Cherry tomatoes ripen sequentially on the stem. Newer varieties that ripen all at once sacrifice flavor for the grower’s convenience. (Barbara Damrosch)
Contributor

The flavors of garden foods are difficult to describe. Teasing out some of the many familiar compounds that edibles contain is one way. So one might say that sorrel is grassy and lemony, that arugula is mustardy and peppery, and that anise hyssop is minty with a hint of licorice.

Food critics sometimes refer simply to an ingredient’s essence, as in “the bean soup was full of beany flavor.” The beaniness of the beans has been brightened, the way you would brighten a photo by adjusting its color.

There are many ways a cook can achieve that. Flavor enhancers such as MSG, a wee spike of vinegar or a dash of salt might help. One might show restraint in seasoning the soup, so that it honors the beans more than the cilantro or the Sriracha. I like to retain the flavor-rich broth in which the beans were cooked.

Cooking methods that heighten flavor apply to many vegetables. Lightly steaming or sauteing greens is preferable to boiling them and discarding the water, which sacrifices nutrients as well. With root vegetables, roasting, grilling and braising concentrate the flavors better than the old boil-and-dump routine.

The beans themselves might deserve as much credit as the cook for that triumphal soup. Seed catalogues will point to a carrot that is especially carroty, a pumpkin with a rich, dense, non-watery flesh, or a beet with that good old-fashioned beet taste. Some gardeners grow only heirloom varieties, which are often more delicious and more like what we expect from any given vegetable. Some breeders still prize flavor, and I grow a number of excellent modern hybrids.

As an example, consider Burpee’s Brandy Boy tomato, a successful upgrade of the popular heirloom Brandywine. Crossing that with a more disease-resistant tomato kept the old tomato’s funky shape, intense color and great taste but made it twice as productive.

But many so-called improvements have been gained at the cost of taste. When I was searching for a cherry tomato that would ripen a whole truss of fruits uniformly, a seedsman told me not to bother. Although such varieties are available, their flavor is subordinate to other traits such as a firmer attachment of the fruits to the vine and thicker skins for shipping.

So the work of the cook and the breeder play roles, but how can the grower enhance a vegetable’s flavor? Sometimes unexpected forces are at work. Long spells of hot, dry weather can kill plants, but if you can keep their roots moist enough — with the help of mulches, a little irrigation and a moisture-retentive soil rich in organic matter — the flavor of fruiting crops such as tomatoes and melons will surpass the flavor they have in a wet year. This benefit is a combination of plenty of sun for ripening, and the concentration of undiluted flavors.

With leafy crops such as spinach and some root crops such as carrots, cold is more benign than heat. The plants are less stressed in cool weather, and they may manufacture lower concentrations of chemicals that they use to repel pests. The result is a more ideal balance of sweetness and the compounds that give a crop its distinctive taste.

As gardeners, we can’t do much about the weather, but we can do a lot about our soil. A full component of trace minerals, such as calcium, has much to do with the nutrient and flavor components of the food we grow. A soil rich in organic matter in the form of compost, in addition to buffering the effects of too much or too little water with its spongelike structure, appears to help manage any mineral deficiencies in the soil that nature gave you.

There are amendments you can buy that supply a variety of minerals. Most come directly from the sea, such as dried seaweed and crustacean meal. Others are mined from ancient sea deposits on land that was underwater in ancient times, such as greensand (glauconite) and Azomite. Cow manure provided with mineral-rich salt licks is useful, too. But usually a home compost pile made from a wide variety of high-carbon and high-nitrogen materials will be all you need.

The ultimate test, though, is how your vegetables taste to you, and what may taste bitter, sour or hot may seem mild or even sweet to someone else. Many folks are drawn to extreme flavors, or can learn to be, after longer exposure.

Try everything. Spend an extra few bucks and choose two varieties of a crop each year. Grow them well, cook them well and arrange a family taste test. Then take a vote. After that, the negotiations are up to you.

Tip of the Week

A small- to medium-fruited tomato plant that has outgrown its cage or stake can be trimmed with hedge shears. A robust, healthy plant will soon set another round of blooms and fruit. With large-fruited plants, especially heirlooms, trim back wayward stems that have yet to fruit but leave developing tomatoes. Feed plants after pruning.

— Adrian Higgins