary properties. With literally thousands of varieties to choose from, the following is a very small sample.
* Apples: Pink-fleshed Pink Pearl is a tart dessert apple. Another old-timer is Esopus Spitzenburg, a red apple of superior eating quality. A unique apple is Ashmead’s Kernel, an ugly russeted apple with very tart and firm flesh.
* Beans: Dry beans such as New England classics Jacob’s Cattle, with its appaloosa spots, deep-red Cranberry beans and Santa Maria Pinquitos from Mexico are choice. All are meaty and firm, not mushy, when cooked.
* Carrots: Autumn King is a very large, meaty carrot called a “keeper” type that is great for baking and for pies. (Before refrigeration, large keeper root vegetables were a must because the little ones we see in the market would shrivel up.) Parisier, sometimes called Paris Market carrot, is a round variety that makes superb baby carrots.
* Corn: Sweet corn is wonderful, but so is fresh cornmeal, and it can be enjoyed all winter long, not merely for a fleeting week in summer. Try Hopi Blue for a superior blue cornmeal and Bloody Butcher for a pink cornmeal.
* Peppers: No kitchen should operate without a paprika pepper such as Culinar, Sweet Paprika or Almapaprika. Hot chiles, too, such as poblanos and serranos , are a must.
* Potatoes: Potatoes come in many unusual colors. For eye-popping effects, try Peruvian Purple--it makes lavender mashed potatoes. For a sweet, waxy potato that makes the best potato salad, try Ruby Crescent. Both varieties are long and slender. The old Burbank Russet makes the world’s best baked potatoes.
* Tomatoes: Try Italian heirlooms such as the San Marzano paste tomato and Costoluto Fiorentino, a red, deeply ribbed, juicy variety. Also try some old American varieties--Bonny Best has large, meaty, crimson fruit and Brandywine, a deep pink tomato, is considered one of the most flavorful.
For novelty you might want to try two unusual varieties: Mortgage Lifter, a very large yellow tomato that was named by a man who said the tomato was so popular years ago that the grower was able to pay off the mortgage on his house with his profits; and White Beauty, a creamy white tomato with a high-sugar content.
Our Colonial ancestors often served this pie, or a variation made with squash or pumpkin, for breakfast. We think of it as a holiday dessert.
OLD-FASHIONED CARROT PIE WITH BOURBON
1 1/4 pounds carrots
3/4 cup granulated or brown sugar, packed
3/4 cup milk or whipping cream
2 to 3 tablespoons bourbon
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice or cloves
1 unbaked (9-inch) pie shell
1 cup whipping cream
2 teaspoons powdered sugar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
Wash, peel and slice carrots to get approximately 4 cups. Steam until tender. Drain and puree in blender or food processor. Add several tablespoons water if carrots are too thick to blend well. If puree is lumpy, press through sieve. (Yield will be about 1 3/4 cups puree.)
Add sugar, milk, bourbon, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice and eggs to pumpkin and process until smooth and evenly mixed. If machine capacity requires mixing in 2 batches, mix batches together. Pour mixture into pie shell. Bake at 425 degrees 10 minutes. Reduce temperature to 350 degrees and bake 45 minutes longer or until set.
Cool at least 30 minutes. When ready to serve, whip cream until stiff and flavor with powdered sugar and vanilla. Serve with pie. Makes 6 to 8 servings.