Today, I have a special guest blogger for you: author Novella Carpenter. She’s an urban farmer based in Oakland, CA, where she raises vegetables, fruit, chickens, honey bees, rabbits, and dairy goats in the middle of the city. Novella will be reading from her book, Farm City (now out in paperback), at Porter Square Books in Cambridge this coming Monday, June 7 at 7 p.m., so be sure to stop by for some funny farm stories and a seed give away. Take it away, Novella…I can’t help it, I like weird stuff. Like boyfriends who lie in the middle of the floor at a dinner party. Like cats with white paw pads. Like weird fruits and vegetables not available in fine stores. I’ve made it a point to collect strange fruit. I have a Seville orange tree (it’s small and I’ve still yet to get a nary a sour orange off of it). I have a sour cherry tree (we got enough cherries last year for one mind-blowing pie). Every year I graft some antique apple variety to my poor overburdened apple tree (this year it was a Winter Banana).
Vegetables are no different; I will often wander around ethnic farmers markets with my tongue hanging out. “What is this?” I’ll ask the old ladies nearby, and they will patiently explain about taro root or chayote tendrils. A friend from Los Angeles came to visit and brought seeds for the famous giant radish of Oaxaca. I was so excited, it was as if she had brought me a suitcase full of money. This spring has been a busy one, and I’ve planted some weird vegetables that I wanted to share with you.
Crapaudine beets (Beta vulgaris)My sister, who lives in France, was laughing her ass off about this one when she sent me some seeds. We’re into that kind of toilet humor, and she thought maybe the etymological roots signaled that these beets were a, um, stool causer. My sister is always sending me some ancient Roman vegetable information, and these beets were apparently the original beet back in those days, before they became all rounded or striped inside.
Of course, I planted a whole bed of them. After 60 days, the leaves were looking amazing and strong so I went to harvest some for my little farm stand. This is what came out.
So that’s where the name comes from: crappy. No one bought the beets at the farm stand, and so I was left to deal with them. Being thrifty, I recognized the value of those leaves. So I made some beet chips out of them. It was easy, I just tossed the leaves in olive oil, put them in an oven at 350 degrees and cooked them for 7 minutes. They get all green and flat, perfect for tossing with salt and nutritional yeast.
Next, I had to deal with the pathetic beetroot. I just dropped them into boiling water for a few minutes. I had very low expectations. Turned out, the thin-yucky skin slipped off to reveal a gorgeous mini-carrot-like thing.
The crapaudine beets actually tasted great! Very sweet, more like a carrot than a beet. They had a velvety texture and were lovely in a green salad tossed with boiled eggs. Thanks, Sister! I’ll never grow them for market, though.
Bleu de Solaise leeks (Allium porrum)
Someone dumped two flats of leeks on my boyfriend. He fixed her truck, and the truck had the leeks inside—and she asked, “Does Novella want them?” Yes, Novella does. She likes free things, especially when they are heirloom leeks. These leeks, true to their name, are blue. Like that violet-y blue that is almost hallucinatory next to the dark earth. Two trays of leeks is a lot of leek. I had enough to sell at my farm stand—and enough to make leek confit.
Confit always sounds so fancy. But in the leek confit case, it just meant that I braised the leeks in butter in a low oven for an hour. The leeks just fall apart and become gooey and caramel-y sweet. I like to use them to make leek soup (just add stock) or a leek tart (make a crust). Baby! What’s great about heirlooms like the Bleu de Solaise, is you can save the seeds and you’ll get the same beautiful blue leeks year after year.
Rampicante zucchini (Cucurbita moschata)
There’s a seed company called Baker Creek that is perfect for novelty freaks like myself. The catalog did lead me astray with a couple orders—like the Southeast Chinese cucumbers or the Thai Tigger melons that are never going to grow in foggy Northern California. Still, I love Baker Creek’s line-up. So far, I have one freak that is thriving: the rampicante zucchini.
I was drawn to it because the ad copy promised that I could eat the young squash like zucchini, and if it got older, I could eat it like winter squash. This would really solve the problem of too-far-gone zucchini, right? I also liked the name, but later heard rampicante is synonymous with the more well-known tromboncino, which I think I grew four years ago. It was just okay. Fooled again.
Alrighty, I’m off to scan the nurseries for weird heirlooms like white tomatoes, padrone peppers, and some freaky perennial spinach.You can read more from Novella on her blog, Ghost Town Farm.