Historic Harvest: Heirloom Vegetables
A seasonal guide to enjoying the best of heirloom produce across the South
Ask Ira Wallace, co-owner of the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in Mineral, Virginia, about the importance of heirloom seeds, and she’ll point to one standout example: cornbread. “Southerners have preserved heirloom varieties of corn for generations,” she says. “It’s why cornbread in the North just doesn’t taste right.” A decade ago, heirlooms, which as a general rule date back at least fifty years, were hard to find. But in recent years, they’ve made a welcome comeback in restaurant kitchens and at farm stands.
We asked three of the South’s best chefs to share their seasonal heirloom picks. Not only are these nine varieties delicious, but also, as Wallace says, they’re “part of the South and part of who we are.”
Chef Chris Hastings: Lamb's Tongue Lettuce
A native of Europe, where it has been grown since the seventeenth century, Lamb’s Tongue came to the United States in the 1700s. Sometimes called corn salad or mâche, it has a vague bitterness and a slight nutty kick. Toss into salads (be gentle so the leaves won’t bruise) or wilt into soups like minestrone.
Chef Anthony Lamas: Purple Haze Carrot
Chef Lamas says his three-year-old will eat this grape-colored carrot like candy. And who can blame the kid. The bright orange flesh is sweet and incredibly crisp. The Purple Haze goes way back—temple drawings in Egypt from 2000 B.C. depict a purple, carrot-shaped plant—but its introduction to the United States, and the South, is hard to pinpoint. Look for bunches at farmers’ markets and through CSAs, and prepare them simply. Lamas recommends blanching and sautéeing in butter, or grilling to bring out the natural sugars.
Chef Ashley Christensen: Mary Washington Asparagus
Available in the South since 1919, these spears are praised for their flavor, uniform size, and resistance to asparagus “rust.” Today, most varieties are hybrids of the Mary Washington, but Christensen—who helped her dad grow the heirloom as a kid—says it’s worth seeking out the pure stuff. You too will be convinced when you try her recipe.
Chef Chris Hastings: Moon and Stars Watermelon
Although this speckled melon was introduced to American farmers before the 1900s, it then vanished until the 1980s, when a seed junkie mentioned it on a Missouri TV station. A local farmer promptly came forward to say that the Moon and Stars wasn’t extinct at all—in fact, he was cultivating it. From there, the seeds made their way to the South and have been gaining in popularity over the past few years, driven no doubt by the fruit’s sweet and floral flavor (slice one open and you’re hit with a honeysuckle-like aroma). Muddle into cocktails, add to a salad, or simply slice and eat cold.
Chef Anthony Lamas: Beaver Dam Pepper
This bright red chile, roughly the size of a poblano, is sweet and spicy—a three on a one-to-five heat scale. Hungarian immigrants brought the seeds to Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, in the early 1900s, and from there they migrated to the South. In the last decade, chefs have taken notice, and seed savers have been spreading the word. If you’re lucky enough to get a handful, you can stuff them, work them into soups or salsas, or even pickle them to amp up a round (or two) of Bloody Marys.
Chef Ashley Christensen: White Acre Peas
This kidney-shaped legume—which slaves brought from Africa—has a creamy, sweet taste and soft texture; its small size and “skin-to-meat” balance protect against overcooking. Christensen likes to marinate hers with minced celery, onions, peppers, good vinegar, cracked pepper, and olive oil. Perfect as a side dish with, say, cornbread and collards, or as a relish for everything from heirloom tomatoes to pan-roasted scallops.
Chef Chris Hastings: Cinderella Pumpkin
An all-time favorite of Chef Hastings’s, this heirloom pumpkin is squatter and more deeply grooved than your standard jack-o’-lantern (think Cinderella’s carriage). Originally from France, it was cultivated by the Pilgrims and reportedly served at early Thanksgiving dinners. While most pumpkins can be spongy, this variety has dense, sweet flesh. Roast with butter and sage, blend into risotto, or make a delicious fall soup
Chef Anthony Lamas: White Vienna Kohlrabi
This Civil War–era cruciferous vegetable is a member of the cabbage family, along with broccoli rabe and turnips. But unlike most of its brethren, White Vienna kohlrabi is mild and sweet enough to slice and eat raw. Consider it for salads or incorporate it into stir-frys. Its crispness also makes it a perfect, never-soggy star for slaw (see sidebar).
Chef Ashley Christensen: Watermelon Radish
This heirloom variety of daikon radish originated in China, where it’s known as shinrimei—roughly translated as “beauty in the heart.” Outwardly it resembles a turnip with pale green skin; inside, the flesh is blow-you-away magenta. If you don’t have luck at your green market, ask a chef who focuses on local ingredients to point you to a nearby farmer. Christensen recommends serving them simply: shaved thin in a salad with watercress, salty cheese, toasted macadamia nuts, and a fruity vinaigrette.
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