Spring is back and so are farmers markets. And that means a whole new chance to make friends with strange and unusual vegetables. Or to rehabilitate some old familiars.
The number of farmers markets has more than doubled during the past decade, topping more than 8,000 in 2013. Matching that proliferation is equally wild growth in the variety of produce sold at them. Heirloom tomatoes and carrots in funky colors? That's just the start. Think rainbow-spectrum radishes, unusual peas, beans and legumes; gooseberries and quince.
But trying something new -- whether it's an unfamiliar vegetable or an exotic preparation -- can be intimidating. The best advice is to start slow.
If you like arugula, branch out to watercress. In baby form, it's a perfect salad green, a sturdier, even more peppery alternative to the more ubiquitous arugula. It also makes a stellar pesto, says Diana Henry, author most recently of the cookbook "A Change of Appetite" (Octopus Publishing, 2014). "I actually like it better than basil pesto," Henry says. "Basil can be quite perfumed. This is a bit more earthy, more peppery."
If you like cabbage, try kohlrabi. A stout bulb with a thick skin, the flesh is crisp like a radish, and as brightly flavored as cabbage. "I predict that kohlrabi's going to be the next big thing," says Martha Rose Shulman, author most recently of "The Simple Art of Vegetarian Cooking" (Rodale, 2014), noting that some companies are beginning to package kohlrabi for lunch boxes.
"Shred it to make a slaw or a stir-fry with kohlrabi and some greens," she says. "I recently had a really great salad -- feta, olives, a little diced kohlrabi. It really absorbs the dressing."
Shulman also is a big fan of pea shoots, slender tendrils from the same plant. They taste like peas, but can be treated like greens. "Those are just beautiful," she says. "I like to use those in stir-fries and just cook them up and serve them up as a side. They're very good with grains."
Cardoons, a member of the thistle family that's a foraged food for many Italians, also can be found at some farmers markets. "Certainly cardoons are a vegetable that people are mystified with when they do see it," says Michele Scicolone, whose most recent book is "The Italian Vegetable Cookbook" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014).
"You have to blanche it and peel it and then you can bread it and fry it or gratinee it with butter and cheese, and it's very tasty," she says. "It tastes like artichoke hearts."
Scicolone also champions zucchini flowers, another Italian specialty that can be chopped for a frittata, tossed in a salad, or stuffed with mozzarella and deep fried. "It may seem like an exotic delicacy, but to a hungry Italian of a certain era, it's a vegetable," she says. "When I was a kid, my mom would make little fritters with them. We would eat them like that for an appetizer."
Too shy to try? You can still set your sights on new preparations for old standbys. Henry tosses copious bundles of fresh herbs and edible flowers into salads. She thinly shaves carrots, beets and fennel and dresses them with nothing but lemon, oil and salt. Sometimes carrot is paired with the spicy Japanese radish called daikon.
"Carrot is sweet, but (daikon) has a peppery taste," she says. "When you mix them together you get an interplay with them."
And don't forget about spinach, Shulman says. "We've gotten so used to bagged baby spinach year round, but there's nothing to compare with a lush bunch of spinach that's just been harvested," she says. Blanch it, steam it or hit it with olive oil, garlic and herbs and toss it into a frittata, gratin or quiche. "They are so sweet, and so worth the time it takes to get the sand out," she says.