(AKA "Calico Crowder" and "Hereford Peas")
Polecat Peas are an American heirloom cowpea that can be traced back to the early 1800s. Polecats are believed to have been brought to America by African slaves in the 18th century. Their cultivation and use by white Americans spread across the South quickly. By the time of the Civil War Confederate troops were dependent upon dried cowpeas as a staple.
The Polecat Pea is an aggressive climbing plant. In my garden they have scaled nine-foot sunflowers and are still reaching for height. In the South Polecats were often planted alongside tall flint corn to provide a natural trellis. The long pods can be eaten green and are considered to be a fine-tasting cowpea. Polecats can also be dried. The seeds are small, cream-colored with a small beige eye. The close packing of the pods with seeds is characteristic and is shared with other cowpeas that are called "Crowders."
Pre-Civil War varieties of cowpeas such as the Polecat are rare outside of a few Southern gardens and organizations such as Seed Savers. New varieties have been selected for disease resistance, large pea size and for dwarfism. It seems that "taste" along with the Confederacy lost the war.
These Polecat Peas were grown organically in my garden in the Valley of the Moon.
Portuguese Cayenne Peppers
It is difficult to say very much about peppers without falling into complex and conflicting factoids. Take for instance the term "Cayenne." Many European languages generically identify hot chilies as "from Cayenne." At first glance this might seem a reference to the capital of French Guyana where a fair number of chilies are, in fact, grown. But chilies are from South America and if there is any connection between the city and the chilies it is the other way around. We apparently started to called chilies "cayenne" prompted by an early Native American term "cayan" which was used interchanably for "chilies" and "hot."
The Portuguese connection to chilies is more straightforward. We know that they acted as enthusiastic taxis for chilies, spreading them in the 15th century from Central America to Africa, India and beyond. The exact type of chili they spread around the globe isn't known but descriptions do track with what we call "Cayenne" today. The pods were long and tapering. They had hot-moderate heat and they were useful for fresh eating and for making spice. Today there are several types of Cayenne peppers but the Portuguese Cayenne (sometimes called "Portuguese Hot" or simply "Portuguese Peppers") is the largest and it is believed to be the oldest.
Cayenne peppers have a long history of use outside of the kitchen. The principal chemical responsible for the 'heat' in chili peppers is capsaicin. The alleged healing and health benefits of capsaicin and particularly Cayenne peppers are a durable feature of ancient folk medicine and present day health mythology. But where there is heat there can be fire. Capsaicin is used in Western medicine, too. It has modest benefit as a topical anesthetic and it may help some people with gastric motility disorders.
My crop of Portuguese Cayenne peppers is headed to the dehydrator. While I use Cayenne as a spice about as often as I travel to Portugal I think its time for a change. If you'd like to join me the dried versions should be along soon.
These Portuguese Cayenne peppers were grown organically in my garden in the Valley of the Moon.
Black Futtsu Squash
The Black Futtsu (also spelled "Futsu") is an heirloom squash grown in Japan for more than 200 years. Like several other Japanese squashes it is small and its orange colored flesh nearly fills the squash. Its nut-like flavor is commonly compared to chestnuts.
Black Futtsu are small (av. 1-2#) but highly ornamental. As the squash develops it has a very dark green or charcoal appearance. At a glance they appear so dark that they might thought to have rotted on the vine. As they ripen, however, a deep orange color appears and replaces most of the black-green color. The shape of the Futtsu is also unusual. It is heavily ribbed and wart-like knobs cover the surface. A long stem caps off its stunning appearance.
These Futtsu Squash were organically grown in my garden in the Valley of the Moon.
Seed Source: Kitazawa Seed Co.
Fish Peppers are an American heirloom pepper that was used in African American communities around Baltimore and Philadelphia in the late 1800s. It was principally added to crab and oyster dishes to provide flavor and heat. Fish peppers are a moderately hot chili.
The origin of Fish Peppers is unknown. Some have speculated that it is a selection from Serrano chilies, which are known to have numerous variants. The Fish Pepper is very ornamental. The leaves are light green with white striping. The peppers can also show striping and progress through several color stages before turning red when completely ripe.
Fish Peppers are rare in the market place outside of the Chesapeake Bay. They have recently been named to the Ark of Taste by the Slow Food USA movement and consequently they have gathered a small but growing audience.
These Fish Peppers were grown organically in my garden in the Valley of the Moon.
"Tavera" French Filet Beans
Tavera is a "tres fin" type meaning it is very slender and quite straight. It has enormous yields and reportedly it is resistant to the typical pests and plagues. Tavera is not, however, without its demands upon the gardener. Like other filet beans it needs to be picked frequently and it likes to be watered "just so." After all it is French.
Despite its modern and commercial origins this is one bean with much to recommend it. I've grown several heirloom filets and I find Tavera to be their equal in taste and texture if properly grown. The qualifying phrase "if properly grown" is its own tale. Very few filet beans are properly grown and harvested. The perfect stage for harvesting a filet bean is a narrow window of time, perhaps only a day or two in the heat of summer. Vigilance, a sharp eye and lots of handwork are needed to gather a basket of perfect filet beans.
My experience with Tavera is only one season deep. After my crop of heirloom Fin de Bagnol filet beans sucummed to a late frost I vowed to "modernize" my last twenty feet of beans. So I committed heirloom heresy and planted Tavera. It's a keeper.
These Tavera filet beans were grown organically in my garden in the Valley of the Moon.
Mibuna is a delicate and unusual plant in the mustard family that has been grown for centuries in Japan. It is one of a few dozen vegetables known there as "Kyo yasai."
Kyoto was Japan's national capital during the Edo period (~800-1,200 AD). It hosted both the royal family and many important religious temples. Kyoto also played a key role in Japan's agriculture. Royal farms and Buddist gardens were the starting point of vegetables introduced by trade with China and other parts of Asia. Japan's own native plants had sparse offerings for human consumption. As these new plants were incorporated into Japanese agriculture numerous selections were made of those plants which performed well in the field and in Japanese cooking. Today about 50 specific vegetable selections can be traced back to the Edo period and to cultivation around Kyoto. These vegetables are called "Kyo yasai" and they have a special place in Japanese history and cuisine. Mibuna is one of them.
There are a great number of Japanese greens and many of them are in the mustard family. These plants often grow well in cool, damp conditions and several of them can overwinter in moderate climates. Minbuna has several characteristics that distinguish it from other Japanese greens. Each plant is comprised of many slender spear-shaped leaves that emerge from the soil in clumps. It grows slowly in the spring but by early summer the plants can reach 12-18 inches in height. It tolerates some "cut-and-come-again" cuttings.
In the kitchen Mibuna has a mild mustard flavor and it is typically used in stir fries and soups. It can also be eaten raw in salads. I think it has a more elegant look and taste than most Brassicas that we associate with Southern cooking.
I am not knowledgeable about the availability of Mibuna in the marketplace but I've never seen it for sale. Perhaps Japanese specialty markets in SoCal would be a better shot. Until proven otherwise I'll claim that Vegetables of Interest is the sole source of fine Mibuna. Kyo yasai-Kenwood!
This Mibuna was grown organically in my garden.
Seed source: Kitazawa Seed Co. Berkeley, CA
"Musquee de Provence"
An exceptionally good looking pumpkin with a flavor that is both dense and subtle. Check out your copy of Amy Goldman's 'The Complete Squash'. Predictably she gushes over this one. Personally I think it best roasted or used for stuffing. It isn’t quite as silky as Winter Luxury Pie which is my personal standard for a fine soup pumpkin.
It would look good on a small 'harvest table' near the dining room's entrance. Or perhaps on someone’s desk. In a Doorway. In a bag. Its pretty versatile actually.
Crosne are small, worm-shaped tubers that form on the roots of member of the mint family, Stachys affinis. Called by many names including Chinese artichokes, knotroot, chorogi, Japanese artichokes etc. the name "Crosne" was applied in deference to the French village where the plant was grown when it was first introduced to Europe in the 1800s.
Crosne plants have an informal habit and resemble its mint cousins in general size, shape and coloring. Its leaves, however, are quite rough with a moderate mint-like odor if crushed. The tubers form on the plant's extensive root system during the early fall and are its system of reproduction. The plant also makes inconspicuous white flowers mid summer. With the arrival of fall frosts the plants quickly die back but the tubers keep nicely for several months in the ground in regions with mild winters.
Crosne's culinary usage in Western cooking is best established in classic French cuisine. The tubers are slightly sweet and very crunchy. Eaten raw their flavor is subtle, perhaps bland. When cooked or sauted they easily adopt to their environs offering up textural contrast while blending with stronger flavors.
My 2005 crosne crop was a success. Drip irrigated in organic soil the 120 plants grew quickly with only minor pest attrition. With the approach of fall frosts the plants have hit the wall and the digging has begun. Harvesting crosne is tedious and is best done when the mood is festive. Given those parameters the yield will be a long time coming.
“Ciboule” is the common French name for a type of onion that is formally known as ‘Allium fistulosum. Unfortunately “Ciboule” is often translated into English as “green onions” which is literally true but what we know here as green onions are not Ciboule or A. fistulosum. In America green onions are immature bulbing onions most commonly White Lisbon or something close to that. These are not Allium fistulosum but rather Allium cepa.
Allium fistulosum onions are non-bulbing perennial plants that propagate in clumps and have distinctive round fragile leaves. There are several varieties but all are believed to have originated in Asia. As perennial onions made their way outside of Asia some varieties were given exotic but incorrect names such as “Egyptian onions” or “Welsh onions.” Neither name correctly suggests their origins but the names have none-the-less stuck.
“Ciboule” or perennial onions occupy a unique niche in the garden by offering fresh onions for harvest year round. In very cold climates they can be covered by straw and will generally green up with the first thaws of spring. Here in California they are green year around but do most of their clumping during the winter and very early spring.
Ciboule onions are prized in France and Asia but they are not grown commercially in the United States. A hundred years ago it was common to find a patch of perennial onions in an American home garden but today few gardeners are attracted to the joys of year-around weeding that they require. A few named heirloom varieties continue to make the rounds amongst US collectors. These include “Evergreen Hardy”, “Stevenson Multiplier,” “Welsh” and Franz Bunching. It is unclear if these varieties are unique. In Asia there are a number of stable varieties of fistulosum onions that qualify for heirloom status. One of the best is “Red Beard.”
Ciboule onions are notable for their subtle onion flavor and the absence of the heat found in bulbed onions. Although they are not technically “sweet” they do taste that way in a relative sense. Some claim that Ciboule can become bitter if overcooked but I’ve not experienced that outcome. I do agree with many gardeners that Ciboule do taste differently depending upon the timing of the harvest. Their freshest flavor is in late winter or spring. But that is not to say that I’d pass up a Ciboule any other time of year.
Perhaps the most famous gastronomic story about Ciboule comes from The Passionate Epicure by Marcel Rouff. His fictional gourmand Dodin-Bouffant was wild about Ciboule. In the real world few things can compare with fresh Ciboule slow cooked in butter and served against a delicate white fish with herbs.
These Ciboule were grown organically in my garden in the Valley of the Moon. The origin of my patch was from French stock. I did the weeding and the cows made the manure.