Beautiful Babies! Bigger Isn’t Always Better
In America, we tend to want to find a bargain. As we stroll down the produce aisles in the grocery store, we just naturally look for the biggest vegetable in the bin. Bigger is better. More for your money. Right? In some cases those perspectives are true. But
when it comes to vegetables, if you just have to quote an old saying, “it’s the size that matters” would probably come much closer to the truth.
South Carolina is just beginning to see a few farmers start to make a bold change. They’ve discovered for themselves that, not only is the taste of their carefully grown vegetables more vibrant and rich when they pick them early, but their customers actually prefer their “babies” to their overgrown cousins. Baby fruits and vegetables have been staples at farmer’s markets throughout California
for over a decade. There’s hardly a zucchini or a beet to be found there that’s over six inches in length.
Restaurant owners and chefs were the first to be enamored with the miniature types of many popular vegetables. Initially, the smaller greens showed up on their salad plates, accompanied by mini radishes, carrots and onions. They soon began to discover the flavors of the larger versions tasted almost watered-down when compared with their tiny counterparts.
Recipes began to spring up in magazines such as Bon Appetit and Food and Wine praising the surprising enhancement of flavor when baby veggies were used as opposed to the regular size ones. Baby okra is a whole new adventure when they’re simply sauteed in a bit of olive oil with chopped garlic.
Natural and speciality groceries quickly followed suit. But these outlets noticed something about miniature vegetables that made them reticent to stock them. Baby fruits and vegetables, it turns out, are very much like real babies. They need more care and they don’t hold up for very long without special attention. Obviously, this is one of the reasons baby vegetables pack such a mighty flavor punch. They must be used very soon after they’re harvested. If they stay on the grocery shelf for too long; they’ll shrivel and wilt. Shelf life is maybe the only advantage their larger counterparts can claim.
Ambrose Farm owners Babs and Marshall “Pete” Ambrose have been growing vegetables on Wadmalaw Island since 1976. This year, more than 850 members of their CSA (community supported agriculture) members look forward each week to a share of their freshly picked produce.
Babs explained that she and her husband started to experiment with baby veggies when local restaurant chefs from Husk, Blossom and Slightly North of Broad Street (S.N.O.B.) began requesting them.
“First it was baby greens with mixes like spring mesclun, young arugula and Asian braising greens. Then we started getting into baby turnips, beets, carrots and it went on from there.” Now the farm supplies both baby veggies and their other seasonal produce
to over twenty restaurants through-out the Charleston area, with more coming aboard all the time. You can indulge in their
weekly bounty yourself at their own Stono Market on John’s Island and learn more about their fascinating enterprise at www.stonofarmmarket.com.
You might be asking, “what if I can’t buy mini produce?” How does one grow baby vegetables at home?
Certainly you can plant the very same vegetables you normally would and simply pick them at any point before they reach their largest size. “Crowding” the plants, by placing the seeds closer together, will naturally result in smaller vegetables and because there are more plants per foot - there are more baby veggies to harvest. The trick is to keep them on the vine, bush or plant until the exact day you’ll be preparing them. Or, second best, use them within 48 to 72 hours. Otherwise, they just don’t hold up.
There are also a great variety of speciality seeds developed specifically for the cultivation of baby fruits and vegetables. The ones
most people are familiar with are cherry tomatoes. These have been around so long, hardly anyone even considers them “baby”, but they definitely fit into that category. Another little fruit that’s been vying for a place beside its great, big relative has been dubbed
“the personal watermelon” since it’s a much more manageable size for most refrigerators.
Visit www.seedman.com/baby.htm for a list of seeds available for home gardeners to try. Plant-water-grow-enjoy!
By Chris Saxon Koelker