Seasons by the Sea: Off the Beaten Path

Some of the more peculiar and obscure vegetables
Okra is one of several unusual crops popping up at South Fork farm stands such as Amber Waves. Laura Donnelly

Walking through the Sag Harbor Farmers Market the other day, I decided to try some of the more peculiar and obscure vegetables. There were some bright yellow striped globes nestled in with the heirloom tomatoes and squash, so I assumed they were some kind of unusual hybrid squash. Turns out they are lemon cucumbers, one of the more ancient varieties. When cut into, the flesh is bright white and the seedy part is pale lime green. Beautiful!

Next to the register of the Open Minded Organics tent are the mushrooms . . . aaaaand what looked like smooth cauliflower. These oddballs are lion’s mane mushrooms, a.k.a. pom pom blanc or yamabushiitake. I grabbed one of those along with some yellow oyster mushrooms and fairytale eggplants, those tiny purple and white eggplants the size of fat fingers. At the Quail Hill tent there were some splotchy purple and yellow potatoes, their markings similar to a pinto pony. “Those are ‘masquerade’ potatoes,” Sara explained. “Yellow potatoes masquerading as purple ones.”

Next stop was Amber Waves’s Amagansett Farmer’s Market, where I picked up some okra and tomatillos. Okra and grits are two things that most Southerners love and Northerners hate. I love okra, both for its slimy abilities to thicken a gumbo when stewed, and even more when battered and fried. (If you have a garden, you should grow okra, even if just for the flowers, which resemble hi biscus, a close relative.)

After getting all these beautiful and unique vegetables home and arranging them on a platter and admiring the odd shapes and textures and purple, yellow, green, white, and orange colors, it was time to cook. I was out of cornmeal so I substituted panko breadcrumbs for the okra, which worked beautifully. After slicing them up into one-inch pieces, I dipped them in flour, then beaten egg, then panko breadcrumbs seasoned with Creole spices. After frying for 5 to 10 minutes, I served them with a yogurt dip spiced up with more Creole seasoning. By the way, okra is full of fiber and vitamins A, C, and K.

Tomatillos are easy and fun to play with. Most salsa recipes using tomatillos suggest cooking them first. Not necessary! Just remove the papery husks, throw them in a blender with half of a small onion, a jalapeno pepper, one or two garlic cloves, cilantro, and salt, and you have a fresh, raw salsa in seconds. The tomatillos are more tart than tomatoes, which makes them a perfect compliment to rich, cheesy enchiladas or chicken quesadillas. They are also full of pectin, which firms up the sauce to an almost gelatinous texture after a few hours.

Next, I tackled the mushrooms, specifically the peculiar, spongy, brain-like lion’s mane mushroom. These mushrooms have also been described as looking like “tribbles,” the furry, friendly creatures that once starred in various episodes of Star Trek . . . but I digress.

I researched some recipes and thought it would be best to keep it simple. I sautéed the slices until the water was released and they were golden brown, then added a bit of butter. The texture was strange and stringy and rubbery and the flavor a bit odd. At first it tasted rather like a commercial cake mix, slightly sweet with a chemical aftertaste. Then, I swear to God, it tasted like Dunkin’ Donuts hazelnut coffee. The slices also resembled fried sweetbreads, which was a bit off-putting. 

I wasn’t too crazy about this mushroom so I moved on to the yellow oyster mushrooms. After snipping them from their root-stem, I sautéed these in butter. They were absolutely delicious, tender and mild-flavored. They would be great in any stir-fry, as tempura, or mixed with other mushrooms into a risotto or pasta.

The fairytale eggplants were the best surprise of all. I cut them in half, doused them with Arlotta hot chili oil and sprinkled them with a little bit of Goya adobo seasoning, my favorite cheat ingredient, then roasted them in the oven. They shrank quite a bit, became soft like roasted garlic, and had a sweet, spicy flavor. 

Some of these exotic delicacies were quite pricey and, once cooked, significantly reduced in size, so I decided that some of them, when heavily seasoned, could become more of a condiment than a side dish. The spiced up fairytale eggplant, for example, would be excellent in small doses with grilled meat or fish.

Shishito peppers, which are ubiquitous in Japanese restaurants these days, are so easy to cook at home and just serve with cocktails. Simply toss them in a pan with a few teaspoons of oil, place over medium-high heat, and cook, tossing occasionally, for 5 to 10 minutes, until blistered in a few places. It’s a good idea to use a splatter screen for this, they can spit and make a mess. Sprinkle with salt and serve immediately.

In spring and early summer we have fiddlehead ferns, ramps, and scapes. Soon we will have husk cherries and other unique and unusual offerings at the farm stands. So while it’s fun to enjoy our predictable bounty of corn, tomatoes, zucchini, watermelon, and stone fruits this time of year, it’s even more fun to experiment with these other vegetables that resemble everything from mouse-sized food to aliens from outer space.

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