the right edible for the job: carol koury’s best kitchen-garden varieties

mexican gherkins asparagus bean sow true seedHOW GOOD A MATCHMAKER are you between the darlings in your garden and kitchen? Sow True Seed’s founder Carol Koury—whose upbringing schooled her to seek out such subtleties as just the right tomato variety for drying (no, not a big, juicy slicer!), or a garlic or sweet potato for longest storage, or the cucumber for the most beautiful pickles ever—shares her current favorites. Plus get her tricks for using every ingredient from sweet potato leaves to yard-long and greasy beans; making tabouli that’s gluten-free, and why unfashionable curly parsley still rates as the best in her North Carolina kitchen garden.

Matching the specific variety of edible to its intended use just makes sense, especially if putting up some of the harvest is in your plans. It has always been in Carol’s.

“I was born into a family that grew its own food,” says Carol. “My Swedish grandmother planted a garden every summer that was counted on to feed the whole family–my grandparents, their five children, spouses, and grandchildren.”

IMG_6480And that meant food year-round, much of it canned over a woodstove in a New Hampshire house that had no running water or electricity. From a young age, she helped carry water from the well 200 yards uphill in a pair of buckets on a wooden yoke over her shoulders at food-preserving time, to get the water baths going.

A “rock-reinforced hole in the ground” was their root cellar, with root crops stashed in barrels of sand, and shelved canned goods–including garden produce, and wild-foraged fruits like blueberries, apples, pears and mountain cranberries, plus dried mushrooms.

“In the coldest winters that space never froze,” she says, “and in the hottest summers it never got over 50F degrees or so.”

In a recent Q&A, Carol (who now lives and gardens in Asheville, North Carolina, where Sow True Seed’s retail store and mail-order catalog are situated) helped me fine-tune my garden choices for the best results in kitchen and pantry this year:

the q&a with carol koury

v-tomato-principe-borgheseQ. Among tomatoes, Carol, are there certain ones you grow for special purposes?

A. I only eat fresh tomatoes in season and have several favorites: ‘Principe Borghese’ [above] is an Italian tomato developed for drying–and they do it well. I slice them lengthwise and use an electric dehydrator because, unlike the Italians, I can’t count on enough sun to dry them. They are gorgeous on the shelf in clear canning jars, maintain taste and texture, and I love throwing them in sauces and stir-fries as well as chopping them in winter salads. In addition, they tend to reseed in my garden.

For sandwiches, salads and sauces I grow ‘Homestead’ for earliness and dependability and ‘Cosmonaut Volkov’ for yield. Both have sweet, not-too-acidic taste. I always grow a yellow tomato for color, taste and alkalinity, often ‘Brandywine Yellow,’ and more recently ‘Dr. Wyche’s.’

And like many, many of our customers I grow ‘Cherokee Purple’ tomatoes or another black or purple tomato like ‘Black Krim.’ Those purple tomatoes have a richness that makes my mouth water thinking about them.

I love making chunky tomato sauces with three or four colors of tomatoes not just for the taste, but the beauty.

And then for munching in the garden, their delectable sweetness and for throwing into salads, I always grow a cherry tomato like ‘Brown Berry’ or ‘Cherry Sweetie.’ The ‘Cherry Sweetie’ reseeds like a weed and often presents itself in the flower garden.

Q. Do you have tomato disease pressures in your North Carolina garden?

A. Yes—and this year, I’m growing my kitchen-garden tomatoes in straw bales to see if I can avoid the blights that have ravaged tomatoes recently. It is my understanding that these fungal blights are transmitted by airborne spores that reach the leaves of the tomato by splashing caused by watering and rain.

A friend last year grew his in straw by making large holes in the bales and filling them with sterilize things like mushroom compost and other good amendments, plus sterilized soil. He was wildly successful in that awful growing season, and I’m going to try it while we search for some breeders to trial varieties for natural blight resistance.

Q. Any other vegetables that you favor for their pest or disease resistance in your garden?

A. Partly because of the seed company, I’m always interested in this. I grow ‘Costata Romanesco’ zucchini because they can grow big and still be tender and delicious, are wonderful on the grill, and because they seem to be vine-borer resistant. I grow neck pumpkin winter squash for the same reason. It seems to be vine-borer resistant and it has a very long neck–the best part of a butternut squash! I’ll be trialing ‘Abe Lincoln’ tomatoes this summer because of indications that they are early blight resistant.

v-asparagus-bean-yard-long-red-seededQ. What about beans? I grow one sort of “shelly” kind—where the beans are showing in the pod but the pod’s still tender—as a key ingredient in my vegetable soup, to make the broth richer than plain old green beans.

A. Grandma grew what I assume were ‘Kentucky Wonder’ pole beans, and in addition to boiling them fresh, canned them. I grow English peas (‘Green Arrow’) and snap peas and bush green beans mostly for fresh eating. My favorite green bean of late is the ‘Provider,’ because it lives up to its name. Two plantings, three weeks apart, provide fresh, stingless green beans until frost.

Mostly we eat them, steamed and then stir-fried or just plain with tarragon butter or a bit of poultry seasoning with butter and lemon. I throw them in soups, too.

In a rainy, cool summer we eat lots of minestrone-type soups with both dry and green beans. I also grow yard-long red-seeded asparagus beans [above photo]. They’re amazing! They grow up to 2 feet long and can be cut up and thrown into anything cooked (like omelets, stirfies and soups), plain, or as “spaghetti” with other veggies and sauces like parsley-cilantro pesto on top.

v-pole-bean-greasy-wnc-marketQ. What about “greasy beans” that Southern gardeners keep telling me about?

A. I had never heard of them until I came to Western North Carolina. They are a regional specialty, pretty much unknown outside of Southern Appalachia. When I first heard the term it didn’t sound very appetizing. Greasy …. beans. They get their name from the fact that they are hairless, unlike other green beans, and have a shiny appearance.

I grow ‘Lazy Wife’ (!) or WNC [Western North Carolina] farmer’s market cut-shorts [photo above], as we call them. Because they have rather tough pods, folks around here cook them for a long time. I put them in a heavy-bottomed pan with chicken or veggie stock, some poultry seasoning salt and pepper and cook them until they’re soft 45 to 90 minutes.

They’re very high in protein and I will often skip the animal protein when I’m serving greasy beans. I sometimes add feta cheese and lemon to them.

Greasy beans also dry very well for storage, which is what got so many mountain people through the harsh winters. I just leave them on the vines until they die back. If it’s a rainy season, I let them grow until the vines start to die and then bring them indoors to dry thoroughly before I shell them by putting them on a tarp and dancing on them (wearing a mask for the dust). They get stored in labeled glass jars.

I sometimes grow other dry beans, like Black Turtle beans for their high protein and deliciousness in soups and chilis. We don’t tend to eat frozen green beans outside of soups because no matter how careful I am, a frozen green bean just can’t come close to the appetizing taste and texture of a fresh one.

v-slicing-cucumber-suyo-longQ. Any pickling favorites?

A. I love cucumbers, and prefer long, skinny ones. My favorites are the ‘Suyo Long’ [photo above], which have a great yield, seem in my garden to resist downy mildew better than other cucurbits, are slow to get seedy, and taste sweet and crisp.

These days I tend to make refrigerator pickles with them, which is quicker and easier than the many other varieties of pickles and last the whole year–although they do take up space in the fridge. Rather than slice the cukes for pickles, I make spears by cutting them in half lengthwise and, then slicing in quarters or thirds across the diameter, and quartering them again lengthwise in appropriate-sized spears.

For beauty, pickling and easy munching, I often grow Mexican Sour Gherkins [photo below]. Like cherry tomatoes, they’re wonderful just for munching in the garden. And there’s nothing like the beauty of a jar of these little “watermelons” pickled on the shelf.

v-specialty-cucumber-mexican-sour-gherkinQ. Do you select certain vegetable varieties to include in the garden because they are particularly “good keepers?”

A. Sweet potatoes are a family favorite. There are literally hundreds of sweet potato varieties in North Carolina, where it is the state vegetable, but I tend to grow ‘Beauregard,’ which is a very common, old-fashioned sweet that is reliable and has great texture. They keep very well, often right into March.

The leaves of sweet potatoes are edible–and I throw them in salads and use them as wrappers for sandwich fillings.

Having less time and energy than I used to, I store some veggies in the garden for the winter. Brussel’s sprouts will weather a winter right on the plant here, as will carrots and several kinds of kale and leeks.

Garlic is essential and another fairly good keeper. I actually prefer the hardneck varieties, which are supposed to store less well, but which produce garlic scapes in the late spring for a wonderful treat. I plant both hard and softneck for the flavor and storage most recently ‘German Red’ (hardneck) for its pretty skin and nice big cloves (and scapes), and Inchelium for its ease of growth, spicy taste and storage capacity.

Q. Is there one edible you think too few people grow, and why? 

A. I always plant a lot of curly parsley. For some reason the flat varieties are much more popular, but I like the curly because of its very “parsley” taste and because it’s much easier to chop–and yes, makes a pretty garnish. It lasts well into the fall here and comes back up early in the spring for use before going to seed.

While my Swedish ancestry brought lots of fish, potatoes, meatballs and simple veggies to my life, my Lebanese ancestry, among other things brought tabouli, and stuffed zucchini and eggplant. Tabouli (tabouleh) is a simple parsley salad. It has been Americanized in delis to contain more grain than parsley, but the Lebanese/Syrian style has twice as much curly parsley as grain, chopped fairly fine.

Bulghur wheat is the traditional grain, well soaked in olive oil and boiling water. Add a big helping of chopped mint and tomatoes, garlic rubbed into the bowl, and lemon, salt and pepper. People sometimes add onions (which disagree with me) and/or chopped cucumber. A gluten-free and utterly delicious option is to make tabouli with well-drained quinoa instead of wheat.

I also like kohlrabi for slaws and salads. It’s a gorgeous plant and easier to deal with than it’s larger sisters, the cabbages.

(Footnote: I’m pleased that in 2014, Sow True–specialists in open-pollinated seeds, including heirlooms–was a seasonal sponsor of A Way to Garden, after we were introduced by our common friends at Organic Seed Alliance. All photos courtesy of Sow True Seed.)


  1. bavaria says:

    Thank you for this lovely resource. It is great to have the years of family food garden history and wisdom available.

  2. Linda says:

    I love the story of Carol’s Grandma in New Hampshire. My Babci’s story is similar. She was from Poland and lived in Massachusetts to the age of 92. Her garden and cooking were known far and wide. With all of the modern conveniences of today, I often wonder how could they possibly have done all that
    My son is intolerant of gluten. I have been making tabouli with quinoa for years and now prefer it to that made with bulgur.

  3. Kate says:

    What wonderful advice! Is it possible to get her Tabouleh recipe? I’ve always wanted to try it with quinoa, too, but I feel like I never get the flavor right!

  4. Dianne says:

    I would love to get Carol’s refrigerator pickle recipe. I’ve never seen one that says the pickles will last a year in the fridge, so I seldom make them because they are usually not consumed within three months or whatever the recommended time is.

    1. Linda hall says:

      I recently tried a microwave refrigerator bread and butter pickle recipe. So easy. I still boil the jars and lids for 10 minutes, but other than that the pickles took only 7 minutes!
      I added lots of onion, and a dash of crushed red pepper . They were so delicious, and make a nice gift too. Lots of recipes on the web!

  5. Audrey Ostrom says:

    This article by Carol Koury is superb. Growing up in the UK during wartime, we had to devise every method possible to grow food and preserve it without the benefit of freezers and food dryers but we survived.
    One wonderful vegetable not mentioned is Kale, a green leafy vegetable highly nutritious as well as delicious, some varieties can be perennial but the tastyest kale is once frost has touched it the leaves become even more tender. Boil it, dry it, eat in salads. Get Sharon Hanna’s book “Kale’ and you have it all.
    Audrey Ostrom

  6. Timothina says:

    What a wonderful interview. I am growing Mexican Sour Gherkins for the first time this year, and I would love a good recipe for pickling them.

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