At the table, it’s important to eat slowly and concentrate on flavors — how well certain ones go together and how best to enjoy ones that aren’t your favorites. Many food plants produce chemical compounds to ward off predators. Though these often contain antioxidants and other health boosters, they can taste bitter or strong.
Plant breeding, over the years, has sought to mellow vegetables to the point of blandness, but the best varieties retain a subtle balance of sweet and bitter, or sweet and tart. Best to tweak them in the kitchen. Combine them with starches such as potatoes. Sweeten them with a bit of honey. Anoint them with a little oil or butter or bits of pork. Adding fat also makes fat-soluble nutrients such as carotene and lycopene easier to absorb (and yummier) when you’re cooking peppers, tomatoes and carrots.
Friends who have visited India and Southeast Asia always return with flavor-enhancing skills. Slowly and carefully they toast their spices before using them in dishes. Just as with toasting nuts, the warmth magnifies the tastes and the aromas that make us love good food. I plan to do more of that. I’ll also roast more root vegetables, which concentrates their flavor.
But back to the garden. The time of year when you harvest a crop makes a big difference. Tomatoes are ambrosia in August, sawdust in fall. Most greens and many root vegetables sweeten in cool weather. How you grow them matters, too. A fertile soil, well balanced, with a full set of micronutrients, will yield tastier food.
The array of vegetable varieties from which to choose is immense, and flavor is an important but challenging part of that. A catalogue might describe a plant as easy to grow in a small space, early-bearing, vigorous, productive and pretty to look at. But flavor is elusive, personal, hard to pin down. As a gardener I balance the tried and true — old varieties that cooks have always loved — with new ones that seem worth a shot. Sharing with gardening neighbors can uncover new favorites. So can sampling what local farmers offer at markets. They’ll tell you what varieties they grow. Here’s what I look for: beans that taste intensely like beans, melons like melons and squash like squash. You can’t go wrong with that.
Tip of the week
Take advantage of mild, dry winter days to ge
t a jump on spring soil work. If beds are not waterlogged or frozen, you can add compost or other organic amendments to enrich and lighten the soil. Spread amendments evenly and then dig them in with a spade or fork, working backward to avoid treading on freshly turned soil. You can return in March to cultivate and rake the soil smooth for planting.
— Adrian Higgins
Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”