At the anticipated advent of fall, the usual vegetables and fruits will start cropping up at your grocery store – the whimsically colored squash, the quintessential apple, the rotund pumpkin – yet there are many curiously patterned and textured vegetables that languish in obscurity, seldom appearing in any cookbook or recipe. While some are native to the Americas, many of those exotic selections have traveled through distant lands before arriving in American gardens to be utilized in niche circles.
This fall, take a break from the usual insipid crops and expand your plate with those unique fall pairings that you can try or plant. With intriguing shapes and provenance, these unusual vegetables are sure to delight the avid gardener or food connoisseur.
1. Black Tomatoes
Gardeners located in the temperate Gulf South, including Houston, are fortunate enough to receive plenty of sunshine all year round. Vine-ripened tomatoes are a culinary classic in many dishes, including pizza, marinara, and spaghetti. For a truly striking display, opt for black tomatoes. Perfect for a goth-themed garden or as an intriguing addition to vegetable gardens, black tomatoes are not actually true black, but rather attribute their color to optical effects, and range from a glossy blue to a richly-hued maroon.
Late August and early September is the recommended time to begin planting fall tomatoes. Like traditional tomatoes, black tomatoes prefer rich, slightly acidic and well-draining soil and plenty of sun; some heavier varieties will benefit from staking or trellis systems. Most are considered heirloom or indeterminate (will ripen at different times), and will need ample space or support to flourish.
Black Tomato Varieties: Indigo Rose, Black Krim, Black Cherry Tomato, Brad’s Black Heart Tomato
2. Potato Onion
Closely related to shallots, potato onions are often mistaken as such, and the distinction can be difficult to make out at times. Generally, potato onions are larger, have a sharper flavor, and store better. The name potato onion does not refer to their taste, but to its way of propagation, which is similar to potatoes. Much like potatoes, potato onions are grown from bulbs, and can be grown either fall or spring depending on your climate.
3. Fennel Bulb
Florence fennel or fennel bulb is a bulbous variety that resembles a celery stalk. They are sown in June or July and are ready for harvest in the fall – after 14 weeks. Like dill, it is said to have a sweet taste reminiscent of anise, and both the bulbs and stalks can be eaten. Fennel bulb can be sautéed with onion, shaved finely into salads, or added as garnish on top of potato dishes.
With its vibrant violet color and protruding, alien-like stalks, kohlrabi is an odd-looking plant that many gardeners are unfamiliar with. Its taste has been described as being similar to cabbage, with a peppery profile to it, reminiscent of a turnip – indeed, it derives from German for cabbage turnip. A cool-season crop, it can tolerate colder temperatures, which will improve its flavor. Keep the soil moist and water regularly, or it can become tough and bitter. To get a head start, some gardeners will choose to start kohlrabi seedlings indoors in seed starting trays.
5. Kaleidoscope Carrot
Rainbow carrots, or kaleidoscope carrots, are a prismatic variation of the staple orange variety. From shades of the palest cream to bright vermillion, these multicolored carrots offer an exciting way to introduce kids and picky eaters to the joys of gardening. Carrots are ready to be harvested after 60 – 80 days, when the tops are ¾ to 1 inch in diameter. For an easy way to dig out carrots and other root vegetables without damaging them, Vego Garden recommends the 10 in 1 Hori Hori knife. An all-purpose garden tool suited for harvesting, digging, and planting vegetables, this useful implement will facilitate all your gardening endeavors.
6. Jerusalem Artichokes
Neither an artichoke nor from Jerusalem, the Jerusalem artichoke – also called sunchoke, sunroot, and wildflower – is a native sunflower with edible tubers. Although they resemble ginger root, they are reputed to taste like chestnuts. Aboveground, it sprouts bright yellow flowers; belowground, it divides and spreads prolifically. To prevent them from encroaching upon your gardens, constrain them using raised garden beds. While they are nutrient rich, they can cause bloating, and should only be consumed in small quantities. Jerusalem artichokes can be cooked in the same way as potatoes and parsnips: sliced, sautéed, roasted, or fried.
7. Blue Potatoes
With an intense vibrancy that almost seems dyed, these captivating potatoes are best served lightly cooked over sauce, though they are versatile enough to be used in many other recipes. ‘Adirondack Blue’ and ‘Purple Majesty’ are two purple-blue potato varieties that retain their color when cooked. The presence of anthocyanins give rise to their marbled texture, which becomes evident in cross-sections. While they are grown similarly to normal potatoes, there are a few differences. They require a more acidic soil pH of 4.5 – 5.5 and more hours of direct sunlight.
8. Romanesco Broccoli
At once mesmerizing and unnerving, the Romanesco broccoli forms dense fractals – a striking example of the Fibonacci sequence found in the natural world. It has a mild, nutty flavor that some may find lacking, but others may find palatable. Unfortunately, like other members of the cabbage family, broccoli is susceptible to pests. If you are experiencing pests, planting beneficial plants and sprinkling diatomaceous earth can stave off them.
9. Castelfranco Radicchio (Variegated Italian Chicory)
Despite its aesthetic value, this variety of chicory, with a grandiose Italian name attached to it, is little known in the States. In part, this may be because of its reputation for bitterness, though it does become milder when cooked. Most Americans encounter it as part of a shredded salad, but chicory can also be sautéed into soups, pastas, and risotto. Ideally planted in late summer for a fall or winter harvest, its foliage has an intriguing, variegated pattern that mimics blood splatters – ideal for a goth themed garden or for Halloween.