8 heat-proof spinach substitutes and more unusual edibles, with niki jabbour
NIKI JABBOUR’S ADVENTURES with oddball, unexpected edibles began when she grew a 5-foot-long snake gourd intended as an element of Halloween decorations. And then almost accidentally she learned from her Lebanese mother-in-law that young fruits off the vine were also delectable vegetables. Today, Niki’s new book, “Veggie Garden Remix,” profiles not just that cucuzza, but 223 other possibilities to shake up your vegetable garden, like she has.
A popular lecturer and author, Niki gardens in Halifax, Nova Scotia, producing harvests in all four seasons and not just your basic everyday edibles, either. I welcomed her back to the program to talk about a wacky wide range of things to grow this year—and especially about eight surprising substitutes for spinach, in case you crave the flavor but have trouble with spinach in some portion of your growing season, like maybe in the hottest part of summer. I learned that we can eat our hosta shoots (well, not if you want to look at the plants all season) and also purple hyacinth beans and more surprises.
Plus: Enter to win a copy of “Veggie Garden Remix” at the bottom of the page.
Read along as you listen to the Feb. 5, 2018 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
unusual edibles to grow, with niki jabbour
Q. I see that you’re going to be in my area pretty soon, Niki. In March, I think you’re doing an event at Berkshire Botanical Garden.
A. I am. I’m so excited because I’ve been to the Boston Flower Show before and I’ll be heading there again, but I was lucky enough that the Berkshire Botanical Garden invited me to come as well, so I’ll be there on March 18th, I believe. Sunday, March 18th. [Event information at this link.]
Q. O.K., well you never know who might show up, in the audience.
A. [Laughter.] Fingers crossed. You can heckle me, you can throw different oddball edibles at me.
Q. But as I hinted at in the brief introduction sort of about your cucuzza or your snake gourd, you have been influenced by various migrant gardeners, including your mother-in-law, to sort of widen your palate of edibles. All kinds of things, eating fresh chick peas and I don’t know—all kinds of little melon-y looking things. So is that what happened? [Laughter.]
A. Yes, I’d always grown what I think many of us consider “normal” crops—you know, your potatoes and carrots and tomatoes and such. Honestly, beans have always been my favorite thing to grow.
Q. Me, too.
Q. Yes, beans.
A. You love them, too?
Q. Oh, totally.
A. Right, and there’s so many out there. I had fun with the diversity of heirloom vegetables. But it was a late July day, probably about a decade ago, that my mother-in-law came up to the garden to grab some, you know, tomatoes and cucumbers and zucchini and stuff like that—and she just stopped.
A. She was looking at this big A-frame trellis I had that was covered in the crazy rampant vines of the snake gourd. And she said, “What is this here?” And I’m like, “Well this is just a snake gourd for Halloween.” And she goes, “No, no, no, this is cuzzini or cucuzza.” And she goes, “In my village we grew this like zucchini.” And I was like, “But it’s not an edible gourd, it’s one of the hardshell gourds.”
A. Yes, and she said, “No, now when they’re young you harvest them, and you can cook them and eat them.” And her eyes were shining, so we grabbed like an armful of them. Because at that point, they were actually the perfect size, about a foot long, and she just headed home with this armful of cucuzza. And she cooks the most wonderful dishes with it and brought some to us the next day.
And so from then on I’ve been growing bottle gourds, calabash gourds, and snake gourds for her and for myself, as she’s taught me how to use them. And then I thought well, my gosh, what else could I grow that she might recognize, that she might have had in Bhamdoun, in the village she grew up in.
Q. I love some of the stories, like that she has a stew that she makes and you’ve been able to find an herb that—I think it’s an herb—that seasons it, or is it a vegetable that is right for it?
A. It’s a green vegetable, yes, and that’s kind of one of those spinach-y kind of guys. I pronounce it wrong, so anybody who’s Lebanese root or Arabic roots will laugh at me, but the way that I pronounce is molokhia. It’s molokhia, but my husband and mother-in-law pronounce it much better than that.
But it’s in the mallow family and it’s often. But it thickens up this chicken stew and you pour it over rice, and it’s just it’s such a healthy green leafy green and it’s delicious.
Q. So we’ll talk more about some of the spinach-esque things in a minute. I think you’ve also figured out a close-enough approximation of the usual blend or mix of herbs za’atar. You have something that you’re using—is it an oregano of some kind from some unusual place?
A. Yes. Syrian oregano is generally probably 75-80 percent, that is the herb that is used to make the spice mix call za’atar. And I make man’oushe at least two three times a week for breakfast and man’oushe is like a flat bread dough, even a pizza dough would do. And you spread it like you would a pizza and then you cover it with a mixture of za’atar and olive oil, kind of mixed to a slurry. And you just rub it all over the flatbread, put it in the oven, bake it and until it’s golden, maybe 10 or 12 minutes, and then you eat it for breakfast. Sometimes you can slice cucumbers or tomatoes on it before you eat it. My goodness, it is the best breakfast.
So I wanted to grow za’atar. The funny thing is though, depending where you are in the world there are different plants that can be called za’atar. There are savories, there is thyme, there are oreganos, but generally Syrian oregano [Origanum syriacum] is the plant used to make za’atar mix. So you can easily grow that in your garden.
I start from seed, about seven, eight weeks before the last frost and it goes in my containers and in my raised bed. And it’s very happy and we harvest, well, armfuls of that that we can then dry for making our own homemade za’atar mix.
Q. O.K., so there are many things in the book—“Veggie Garden Remix” is the new book—that I’ve never even heard of. [Laughter.] Like some that you just mentioned, and others that I’ve grown many times, but I thought they were ornamentals, and I didn’t know you could eat them, like purple lablab bean [Dolichos lablab]. How did you figure that out?
A. Yes, the hyacinth bean. I had heard it from gardeners, honestly, who told me that they really like it. You know the hyacinth bean, many gardeners grow it as an ornamental, and it certainly is a beautiful ornamental. But when properly boiled and cooked, you know—or even stir-fry the young pods—you can eat that as well. And oh my gosh, the deep purple color just adds a pop to your stir-fries and it’s just really lovely.
It’s not my favorite bean to eat, but it’s one of those things that when I grow it, we always do harvest some throughout the summer to add them to our food. Because it is so lovely, and it’s great because when it flowers, too—it’s very attractive to hummingbirds. So there’s many layers of interest for that bean.
Q. Yes, it’s a wonderful plant. I like to even do it in a pot, like a big pot on the patio with three long bamboos tied up at the top into a teepee or tripod, and just let it kind of make this whole cone.
A. Oh, it’s so beautiful and that’s a perfect way to use it in a large container, and then you can under plant it with so many other types of edibles or flowers.
Q. So hosta shoots—that’s another one: I never thought to eat them.
A. Yes, hostons is the official name for a hosta shoot, and it’s funny because in many parts of Asia, hostas and hostons you can buy at the markets, bundled up and to eat. But here we know the deer like them and the bunnies like them, but we don’t technically or generally eat our hosta plants—but you can if you want to, and they taste quite green and fresh like spring to me, really. And we kind of harvest the hostons when they’re maybe 6 or 7 inches tall, well they’re still those hard little cones emerging in spring.
Q. Tight, yes.
A. And you can cut them and you can … My favorite way to do it, I’ve roasted them, I’ve used them in many different ways. But I just like to quickly saute them in a bit of olive oil, maybe a little bit of garlic in a frying pan for like 5 or 6 minutes and they just go vibrant green, and they taste really fresh and delicious.
Q. Yes, I just never thought of it. And what I thought of when I saw in the book, is I thought of when I first moved to my place, when I first got it as a weekend place, I don’t know 30 years ago or something, there were a lot of as everybody had in those days it was also called funkia, they called hostas funkias. And everybody either had—as Tony Avent of Plant Delights says if he tells this story, “You either had the green one or the striped one.” [Laughter.] That there were two kind of hostas, you know what I mean.
A. Yes. [Laughter.]
Q. The green one and the striped one. And so at every old house—and this is a very old house that I had bought—there were tons of them. And what I thought when I saw it in the book is that I could have had a hosta farm for edible shoots—gosh, too bad I didn’t just put them in an out-of the-way spot. I didn’t want them since they were so unspectacular and un-special.
Q. But they would be great for that. [Laughter.]
A. You know, I think we’ll start seeing things like that at the farmer’s market, but you could have made a killing back then selling your hostas.
Q. So back to the legumes for a moment, since we’re both bean lovers—I didn’t know that. I was glad to see that you devoted a lot of space to them, and that you even included a yard-long beans, which I love—talk about sort of a jack in the beanstalk crop. Tell us about those and what do you do with them, any special things about growing them and so forth?
A. Yard-long beans. I mean I’m a short season like you are in some degree, though I think you’re a smidge longer than me. Yard-long beans, the first year I grew them I just direct-seeded them like I would pole beans. And they grew slower than I would have probably liked, and we got a modest harvest, a couple handfuls, but it wasn’t spectacular. So I did a little research and I talked to some gardeners and the next year I started them indoors about four weeks or a couple of weeks early anyway, in 4-inch pots. And then I planted them out about a week after the last frost we had, and they did so much better for me and we did harvest quite a generous crop of those. But I’ve learned that in short-season gardens it’s variety: picking the right variety. My favorite to grow is ‘Liana,’ because it is a short-season type of yard-long bean.
Q. And it’s green, it’s the green one, right?
A. It is the green one. The ‘Red Noodle’ are beautiful and some summers, like two summers ago, we had a hot, long summer and they did awesome. But then last year it wasn’t a hot, long summer. It was wet and cool and they didn’t do so awesome, so if I grow something like ‘Liana’ which is shorter-season, it’s much more reliable, but I do stick a few ‘Red Noodle’ beans as well with them just so I can have those spectacular pods. Oh my gosh, they’re beautiful, and yard-long beans do get very long, anywhere from 15 inches to 3 feet long. They kind of got a different bean flavor, though. So, if you like snap beans…
Q. Yes, they do.
A. Yes, it’s a little more earthy and mushroom-y, and so it’s a little different. So maybe if you haven’t tried them before, before you order seed go to your Asian market and pick up a bundle and cook them in several different ways, and see if you like them.
Q. Friends of mine just oil them a little bit and put them on the grill, even.
Q. Whole. It’s just this crazy thing, and then they cut them up after they grill them because obviously if…
A. That’s a great idea.
Q. …obviously if you cut them up first they’d fall through the grill. [Laughter.]
A. That’s a good idea. I do that with asparagus, of course, but I never thought of yard-long beans.
Q. That’s the way friends that I know like them.
A. O.K., wish I knew that before I wrote the book. [Laughter.]
Q. O.K., I’ll give you tips; just call anytime now. [Laughter.] Well there are plenty of tips in this book, believe me, that as I said I knew nothing about. So like the oddball morphological characteristic of these yard-long beans. They have sort of almost hidden little body part that you call out in the book, tell us about that.
A. You’re talking about the nectaries?
A. It’s so cool, plants are so smart, you know what I mean? And they’ve evolved over all this time, evolved to attract bees. So on yard-long beans, and other types of beans have these as well, there are extrafloral nectaries on the stems, and if you look close sometimes you’ll see ants on your bean plants, or sometimes you’ll see little beneficial insects or little bees and things like that crawling over the stem.
Because there are these glands that produce nectar that attract the good guys to chase away the bad bugs. So it’s just one of those ways plants have evolved to try to remain healthy and grow healthy, and it’s something they have that can attract pollinators as well as beneficial insects. It’s super-cool.
Q. So these extrafloral nectaries, not the flowers…
Q. …it’s “extra-” ones, it’s different.
Q. And after I saw it in the book, I thought, “Oh, I sort of haven’t thought about that in a million years and aren’t there a lot of other plants that have that?” And I looked it up, and you got me on another one of my rabbit holes of research. [Laughter.] And I found something, I think it was at the University of Florida Extension, it said:
“2,000 plant species in more than 64 families the plants have this …” Like elderberries have it, passion flowers do, and maybe people mostly noticeably have seen the sort of stickiness on the buds of peonies.
Q. Another example of a place other than the obvious, full-bloom moment, that there is this attraction going on—very interesting.
A. It is, it was introduced to me by Jessica Walliser, who is a beneficial insect and a pest expert. When I read that in her book years ago I was like: that is so cool. You kind of go to look for that in the garden once you realize it’s there.
A. I like to say, “Well, let’s look for these nectaries; do I see any beneficial insects on them?” When you actually look for it, you see it happening out there.
Q. For those of us who like something spicy in the greens department, you know there’s of course, arugula, and I always have it; it’s my favorite salad. I think I read that it’s your favorite salad green too, yes?
A. It is, absolutely.
Q. Me, too. But you have some others in this book. So tell me about some of them because I’ve sort of thought, “Should I? Shouldn’t I?” I’ve grown mustards, some of the mustards, but I haven’t cultivated dandelion, for instance.
A. Dandelion is another one of those crops that are growing because of my mother-in-law. In Lebanon a lot of the salads are very bitter, endive- or dandelion-based, and I knew putting dandelion in a book that people are going to roll their eyes at me and say, “O.K. you have gone too far; all right, we’re not growing dandelions.”
But these aren’t actually dandelions, they’re chicory. So they’re in the endive family, Italian dandelions. I’ll plant these, and there are different kinds, different varieties. I really like ‘Garnet Stem,’ which has these burgundy stems and these great deep green leaves.
And it’s just really delicious. I mean if you’ve eaten dandelions from foraging them, the flavor of these is above and beyond, of course. But they’re delicious, and I always leave a couple to overwinter in my garden. I always end up missing a few roots, and they come back the next year and then they start to flower. And they don’t have a dandelion like flower, they have the flower like you would see in an endive, so these beautiful aster-y yellow flowers. And they get 5 feet tall. I mean these are big plants when they flower, one little dandelion, it’s pretty amazing.
Q. Interesting. So ‘Garnet Stem’ is one that you like?
A. Yes, ‘Garnet Stem’ is outstanding, and you can also get other types of Italian dandelions as well, just your typical Italian dandelion. Lots of seed companies carry them and they’re really, really delicious. They’re one of those cut-and-come-again crop, so we’ll direct-seed them and then after maybe like five or six weeks, we take a first initial cutting, and then the roots will grow back again like a dandelion will keep coming back. But you can probably get three or four harvests easily out of the plant, yes before you might pull them out and put something else in that spot.
Q. So it’s a cut-and-come-again kind of a thing. Now is that the same with the turnip greens that you also mention in that section of the book? Are we growing those the same way—just like I might grow beets just for greens?
A. Yes, well you can grow your turnip greens like that because I love lots of different varieties of turnip. I love those beautiful little Japanese white varieties, which are outstanding. And so yes, you can eat those greens, like when you harvest the roots. Or you can actually buy varieties that are meant only for greens and don’t really produce much of a root. I’m certainly doing that as well when it comes to turnip greens.
And even radish greens—there’s some really nice varieties of radish greens now you can buy that only produce the greens with no actual noticeable root. Yes, super high-quality, a nice zippy kind of green to eat, and just really delicious and fast-growing. And also a lot of these greens are great not only for spring and fall, but even in my winter coldframes and stuff, they do really well.
Q. ‘Cause you’re the four-season person over there in Halifax.
A. I am, I’m the crazy year-round vegetable gardener.
Q. So we mentioned one of the sort of spinach substitute-y kind of things, because let’s face it in the hot summer, for instance, and there are varieties that are more heat-tolerant than others, but sometimes some of us don’t do so well with spinach all the time.
Q. So you have some other choices, but they’re not even in the same family in some cases as true spinach. You mentioned one before, which is a mallow relative.
A. Right, yes that’s a molokhia that I’m terribly mispronouncing, I know–
Q. Which is like M-O-L-O-K-H-I-A.
A. But there are different spellings as well, because some of the seed companies will spell it so many different ways, if you Google it. I think it ]kind of depends on the country of origin in the Middle East, because this is also a big Egyptian crop, as well as grown in Lebanon and Syria, too.
Q. Just for people if they want to look at up without knowing how to spell it, the genus is spelled Corchorus.
A. That’s correct, and again, it’s in the same family as the mallow and there are really pretty plants. I grow it in my raised beds, but I really like to grow it in pots and they grow into the kind of loose plants and get several feet tall and wide, with pretty yellow flowers as well. But it’s the leaves you eat, and sometimes I grow so much of it that we will actually take those leaves and just freeze them in freezer bags for winter use for making the stew that my mother-in-law likes to make.
She makes it least once or twice a month, and normally here if we want to make this she has to go to the Lebanese grocery store and buy frozen bags of it already. And that’s how you get it—from frozen molokhia that’s been grown in Egypt or in Lebanon. So the fact that we can grow it ourselves—and I can’t grow quite enough to supply her, because it would take up a lot more garden space and I want to give it. But it’s certainly a summer treat, and to have it made from fresh leaves is so much more amazing than the pre-frozen stuff.
Q. A couple of these substitutes that you mention are in fact related to spinach, in the Chenopodium family right? So what, spreen and orach, are those …
A. That’s correct, yes.
Q. I think those are the two. So tell me about those two, those are crazy-looking. The magenta spreen…
A. Have you grown that before?
Q. I have never.
A. Oh, goodness, you should grow it this year. My kids called it the sparkle plant, because it is it’s so beautiful. It’s a quinoa relative as well, and it will grow 4 feet tall, but we keep it sheared back to about 2 feet, because we want to constantly have a supply of the fresh, high-quality leaves. But it will eventually produce quinoa-like flowers. But it’s these silvery green leaves with this pop of magenta hot pink at the center of every growing tip.
And you can take those little growing tips off and my daughter likes to rub them on her cheeks and her arms and they kind of sparkle pink, and the sparkle is actually edible—it’s high in calcium even. But that’s one of those crops we use like spinach because it’s really heat-tolerant, grows great in summer. So we enjoy it all summer long, and we use it in salads raw, or we will cook it in a quiche, or Spinach Artichoke Dip—except it’s Magenta Spreen Artichoke Dip. Or we use it any way that you’d use spinach, we use magenta spreen, and it’s very easy to grow and a lot of seed companies now carry it.
Q. And the orach is Atriplex hortensis, right?
Q. So you grow that as well, and that’s in two colors, yes?
A. There’s kind of a range of colors, but for me, it’s kind of interesting. You can buy mixed packs as well and you end up with some different variety and different ranges of those colors from burgundy to purple, to green to gold to yellow and, yes, everything in between—and it is so beautiful to grow.
I did have a problem last year with them because I had a groundhog issue, and those little groundhogs got in my garden and for some reason they loved the orach.
I don’t know why, but they went to it every single time, but it is easy to grow you can start indoors, you can direct-seed it in the garden and it’s these lovely kind of arrow-shaped leaves. And it’s got a bit of a lemon kind of taste to the leaves as well, so it’s nice in a mixed salad or you can wilt them and put them in a quiche. There’s so many different ways to use orach, but it’s beautiful, and it’s delicious, and it’s colorful.
Q. Amaranth, which a lot of people know more for the grain sort of look—for the big trusses up top, you know the flower, seedheads or whatever—but that’s great also and beautiful and also multi-colored, yes?
A. This was my rabbit hole, O.K., because when I started reading this book, I swear I started with amaranth. And I think I spent a month working on it, because every periodical, every magazine, every article, every seed catalog is all tangled up in all the different species and there are hundreds of them, and it’s very confusing. And it took me about a month to untangle everything to make sure I truly understood all the varieties and species and the ways to use it. Because I’ve been growing around probably 12 different types for years, but it was very confusing.
So I went on this long rabbit hole for amaranth, and I fell in love with so many of the varieties. And I grow them in containers, and in my garden beds. Primarily we grow them as a leaf crop, because I find some years if it’s really warm, yes, we’ll get to harvest the seeds, but for the most part for me this is something, you know, a “power green.” And there’s lots of different kinds, but I think I prefer the vegetable amaranth the best, which is the one you’ll find at different Asian food markets as well. As you know this is a popular vegetable, it’s also called callaloo. A lot of people call it callaloo, for Jamaican cooking…
A. …in different types of dishes. But it’s beautiful, it’s green with these kind of burgundy centers to the leaves, super-productive plants and just a really nice taste. And again, I’ll use it the same way I use spinach or magenta spreen: raw in salads, cooked in dishes, and it’s heat-tolerant and goes all summer long.
Q. I learned, speaking of woodchucks (or groundhogs as you call them) about sweet potato leaves being delicious.
A. Oh, yes. Yes, they are. [Laughter.]
Q. And that’s not in the same family, either. [Update: It’s in the morning glory family.]
A. Yes, that’s correct.
Q. So that’s another one that we can use. We can cook those as well, yes?
A. Yes, that’s delicious. I learned about that talking to Asian food expert Wendy Kiang-Spray a couple of years ago, because I’ve been growing short-season sweet potatoes. But she’s like, “What do you do with the leaves?” And I’m like, “Nothing.” And then she’s like, “O.K., you have to use the leaves.” And then I started using them and she gave me some of her mother’s suggestion for using them. I just cook them like a green, I add them to stir fries, and they’re delicious. It’s a nice extra crop to get from your sweet potatoes.
Q. And there’s one in your list of spinach alternatives—tatsoi—which is a Brassica, a Brassica rapa, a sort of subspecies of Brassica rapa, so related to raab I guess, broccoli raab.
A. Yes, my goodness I’ve been growing that one probably 15 years and it was really hard to source at the beginning, but now most seed companies carry it. It’s super, super cold-tolerant. I mean I can grow it in my open garden, and if it gets covered up 2 feet of snow in the wintertime by the time the snow melts, it’s still fine to harvest.
A. It’s looking happy and green, it’s amazing. But I do like to grow it in coldframes, and it’s also great in the open garden in spring and fall. It’s got spoon-shaped little leaves that kind of form a beautiful rosette. So it’s quite attractive to look at, it can harvest like a baby crop for stir-frying and salad, but these wonderful rosette form like a 1-foot-wide head and it’s delicious and easy to grow.
Q. And really if you had said to me, “What’s a spinach substitute?” the only one I’d heard of was the last one on the list in this chapter, the so-called New Zealand spinach, which isn’t a spinach at all, or even related.
Q. It’s in some crazy fig-marigold family, whatever the heck that is. I think the genus is Tetragonia.
A. [Laughter.] Yes.
Q. And so that’s the other one and that’s another choice. A little plug for that one?
A. Super-easy to grow, ridiculously heat-tolerant, and it’s got a really nice kind of succulent, arrow-shaped leaves, great in salads all summer long. And again, it just shrugs off the hot, dry weather. We’re living with more drought as time goes on here, and more heat in the summertime, so this is a perfectly crop for containers and garden beds to keep you going all summer long.
more from niki jabbour
- Niki blogs at Savvy Gardening
- Niki’s upcoming event at Berkshire Botanical Garden (MA) on March 18, 2018
- Our previous interview, about year-round vegetable gardening
- Our previous interview about oddball cukes and edible gourds and more
- Browse Niki’s books at Amazon
enter to win ‘veggie garden remix’
I’LL BUY a copy of “Veggie Garden Remix” by Niki Jabbour for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box way down at the bottom of the page:
Any oddball edibles growing in your backyard this coming season (or in seasons past)?
No answer or feeling shy? Just say something like “Count me in,” and I will, but an answer is even better.
I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday February 13, 2018. Good luck to all. U.S. and Canada only.
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(Photo credits: Snake gourd © Ryan Donnell; magenta spreen by Niki Jabbour; yard-long bean and lablab bean © James Ingram/Jive Photographic Inc.; dandelion, amaranth and mixed greens © Philip Ficks; hosta shoots © Mars Vilaubi.)