The Skinny on Unusual Vegetables: Visual Guide

Move over carrots and potatoes. You’ve got company.
KohlrabiSkinny On series cap

Want to cure boredom at the table, pump up your foodie cred and expand your culinary horizons? Try one of these delicious — if unusual — vegetable choices, available in most large supermarkets and almost all farmers’ markets (based on seasonality).

Boniato sweet potatoes
Boniato sweet potatoes
Most often labeled batata in North American markets — or mislabeled as such, since batata is actually just the botanical name for all sweet potatoes, Ipomoea batatas) — this version of the sweet potato is starchier and definitely less sweet than more traditional varietals. The white flesh is dry and toothsome; once roasted, the flavor is a cross between chestnuts, baking potatoes, and more traditional sweet potatoes. Boniato sweet potatoes are popular from Latin America to Southeast Asia, prized for their delicate aroma and slightly bland savoriness, the better for all sorts of spicy and piquant toppings. Consider them a great bed for chili, a Szechuan stir-fry, jerk preparations and even ropa vieja. Boniatos are best microwaved, roasted, boiled or steamed. For even roasting, keep in mind that narrow and thin boniatos are better than fat and thick ones. At the grocery store or farmers’ market, look for smooth skins that are firm to the touch without squishy, bruised spots. Store at room temperature for up to one week.
Burdock
Burdock
Not nearly as sweet as most other root vegetables, burdock grows long and thin, sometimes up to 2 1/2 feet! A favorite in Japan but now naturalized throughout Europe, burdock has a brown skin and a creamy, white flesh. Oddly, it has long been a part of the North American herbal pharmacopoeia but is only now showing up in our supermarkets. The skin is edible if well scrubbed. However, that skin has so many tiny crevices that it’s hard to get rid of all the grit. A shallow peeling may do the trick but the white flesh will brown quickly, so peeled burdock should be put right into a bowl of cool water. Burdock can be stringy; it’s best sliced into long, flat strips; julienned; or shredded through the large holes of a box grater. Burdock has a firm, chewy, almost meaty texture. Combine that with its savory taste, and it’s a terrific addition to meatless soups, stews, braises and gratins. Slice, boil until tender, and cool before adding to stir-fries or composed salads. Once thin strips are boiled, they can even be grilled with your favorite barbecue glaze! Burdock also takes well to pickling — it often appears as thin, vinegary, long, orange-colored strips on sushi plates or in the oshinko course of a larger Japanese meal.
Burdock
Cardoons
A member of the thistle family and thus related to artichokes, cardoons are a favorite in western Europe where they’re eaten raw or cooked. Cardoons grow like celery heads, only much, much bigger: gigantic stalks lifting off the root into large leaves. These leaves must be removed — they are exceptionally bitter, essentially inedible. The stalks are not as vibrantly green as celery but browner, duller, with muted hues. However, just like celery, cardoon stalks also have stringy filaments; unlike celery, these must be removed before eating or cooking. Start at the top of the stalk, nick up a filament with a small knife, and peel it down the stalk. Take off as many as you can, then slice or cut the cardoon stalk as desired. However, the cut bits will brown quickly, just like trimmed artichokes, so dump them into a bowl of water with the juice of a lemon. Cardoons taste reminiscent of artichokes but with a sweet/slightly bitter combo that gives them a sophisticated edge. Although eaten raw in Europe as a dipper for pestos and aioli, cardoons found in North America can be aggressively bitter and should probably be boiled or cooked in some way before being added to composed salads or relish trays. Or try cardoons baked or stewed, particularly with veal or chicken. One warning: The stalks can grow so large that they become hollow. You won’t have as much as you think you have in your supermarket basket! If possible, break a stalk open to see that it is indeed solid throughout.
Cardoons
Daikon
Sometimes called “white Asian radish,” this creamy, opal-white vegetable may be familiar to you from the crunchy vegetable threads nested on a sushi plate. Look for firm, smooth, daikon roots. If possible, the greens should still be attached — and still vibrant. Smaller, younger daikon are quite sweet and mild; older, larger ones can take on the peppery heat of more traditional red radishes. Daikon can be eaten raw or cooked; first peel them as you would carrots or parsnips. Thinly sliced or cut into matchsticks, daikon bits can be offered on a relish tray or in a composed green salad. Cut into coins or small chunks, daikon pieces can be stir-fried or stewed — or even braised in white wine for a piquant, but still sweet, side dish. Or use the small holes of a box grater to grate up a mushy condiment for burgers or hot dogs. Remove the greens and store whole, unpeeled daikon in the vegetable crisper for a couple of days — or wrap the root tightly in plastic wrap to store in the fridge for up to two weeks. One note: The daikon greens, like the greens of all radishes, are edible if wilted like spinach or turnip greens. The greens should be perky, even a bit firm; immerse them in water and rinse repeatedly to get rid of unwanted grit before chopping into small bits for braising.
kohlrabi
Kohlrabi
If there ever was a “try-it-you’ll-like-it” unusual vegetable, kohlrabi’s it! The best way to first experience this summery favorite is raw: Wash the firm ball, peel it, slice it into strips and enjoy it with your favorite dip or pesto. Once you’ve sampled the flavor that’s a wonderful mix of broccoli and cucumbers, you’ll be ready to use kohlrabi raw in salads or on relish trays. But that’s not the end of the line! You can boil, steam, sauté or even stir-fry kohlrabi pieces. In fact, Europeans love to hollow it out and stuff the vegetable before roasting. Kohlrabi (kole-RAH-bee) comes in two basic types: purple and green. The color is only skin-deep; underneath, kohlrabi is shiny white. Although classified with root vegetables, kohlrabi is actually part of the cabbage family, the base of which grows into a juicy globe just at the soil line. This globe — the part most prized — should be firm to the touch without bruised bits. If you find kohlrabi with the leaves still attached, separate these at home for storage in the fridge. Well-washed, the leaves can be braised, wilted or stir-fried, like Chinese water spinach or other Asian greens.
purple yams
Purple yams
Although sometimes called “okinawa sweet potatoes,” the several varieties of vegetable under the larger name “purple yams” are indeed true yams, from the Dioscorea family, a favorite in Asia and Hawaii — but now common in North American supermarkets. Their skin is light tan; inside, their flesh is shockingly purple — and becomes an even deeper hue as the yams bake. Purple yams are very sweet, almost sticky. If this is your first go at the vegetable, roast it whole, then enjoy it as you would a sweet potato — or use it as a bed for a spicy stir-fry or a savory stew. Purple yams can also be peeled, cut in half the long way, and sliced into 1/2-inch-thick sections before boiling or steaming to serve on their own with a vinaigrette or a spicy barbecue sauce as a topper. Or use these cooked bits to make mashed purple yams, gorgeous on the plate. Because of their high sugar content, purple yams won’t last long when you get them home. Store them in a cool, dry place at room temperature and use them within five days.
ramps
Ramps
Sometimes mislabeled as “wild leeks,” ramps are tangentially related to onions. They are the first green thing to appear from the ground in cold northern climates in April. Ramps are not a salad vegetable, like scallions. In fact, they are rarely eaten raw — their assertive garlic flavor can be a culinary knockout. Instead, once cooked, ramps become mild and almost sweet, with a delicate garlic aroma. Once you cut off the thready roots, dice the bulbs and greens together — you can then substitute them for leeks or scallions in almost any recipe that calls for cooking these vegetables, although use half the amount of ramps compared to leeks or scallions because of the ramps’ more aggressive flavors. Also try ramps grilled whole, sliced and lightly braised, cut into strips and cooked in butter or olive oil, or thinly sliced and stir-fried with chicken breasts or pork loin. Make sure you include the greens in all preparations.
Romanesco
Romanesco
No, these vegetables didn’t arrive from Mars! This chartreuse Italian favorite, sometimes called “broccoli romanesco,” is actually a member of the cauliflower family. In fact, it’s an heirloom cauliflower. The taste can vary from delicately peppery to more cabbage-like, depending on the exact cultivar. The texture is quite dense, almost chewy, although younger, smaller Romanescos have a crisp snap when raw. Romanesco can indeed be eaten raw: Simply peel off the outer leaves, cut off the stem, and cut the head into small florets for dipping — or for tossing in lettuce or potato salads. That said, Romanesco can also be used in almost any way you would use cauliflower: roasted, steamed, boiled, sautéed or even pickled. If you buy Romanesco from a farmers’ market, soak the heads stem-up in a big bowl of slightly salted water with the juice of one lemon to lure out any little lurking critters in the head. Store by placing a damp paper towel on the head, sealing the whole thing in a plastic bag, and putting it in the fridge for up to two days.

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