I am really excited to have recently had a bit of an epiphany about what we class and edible and why. I think, like many people, I have become overly reliant on what is in the shops to guide my fresh food choices. If it isn’t in the shop then (while I might be aware of it) I might not remember it or think of it when I am trying to choose fresh produce for my family. If it isn’t there in the shop then I can’t buy it. I think we are so blinded regarding what we can actually eat that we have can no longer see the possibilities. For example I tend to forget that many flowers can be eaten and added to salads etc. Take pineapple sage. It is super pretty and attracts bees into the garden (and my 9 year old who likes to suck the nectar out of them), but I had never considered how they might be added to a salad to add flavour and a splash of brilliant red colour.
I was looking for a relish recipe in one of my favorite recipe books and I noticed that you can pickle nasturtium seeds and use them like capers. I was immediately curious and decided that a lockdown activity would be to pickle some. I picked a jar of green nasturtium seeds and following a combination of several recipes I successfully pickled them. They have been maturing in the fridge since the lockdown and are now ready to open and try. A friend told me they are crisp and crunchy and a bit spicy. I can’t wait to crack them open the next time we make homemade pizza.
As New Zealand headed into the covid19 pandemic people suddenly started thinking about being more self sufficient as a way of making sure they could feed their families if things got really tough. Seedlings and seeds were suddenly in demand. One thing that didn’t occur to so many people is that the food we see and take for granted in the produce aisle is only a very small sample of the produce that is actually out there. There are so many things that you can eat that you can’t buy in a supermarket or even at a green grocer (if you are lucky enough to have one local to you). Perhaps an even bigger issue here is that the produce we see is often not the only part of the plant you can eat.
This latter point has come as a bit of a revelation to me as I considered during lockdown how I could provide for my family as we headed into winter AND tried to avoid unnecessary trips to the shop for produce that spoils quickly and can’t be stored in bulk. This thought process has continued for me as we emerged from lockdown. There are a lot of things that might be growing in your garden (flowers, herbs, fruits, vegetables and even “weeds”) unnoticed and unappreciated. Just because you only buy a broccoli head doesn’t mean that is the only edible part of the plant. When you buy a couple of beetroot tubers, shorn of their leaves and glad-wrapped onto a plastic tray it is easy to forget that the leaves are edible too. A whole edible part of the plant has been removed and as a result we tend to forget about it and we are unable to make use of those parts in our cooking. This has caused me to begin looking at the plants in my garden and the produce we eat differently. I am surprised how much we waste because we forget that it can be eaten! I hope to inspire you to look differently at your garden and the plants we consume. So here is some food for thought.
- People usually grow radishes for the root, but did you also know that you can also eat the green radish seed pods? Pick some to try with a salad. That isn’t the end either because radish seeds can be used as a spicy sprouting seed, and as a micro-green.
- Peas can be grown as a winter crop (although ours are off to a slow start) and everyone is familiar with peas in pods and shelling them into bowls. But did you know that you know that you can also use peas shoots as a salad green, and you can eat the flowers?
- Nasturtium flowers can be eaten, but so can leaves shoots and seeds (as caper pickles). I have always loved nasturtiums. I love the riot of flowers cascading out over paths and climbing over the top of boulders and tree stumps. The flowers are so bright and vivid that I almost feel they hurt my eyes and are so bright they can’t be actually real. I always find I am drawn the the intensity of the flowers, and so I always have them in my garden. I have known for years that you can eat the flowers and I sometime dress up a salad by adding some. But I didn’t know until this year that you can also eat the young leaves and the seeds as well. We used the leaves in salad sandwiches during lockdown while we waited for our lettuce seedlings to get big enough to harvest from, and we loved them.
- Beetroot is another plant that we often forget is about more than the root. The young leaves can be used as a salad green as well and the leaves in general can be used like silverbeet. So often we think of beetroot as just coming in a tin but it is easy and rewarding to grow (providing you cover them to protect them from hungry birds).
- When people pick celery they usually discard the leaves. But celery leaves can be used to flavour soup stocks, and can be chopped into salads as well. Personally I always use celery leaves when I am making soup stock.
- Pumpkin is another versatile vegetable that has many more possibilities that the big ripe orange fruit we tend to think of. For example pumpkin leaves are edible and can be used to wrap food for steaming. The young shoots and leaves can apparently be steamed and eaten like silverbeet. Small baby pumpkins can be used like courgettes. The flowers can be added to salads and the seeds can be saved for next year.
- Broccoli is an incredible plant with so many possibilities that you won’t see in the supermarket produce aisle. Broccoli leaves can be used in both salads and stir fries, and they can be used like cabbage. Broccoli is much more that just the delicious flower heads we usually consume. If one of your plants goes to seed, you can sprout the seeds and eat them (and you can collect and save the seed for next year). Even the flowers themselves can be used in salads. So many more possibilities than you might think!
- I only learned recently that the leafy green tops of carrots can also be eaten. According to my investigations they are nutritious and taste of carrots with a parsley overtone. I gather that they are rather coarse so might benefit from being finely chopped if you are adding them to salads raw. I think they sound perfect for adding to soups and soup stocks. The leaves are apparently a rich source of vitamin c (containing more than the root). Who knew that? All those years of discarding the tops! I am going to try this the next time I make soup.
- I have heard of growing mustard before (as micro-greens) but I hadn’t realised that the mature plant can be eaten as well. You can eat them as sprouts, micro-greens, and as leafy greens for salads and sandwiches. Apparently the stems (before they get woody) can be eaten and taste a bit like spicy asparagus. You can eat the flowers, and finally the seeds can be made into your own whole grain mustard. You can bet I am going to explore this vegetable further. I have just planted some out into the garden . I am watching and waiting impatiently for the seedlings to grow a bit bigger before I start plucking leaves off to taste.
- Even some things we usually class as weeds can be eaten e.g. dandelion and plantain leaves. I have to admit that this is an area that I am not very knowledgeable about yet. I just hadn’t really stopped to think that I might have food plants growing all over the place but that I have been overlooking.
I think my grandparents knew a thing or two about growing produce and surviving through tough times. They lived through the great depression and two world wars and they raised a family awhile living a more frugal and self sufficient lifestyle. They always had a variety of well maintained fruit and nut trees, and a productive vegetable garden. As the years have gone by it seems that many of the subsequent generations have lost a lot of the knowledge our grandparents took for granted. Growing your own produce and preserving the surplus was normal for them. They saved seed, bottled, dried, preserved, and pickled away happily while producing a lot of the produce they needed for their growing family. The art of growing vegetables and fruit has been lost as consumerism has driven a change in how we shop and provide for our families. Important knowledge (like how much of a plant is edible) has increasingly been lost as well, and the way we buy food in supermarkets limits what you can actually get.
Discovering that nasturtium seeds could be preserved and that the leaves taste amazing in salads and sandwiches was the beginning of a revelation. I had been blind to how much edible green produce was sitting in my garden. I didn’t need to worry about how we would provide fresh produce during lockdown, because we had an abundant supply of things we had never considered just sitting in our garden. For me this feels like the start of an exciting new stage in my gardening journey. I really hope I inspire you to look again at what you have in your garden. It is easy to be blinded by what is laid out in the produce aisle, but what they don’t provide is even more exciting. Don’t be afraid to try something new or to put in a vegetable patch. You won’t be disappointed.