Article written by Saturday6TM blogger Matt Mattus from Growing with Plants
Farmers markets and farm stands are omnipresent today, so it is no longer hard to find fresh figs, homemade goat cheeses, fresh herbs or even local free-range eggs, but there are some vegetables that are still difficult to find. If you love to cook as much as I do, then you know how exciting it can be to find ingredients such as tart lemon grass, crispy fresh wasabi or freshly handpicked edamame.
I keep a few raised beds with herbs and frequently use vegetables close to my kitchen door, which allows me to run out barefoot while cooking on a summer evening to grab a few handfuls of either fresh herbs or frequently used items like green onions. The larger crops, those with longer rows, I keep further away from the house. As a food lover, I can't help myself by trying more unusual choices in some of my close-to-the-kitchen beds. In addition to common herbs like cilantro and parsley, I use these beds for more unusual - even ethnic crops - international varieties I cannot find even at the hippest of farmers markets. Here are a few of my favorites:
Fresh Belgian Endive - Belgian endive is far easier to grow than one could ever imagine. Sure, you must force the roots in a warm closet after they spend a lively year growing in the garden, but the crop is essentially carefree and, best of all, this chicory, or endive, loves a weak, sandy soil that has little nutrition. What makes this gourmet veggie different from anything else that you may grow is that it is technically a winter crop, which you will force into regrowth during the short days of winter. But first, you must grow the plants to produce the thick, forceable roots outdoors. This takes a little planning and space, but the results are amazing and quite easy.
Seed sown in early April, (spaced carefully 1 foot apart, as one must never transplant a tap-rooted plant) will mature by October, with nothing more than some weeding during the summer. The crop is drought tolerant and prefers soil that is not too rich. Botanically chicory, Belgian endive will form thick, carrot-like roots when mature, and it is from these roots that the distinctive "chicons" (the French name for the thick, white sprouts) will eventually emerge.
In October, after carefully digging up the roots, repot them in deep wooden wine boxes, 5-gallon nursery containers or even in deep clay pots. Surround them with nothing more than regular soil and keep them cool, slightly damp and most-important, dark. The pots are ready to force into growth in early December, and that's when the magic happens. If placed into a dark, pitch-black closet, the root tops will sprout amazing chicons. The trick here is simply warmth, it is essential, as they require temperatures above 65 degrees to sprout properly, and they demand complete darkness if you want pure white heads.
Rat Tail Radish - Raising proper radishes can be challenging if grown organically, as root maggots devour the roots faster than the radish can grow (those brown tunnels you find in radishes). If you are plagued by root maggots, and want the spicy radish flavor, try planting Rat Tail Radishes - a variety grown for its edible, spicy seedpods, that can be picked at most any size just after the plants bloom. When small, they are crispy and snappy, more mature pods can be pickled for out-of-season enjoyment. Be careful, the older pods can be spicy!
It's not that unusual to keep a few pots of rosemary, thyme or basil near the kitchen door today, as many people enjoy the flavor of fresh herbs, but there are still some herbs that are plain impossible to find fresh. Here are a few:
Saltwort - New to most American gardens, saltwort is a traditional Japanese culinary herb, which can be raised from seed sown in the spring and is most likely new even to the geekiest of foodies. Its long, succulent thin leaves have an appealing crunch, but one must harvest while young to avoid woodiness. The plant grows very quickly from seed, and can reach harvest size in 40 days. Older stems and leaves can be steamed and added to sushi or served like spinach. You will definitely be the only one in your neighborhood with saltwort in your garden, but it may become your new favorite. The plant is rich in vitamin A, calcium and potassium, and in Japan, it is often juiced or added to soups and stews for its nutritional value alone.
Shiso - Shiso or Perilla is another traditional Japanese herb that is just starting to appear at specialty markets. A weed in warmer climates, in my New England garden, it must to be sown in early spring. The leaves of Perilla (which comes in both a red and a green form) look not unlike a coleus, but it has a flavor that is unique - one of those, which can best be described as one you may either hate, or love. Green, fresh and spicy, not only are the leaves used in many Japanese dishes - the blossoms are used as a flavoring component in many rice and fish dishes. Really, nothing tastes like Perilla, it holds its own place in cuisine. Rarely found in markets, I must grow my own each year. A few plants are allowed to grow each summer, not in my vegetable garden, but in the flower border, as the plant itself is so attractive.
Papalo - This Mexican herb will make your tacos more authentic than the hippest LA taco truck. The large leaves have a flavor similar to cilantro (if cilantro was crossed with an arugula). Yummy and fresh, it is a secret herb well-known in Hispanic communities, but never seen in even the hippest of organic markets. Known as Papaloquelite, it is a long-term crop, taking 70 days to mature in the garden but, of course, leaves can be harvested for the entire summer and added to salsa and other Mexican dishes.
Epazote - Another Mexican herb, most Americans can only find dried epazote in the spice aisle, but like cilantro, fresh is far better, if not the only way to enjoy this minty, oregano-like flavor so unique to Epazote. A fast grower, seeds will mature in 55 days from a spring sowing, but like cilantro, it matures too quickly, so plan on sowing consecutive crops every three weeks. Use for chili and bean dishes.