How I Learned to Love the Vegetables I Didn’t Like – by Anna Hess
The following post was written by Anna Hess or The Walden Effect blog. Anna just had her first book published and we will be reviewing it soon. Check out The Weekend Homesteader: A Twelve-Month Guide to Self Sufficiency.
My grandmother was a nutritionist and my mother raised me on sugar-free, whole wheat oatmeal cookies, so you’d think I’d have vegetables all figured out. But I used to be the world’s pickiest eater, and it took me years of farm living to learn to eat quality food. I hope the tips below help you jumpstart your own culinary adventure.
Don’t assume you’re not keen on a food until you’ve grown it yourself. Currently, I believe that leafy greens will cure nearly all ills, and with the help of quick hoops (easy season extenders), we have fresh greens available nearly year-round. However, the vegetable was a hard sell for most of my childhood and young adult life. My mother liked to feed us woody collard leaves the size of my head boiled into submission in a vat of water, without even adding the bacon locals use to make this dish semi-palatable. Swiss chard was the only green I kinda-sorta liked, and I’d take broccoli over Swiss chard any day of the week.
When my husband and I moved to our farm and started to garden, I probably wouldn’t have planted any greens at all, but he liked collards, so I decided to give it a shot. I soon discovered that tender young collard leaves sauteed just until wilted in balsamic vinegar were nectar of the gods! Invigorated by the discovery, I decided to try some other greens varieties and soon learned that mixtures of Asian greens and baby kale are so sweet in cold weather that you almost think you’re eating dessert.
I made similar discoveries with other vegetables I thought I detested – summer squash, garlic, and several others. Now when I hear people list the vegetables they don’t like, I feel like sitting them down and detailing my confessions as an ex-picky-eater. Grocery store produce of any sort is so-so, but if you grow it yourself instead, focusing on nutrient density in the garden, picking the vegetable at the peak of perfection, and cooking the produce properly, chances are you’ll stop wrinkling up your nose and start begging for more.
The best food is fresh and in season. The next stage in my culinary adventures was realizing that you can’t expect a December strawberry to hold a candle to the real thing. My husband and I currently grow nearly all the vegetables we eat, and for the first few years, I preserved like crazy to make sure we had our favorites year-round. But the truth is that we actually prefer garden-fresh broccoli in November over even the highest quality frozen sweet corn and green beans from our own garden.
Even if you’re not growing all of your own food, you can take advantage of the taste of fresh produce. Head to the fruit stand or farmer’s market, or keep an eye peeled for signs promising “Fresh eggs” as you drive down country roads. Every minute a vegetable is separated from its parent plant means nutrients (and flavors) down the drain, so it’s not surprising that your kids don’t want to eat those grocery store vegetables that have been sitting around for days (or weeks). Garden guru Eliot Coleman reports that kids come to his CSA asking for more “candy carrots” — like kale, these vegetables turn starches into sugar when cold weather comes to call, and the result is enjoyed even by folks who don’t care about a healthy diet.
Experiment with seasonings. The trouble with eating locally and in season is that you’re stuck with one glut after another. While no one has ever complained about the gallons of strawberries I bring in from the garden in May and June, we did finally get sick of plain cucumbers this year when over-planting brought bushels of the vegetable to the table every week all summer long. Luckily, it’s simple to change the same vegetables into several different taste combinations with judicious use of herbs and spices.
At this time of year, seasonal vegetables in our neck of the woods include broccoli, cabbage, carrots, and leafy greens. Sauteed with a little teriyaki sauce and balsamic vinegar, these vegetables turn into a delicious stir fry, but you can just as easily add a gravy made of chicken broth and flavored with onions to create a chicken pot pie. Learning a few seasonings you enjoy can make the garden glut feel like a bounty rather than a chore.
Remodel your food road map before trying new foods. One of the most challenging parts of making sure the food you grow makes it out of the garden and into your belly is training yourself to expect different flavors and visions than you’d get in a restaurant. That may mean realizing that an apple with a spot on one side is perfectly fine once you cut out the rotten zone, or that tomatoes with cracked tops are actually tastier than the perfectly smooth globes from the grocery store.
In my experience, the more difficult part of training myself to eat real food has been opening my eyes to culinary adventures that I might have otherwise been too afraid to partake of. For example, cyclical cicadas crawled up out of the ground this year and were dripping from the trees for several weeks. Our chickens adored them, and I’d read that cicadas were tasty and nutrient-dense, but I wasn’t quite sure I was ready to eat a bug.
Later, I read that when trying a new food, your brain tries to place the unique object into its existing road map of tastes and nutrition. This is probably why so many meats are described as tasting like chicken — you take a bite of kangaroo or iguana, search your mental road map, and realize that the flavor and texture is most like that traditional white meat.
Unfortunately, this works against you if you have nothing in your road map that a new food relates to, as was the case with both homegrown shiitake mushrooms and wildcrafted cicadas for me. In retrospect, I think that I could have spent some time rerouting my road map before trying the new foods and been more successful with the cicadas (which really did taste a bit like crunchy chicken), although I was quickly able to integrate shiitakes into my repertoire.
On a less scientific note, it really helps if there’s at least one adventurous eater to try new foods with. I suspect the decline of my pickiness is largely due to my husband’s willingness to pretend to like everything I put on his plate.
Figure out your own nutritional needs. My final piece of advice is to take a long, hard look at your beliefs about what constitutes quality food. Don’t simply take government mandates on faith — read deeper into the literature and experiment to see which types of food make you feel perky and which ones give you a headache or make you need an afternoon nap. Knowing what’s good for you makes it much easier to focus on growing or buying quality food.
Anna Hess and her husband homestead on 58 acres of land in southwest Virginia, where they grow all their
own vegetables and an increasing amount of their fruit and meat. Anna’s new book, The Weekend Homesteader, provides one fun and easy project for each weekend of the year to guide beginners onto the path to self-sufficiency, and several of the projects relate to growing and cooking good food.