It’s the week before Halloween, which means that many people will undoubtedly be carving up that Halloween Jack o’ lantern. But of course, in the food world, we’ve been eating pumpkins, and other types of hard winter squash, for weeks now. Indeed, if I see one more recipe for pumpkin cheese cake, I might… well, I’ve already screamed. That might just be because I’m more of a fan of pumpkin pie than cheesecake, but it seems to be ubiquitous this year.
In any case, pumpkins; members of the squash family. Related to softer summer squashes (zucchini), as well as gourds (the smaller inedible varieties of squash) and distantly related to melons. Squashes are native to North America, most likely Mexico, where they are traditionally grown alongside corn and beans in a symbiotic system known as The Three Sisters. Pumpkins and squash were introduced to Europeans by Christopher Columbus, and their cultivation was mostly due to Spanish and Portuguese explorers.
The poor, maligned, misunderstood Brussels sprout. Was there ever a vegetable so loathed?
It’s too bad really, because with astronomical amounts of vitamin K and vitamin C (273% and 161% respectively of the daily recommended intake) they’re a nutritional powerhouse. And that’s not counting the high levels of folate, Vitamin A, manganese and fibre. They count as those darky leafy greens that we’re all supposed to be eating more of, since they’re full of sulforaphane, a nutrient believed to have anti-cancer properties.
Brussels sprouts really did originate in Belgium, although a forerunner of the plant was known in Roman times. They made it to North America around 1800 when French settlers brought them to New Orleans.
When confronted with unharvested sprouts, most people don’t recognize them, assuming these “little cabbages” grow in the ground individually, when in fact they grow along a long thick stem with large cabbage-like leaves at the top. While they taste similar to cabbage, sprouts are, in fact, milder. They get their reputation of a bitter, sulphurous taste mostly from being overcooked. Steaming or boiling for 6-7 minutes is usually enough, and the standard of cooking them to mush has undoubtedly ruined an otherwise fabulous vegetable for a lot of people.
We’re in the Thanksgiving stretch now, and in our house it’s not Thanksgiving without sweet potatoes. However, sweet potatoes are a nutrition powerhouse and should be part of a varied diet all year round. With this much Vitamin A (262% of your recommended daily intake) in 1 77gr potato, it’s hard to go wrong with this tasty root vegetable.
Native to Central America, the sweet potato dates back to prehistoric times. Carbon-dated relics found in Peru are thought to be over 10,000 years old. Columbus took sweet potatoes back to Europe with him on his first trip to the Americas. Sweet potatoes are also grown in southern Pacific countries like Phillipines, New Zealand and the Cook Islands, but it is unclear whether they got there via Spanish travellers after Columbus, or whether they made it to Polynesia directly from Central America.
There are over 400 varieties of sweet potato, varying in colours that include white, yellow, bright orange and even purple, and ranging in shape from typically potato-shaped to long and thin. There are firm, dry varieties, and some that are softer and moist. Ironically, the sweet potato is not related to the potato, nor is it related to the yam, although in many places, the name is used interchangeably. General theory is that the Taino (Bahamian) name for the vegetable was batata, which sounds an awful lot like “potato”. The sweet potato earned its “yam” moniker from African slaves in the Caribbean and southern US where the soft, moist (usually orange) sweet potato was often used in place of the yam in traditional African cuisine.
I’m a little late to the game with spinach – it probably should have made my list earlier in the year, seeing as it’s considered a spring vegetable. But it’s definitely still going strong at the markets, so better late than never.
Like our friend Popeye will tell you, spinach is a nutritional powerhouse, providing more nutrition, calorie for calorie, than any other food. 1 cup of cooked spinach offers over 1000% of our daily required intake of Vitamin K and 377% of our required Vitamin A. It’s also high in manganese, folate, magnesium, iron and Vitamin C. Spinach may contribute to heart health, better eyesight, better brain function from the high levels of Vitamin E, and better gastrointestinal function. It’s also got anti-inflammatory properties. Cooked spinach also provides energy, mostly in the form of iron.
Thought to have originated in Persia, spinach made its way to China via traders (roughly around 650 AD) where it came to be known as the “Persian vegetable”. Spinach was introduced to Italy and the Mediterranean in the 800s and from Spain made its way to Northern Europe. Catherine de’Medici was so enamoured of spinach that during her reign as Queen of France, she insisted it be served at every meal. Named after her hometown of Florence, to this day, dishes that feature spinach are typically called Florentine.
Poor old much maligned corn. It gets a bit of a bad rap these days, seeing as how it ends up in so many processed foods, and how it’s been genetically modified up the yin yang. And then there’s the whole ethanol issue. It’s too bad, because there’s nothing that says summer more than ears of sweet corn with the silks still wet, shucked, kissed with some boiling water and then slathered in butter. Made better only by the accompaniment of a lobster or two… but I digress.
Maize, as corn is properly known (the term “corn” is an English word for any cereal crop), is native to the Americas where it has been used for some 12,000 years. Maize made its way to the eastern seaboard and Canada somewhere around 1000 AD. Native Americans planted corn alongside beans and squash, a system known as the Three Sisters, as the plants were all complimentary, providing shade, nutrients and support in a system that provided optimum growth potential.
Summer squash (aka. zucchini) can be both a delight and a bane to home gardeners. A delight because zucchini are a fruitful fruit (while treated as a vegetable in the kitchen, zucchini and all squash are technically fruit) – they’re easy to grow and the fruit grows quickly, they’re also a bane because they’re almost too prodigious and home gardeners tend to find themselves with more zucchini than they know what to do with. In the peak of the season some will even take to leaving bags of summer squash on their neighbours’ doorsteps under cover of night just to get rid of some of their harvest.
Curcubita pepo is a member of the melon family, with distant relations to the cucumber. Squash originated in the Americas and was introduced to Europe by Columbus. The zucchini that we know today is a variety of squash that was developed in Italy. While there are a variety of different shapes and sizes of summer squash (ranging in shape from the spaceship-looking patty pan to round fruit the size of billiard balls), they can all be treated as one would a zucchini for cooking purposes.
While it’s tempting for home gardeners to let their zucchini grow huge (and they will get massive if you let them), the squash actually taste and cook best when picked at 20cm in length or less. Overly-mature fruit can be both fibrous and watery.
I eat my peas with honey,
I’ve done it all my life,
It does taste kind of funny,
But it keeps them on my knife. – Anonymous
Most commonly found in mixed frozen vegetables, the humble pea is one of the most versatile vegetables out there. Eaten fresh, dried, frozen or canned, peas can be used in soups, stews, pies, risotto or curries, or fried and served as a snack.
The pea is actually a fruit, but is considered a vegetable for cooking purposes. There are many varieties of peas from sweet peas to snow peas or sugar snap peas, with some growing as vines and others low-growing plants suited to field cultivation. In Ontario, peas are at their peak in June and July.
The use of peas dates back to the Middle Ages when they were part of the typical diet along with broad beans and lentils. Peas are eaten throughout the world from Asia and India to Europe and North America.
Peas are an excellent source of folacin (Vitamin B9). They are also a source of Vitamins A and C, fibre and potassium. A half cup of cooked peas is only 70 calories.
The first root vegetable of spring is also the most under-used. Besides putting them in a salad, what do you DO with radishes anyway?
Related to the mustard plant, radishes come in several varieties, ranging from sweet to spicy and peppery in flavour and from white to vibrant red, and even grey and black in colour. They are a favourite of the home gardener because they’re easy to sow, grow quickly, and offer an early sense of accomplishment. Cultivation of radishes dates back to Roman times and records suggest that the plants were domesticated somewhere in Europe.
Which begs the continued question – why do we mostly eat them raw in salads? A perusal of the Internet led to me recipes for pickled radishes, roasted radishes and one in which the roots are boiled until tender and then tossed with butter and brown sugar, much as you’d do with carrots or parsnips. Having tried this, I think I know why we prefer to eat the things raw – boiling saps out all of the lovely crisp peppery flavour.
It’s one of the temptations of winter. Bunches of asparagus from Peru, tidily displayed in the supermarket aisle. They’re never as tasty as local, but when you’re desperate for a bit of something spring-like, they certainly seem to fit the bill. But now that Ontario asparagus is everywhere, it only seems right to make it a star on our tables.
Related to the lily, asparagus is a flowering spring vegetable that is native to Europe, northern Africa and eastern Asia. Growing from a crown planted in sandy soil, asparagus spears can grow 10 inches in a 24-hour period under ideal conditions. The spears will grow for 6 to 7 weeks with pickings about every 4 to 5 days, until the spears are finally left to grown into a fluffy fern with red berries.
When purchasing asparagus, look for firm, fresh tips. Thin spears are not necessarily better tasting than thick ones. Remove the woody ends by grasping the asparagus at the very end and the very tip and bending it – it will snap off where the woodiness begins. Keep asparagus clean, cold and covered when storing. Asparagus is normally served as a side dish and can easily be frozen on canned. A traditional serving method is on toast, either creamed or cooked and doused in butter. Asparagus is one of the few food items that etiquette books permit to be eaten with the fingers.