It struck me again recently how much what we eat, and how we eat it, is a matter of time and place. I was enjoying scrolling through the pages of this old book from 1863 now available online, The Field and Garden Vegetables of America, by Fearing Burr.
A page from TheField and Garden Vegetables of America (BioDivLibrary)
Many of the "new" vegetables we are discovering these days are casually listed there (and amongst them a good number of perennials) including yam, chufa, oca, mashua, hop, sea beet, quinoa, samphire, nettle, French scorzonera and pokeweed (some of them listed under alternative names).
In like vein, I once had a message from an Anna in Holland asking me if the mitsuba I had sent her was the was 'lava' she knew from home. This actually turned out to be not mitsuba, but lovage, which she explained was a herb that 'every veg. garden here grows, a perennial used in soups and stews to give extra flavour'. Lovage is rather a forgotten herb in England but is used far more commonly in Europe, particularly in southerly parts. I'm told (but haven't tried this yet) that you can use lovage stems as a perennial 'celery' just taking care to halve the quantities as it has a stronger flavour.
I once described the rhubarb I threw into a perennial vegetable stew as being 'perhaps a bit like celery'. Well, I take it back! In being a thick leaf stem maybe, but surely not in taste. Eric Toensmeier, author of 'Perennial Vegetables', first got me thinking about using rhubarb as a vegetable. I love rhubarb crumble, rhubarb stewed with ginger and rhubarb fool, but just consider rhubarb for a moment: it is a sour-tasting leaf stalk - it really is a most unlikely fruit isn't it?
I've learnt since that rhubarb is a common vegetable in Persian cuisine where it often accompanies lamb in a dish called khoresh rivas. A khoresh is a stew and there are many traditional stews in Persian cooking often accompanied by spices such as cinnamon, saffron, rose petals, ginger, cumin, cardamon and cumin (a list which makes me do a bit of a mental swoon!)
You can find a recipe for khoresh rivashere but as I'm not a meat-eater I made a similar stew with green lentils.
Some ingredients for a Persian rhubarb stew
I cooked up the lentils first and added them to the oil, onions and turmeric along with the sautéed mint and parsley. After cooking for a further five minutes I added the rhubarb and continued to simmer the stew until the rhubarb was just tender. I served the stew with Basmati rice.
The recipe mentioned adding sugar at the end of the cooking to counteract the acidity. I didn't do that at first but, oh yes, it was certainly sour! I quickly sprinkled a little sugar on top of the stew on my plate. And then I enjoyed it. The remaining astringency was a nice balance to the lentils, rather more like tomatoes than celery and it made for a homely, satisfying and nutritious stew. It didn't go down so well with the rest of the family though so I don't think I'll be making it often.
Of course some plants aren't recommended for eating, now, then, here or there! Make what you will of the plants listed in Mr Burr's book under the headings Caterpillars, Worms and Snails . The latter was snail trefoil, Medicago orbicularis, and Mr Burr remarks, "Though entirely inoffensive, no part of the plant is used for food. The pods resemble some species of snails in a remarkable degree, and are placed on dishes of salad for the purpose of exciting curiosity, or for pleasantly surprising the guests at table."
N.B. I sell a range of perennial vegetable plants on my website.