It’s nearing the end of our main growing season here in North Carolina. Halfway through October, our tomato plants are not much longer for the world, perhaps even living on borrowed time now. Summer squashes have given way, and winter squashes are strewn out waiting for the first frost.
We’ve also got some cold weather stuff in the ground. Cilantro has reseeded itself. We’ve planted rounds of carrots, beets, chard, kale, and radishes. Collard greens, a local favourite, are on the go. Kohlrabi is in the ground. Because we’ve been building our home, we’ve dropped the ball on getting some of what we’d like to have planted—broccoli, fava beans, leeks—this year.
But, what’s on my mind is more positive: It’s how much we’ve enjoyed our common crops this summer. More so, part of what we’ve enjoyed has been making the very most of them. We are steadily adding to our repertoire of possibilities, expanding our diets and production into new realms.
As dutiful permaculturalists, we’ve always sought out secondary (edible) uses for our harvests, ways to get more function from what we have cultivated. Here’s some of what has us excited this year, as well as some notes from the past and hopes for the future.
With our second growing season in North Carolina, we showed marked improvement in our carrot harvest. The roots have been the most flavourful I’ve ever eaten, and they’ve come out of the ground with a heft we didn’t get last year.
Somewhat oddly, the greens are a huge hit in the kitchen. My wife Emma likes to make chimichurri, a raw Argentine sauce typically prepared with parsley, garlic, oil and vinegar. Anytime carrots come in, we are checking out the greens because we sub them for the parsley.
However much improvement we’ve gotten with carrots, our radishes and beetroot have been lackluster. Aside from the fall planting of radishes, which have done splendidly, they are all greens and no root. We’ve diagnosed this as nitrogen-rich soil, possibly a lack of phosphorus.
Nonetheless, we’ve taken full advantage of the greens. Radish greens make fantastic salads, and beet greens have enough structure to withstand cooking. They have played well in “greens” mixtures with collards and mustard.
- In reality, we have used the leaves of all sorts of stuff for years. There are many beans—not all—with edible leaves. Okra leaves are delicious. Sweet potato leaves are very good and commonly used in some places. In fact, the number of edible leaves on the common crops we grow for other reasons is crazy. Before eating them, check to see if they need to be cooked.
Last year was our first big winter squash harvest, not something we focused on in the tropics but flavours we’ve really grown to appreciate up north. We use a wood-burning cookstove in the winter, and roasted squash is a favourite meal to cook with it.
When doing so, I always make sure to keep the seeds, willing to somewhat painstakingly clear them from the squash guts. As the big squashes roast slowly, I put the seeds in our little cast-iron skillet and roast them as well. They make a great, calorie-rich snack while waiting for the squash to cook.
Of everything we cultivated this year, tomatoes were the most impressive performer. We got to experience what most Deep South gardeners are accustomed to: more tomatoes than we knew what to do with it. The number of tomatoes on the counter and windowsills was almost alarming at times.
While we have sauces, stewed tomatoes, and all of that good stuff that gets made in bulk (and Emma discovered a new tomato chutney/ketchup recipe that has us both excited), we also froze a lot of diced tomatoes this year. We adopted the habit of dicing up the tops and bottoms of slicing tomatoes and tossing them in a freezer bag one fruit at a time. We’ve got several bags now.
Another thing we’ve gotten into this year is green tomatoes. Fried green tomatoes, famously so, is a Southern tradition as well. We’ve eaten these a handful of times, but when we cleaned up one of the garden beds recently, we pulled up a few tomato plants and harvested three or four dozen green tomatoes. That’d be way too much fried food.
So, these green tomatoes have gone into some delicious relish and even more outstanding—crunchy—pickles. We are also learning to use them, a flavour and texture completely separate from ripe tomatoes, in cooking. This is a great way to get a final harvest from tomato plants as they are cleared for autumn planting or before frosts.
It seems a bit absurd, really, to include potato skins in such a list. The truth is that we wouldn’t dream of peeling potatoes. We love the skin, deeming all our potato dishes as “rustic” to excuse any objections to skins in the mashed potatoes. My mama has always told me the skin is where all the nutrients are.
Nevertheless, it’s a thing people do. My father worked at McDonald’s as a teenager in the 60s, before French fries came in bags, and he used to tell tales of racing co-workers in potato peeling. To the point, all those potato skins, while the fryer is on anyway, make delicious chips (crisps, Emma says). They can be roasted to a similar end as well.
Similar to potato skins, I wasn’t even aware that not eating the stalk was a thing! Of course, broccoli (and cauliflower) stalks are edible. Having lived in a vegetable market world for years, I’d forgotten many have largely converted to bags of florets rather than actual heads of broccoli.
Broccoli stalks do have a tough outer layer, but the inside is tender and delicious. It’s only a matter of a few extra slices, and there’s a lot more broccoli to go around. While not as dazzling as the florets, the stalks are great for soups, omelettes and casseroles.
We’ve not attempted growing watermelons here yet, but when we do get into that, watermelon rinds will be something we experiment with. They can be used to make pickles. I’ve got this in mind for an interesting marketable thing if we ever go that route. It’s a folksy practice that might provide a sense of nostalgia or pique curiosity.
Plus, it uses something that is in abundance but often just goes to the compost bin. When watermelon is cut up, the rind is saved. The dark green outer portion and remaining pink innards are shaved off. The inner rind is used to make pickles. Again, the rind, or skin, is actually the healthiest part of the fruit.
The Broth Bag
While we could never keep up with all of the vegetables scraps we create, we do keep a running broth bag in the freezer. This gets a mix: onion skins, garlic skins, green bean ends, broccoli stalk peelings, carrot ends, celery butts, pepper stems, herb stems, and whatever else that crosses the cutting board and seems good for a soup stock.
Periodically, particularly in the winter when the cookstove is going for heat anyhow, we make a huge pot of vegetable broth. This little effort adds serious flavour and nutrition to our meals. Stock can be canned to store, but we usually put our stock in ice cube trays to make portioned servings. A pot makes a couple bags worth of cubes, and that lasts the two of us a couple of months easily.
In essence, the broth bag is the “garbage disposal” of using up veggie scraps from our common crops. Hopefully, we all have far more than we can handle in that department as well, and the compost bin or biogester, too, is always full with good stuff for the garden bed. Whatever the case, it’s important in maximising production per square meter, that we are aware and take advantage of all that’s available to us, and understanding the secondary crops growing in the garden is an efficient way of doing this.
What other ways are people using secondary crops? Please feel free to contribute more ideas in the comment section below.