Ask any chef what they think about heirloom vegetables, and you’ll probably be met with glowing praise. Their superior taste, flavors and beauty all help transform ordinary dishes into something special — and that’s the reason many chefs specifically seek out heirloom fruits and vegetables for their restaurant dishes.
We can bring those same benefits to our own kitchens by planting heirloom seeds in our gardens. But their wonderful contributions to delicious dishes aren’t the only reason to grow these plants: In the 1980s, a study by Rural Advancement Foundation International estimated that 90 percent of the seeds available at the turn of the century were no longer available. In recent years, thanks to the work of gardeners and nonprofit organizations around the country, the practice of saving and reviving heirloom seeds has seen a resurgence.
“The most flavorful veggies don’t always look like the traditional ones you’ve grown up seeing in the grocery store produce section,” says April Yuds, an organic farmer, beekeeper and food enthusiast at community farm LotFotL (an acronym for “living off the fat of the land”) in Elkhorn, Wisconsin. “You might have to eat a purple striped bean, a cucumber that is round and yellow, or a carrot that is not orange in order to find that outstanding taste.”
So how do we know the best veggies to plant if we’re growing for taste? We asked some of our favorite chefs and gardeners across the country to weigh in and gathered eight fantastic picks. Of course, this list is just scratching the surface of the dazzling array of colors and tastes available from heirloom seeds. This season, try growing some of these varieties — and experiment with other heirlooms — and your taste buds will thank you at harvest time.
What is an Heirloom?
Heirloom fruits, flowers, herbs and vegetables are seed varieties that have been saved and passed down for a long time — usually more than 50 years, but some are centuries old. They have been selected for flavor, resistance to pests and diseases, and other important traits. Unlike modern hybrid and genetically engineered plants, heirlooms are open-pollinated, which means they will grow true to their breed and can therefore be saved by gardeners from year to year. If you are shopping for true heirlooms, note that in practice, many open-pollinated plants end up being called heirlooms, regardless of their age.
This gorgeous, aptly named radish resembles a watermelon with its green exterior and hot pink interior. In the kitchen, the versatile watermelon radish can do pretty much anything, says Michaela Hayes, chief food preservationist, chef, farmer and co-owner at Rise & Root Farm in New York. Hayes also runs the preserved food company Crock & Jar, which features the watermelon radish in its popular spicy kraut. “They are a hard radish, so they hold up great in a pickle, staying crisp and crunchy,” she says. “Their brilliant pink centers turn even more amazing as they pickle.” It’s delicious raw, too. Hayes recommends them julienned or sliced superthin to add flavor and color to salads. To grow this radish, which is best grown in fall, look for the name it’s classified under, ‘Chinese Daikon’ radish.
Hot Pepper: Fish
As hot peppers go, the fish pepper is the gold standard, says famed food historian William Woys Weaver. Weaver is the steward of the Roughwood Seed Collection, specializing in heirloom seeds. The fish pepper came from his grandfather’s personal collection, so he grew up eating it. The heat of this pepper can vary from one to the next — so test first! Then experiment with it in cooking. “The fish pepper is excellent with shellfish,” Weaver says. “Chef Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore makes a pepper sauce with it called snake oil.” The pretty, variegated plant offers ornamental value, as well — try planting a couple among flowers or in containers.
Bean: Dragon's Tongue
You may do a double-take if you see these gorgeous beans at a farmers market. Unlike the typical green bean, these famous Dutch heirlooms are yellow with purple streaks. But these beans are more than just a pretty face: Almost 100 gardeners at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds have given them five-star reviews, noting their flavor and versatility. Superbly delicious, they are perfect young and fresh or lightly sautéed, but also make a great shelling bean after they mature. Gardeners say they hold up well when blanched and frozen — important because this compact plant is a hearty producer. Described as an annual favorite by gardeners from California and Hawaii to Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, these fast-growing beans are hailed by growers as one of the best gardening choices they’ve ever made.
Broccoli: Broccoli Rabe and Spigariello
With traditional broccoli, we eat the flowering head, but these crisp-tender broccoli cousins are used more like cooking greens and have either no florets (Spigariello) or just tiny, if any, buds at the end of a long stem (broccoli rabe).
Broccoli rabe, also known as rapini, has an earthy, bitter flavor that resembles turnip greens. Cara Mangini, executive chef of produce-based restaurant Little Eater in Columbus, Ohio, likes to pair blanched and sautéed broccoli rabe with sweet and citrusy complements, such as dried currants, lemon juice and zest, raisins, pine nuts, sherry vinegar and winter squash. Or, try broccoli rabe combined with garlic, parmesan, Pecorino, red pepper flakes, red wine vinegar, or salty and tangy ricotta salata cheese.
Spigariello is sweeter than broccoli rabe, and gardeners describe its flavor as a cross between broccoli and kale. You can harvest whole plants or individual leaves as needed for a continuous harvest. These greens can be cooked similarly to broccoli rabe or kale. Try them blanched and then sautéed with olive oil, garlic and chili flakes.
Tomato: Plate De Haiti
This heirloom wasn’t selected for its unusual appearance or flavor. Rather, this workhorse tomato offers classic flavor, high production and a long growing season. “It has that classic vibrant tomato flavor, so it’s great for sauces,” Hayes says. “It’s an early producer and a late producer. We had it growing until frost hit. It’s really kind of a little workhorse of a tomato.”
About the size of a golf ball, it’s perfect quartered for cooking. Its bright flavors come out even more when cooked, making it ideal for tomato sauces. Hayes recommends combining Plate de Haiti with other heirlooms to create a sauce with great depth and variety of flavor. “Use all different kinds of tomatoes when you’re making a sauce,” she says. “It’s just like when you’re making an apple pie — it’s best when you use lots of varieties.” For more heirloom tomato recommendations, check out our list of 12 delicious options on page 80, or simply check your local farmers market.
Named after a fishing town in Italy, these beets are savored all over the world. While the outer skins are a typical light red color, the beauty is on the inside, where its flesh is decorated with striking red and white rings. “This is a very old beet — pre-1840s,” Weaver says. “Small and sweet, chefs like the size because it makes a good garnish.” Another benefit? You can eat the entire plant — roots, stem, leaves and all. If you don’t usually like the earthy flavor of beets, harvest these early when they’re small and tender, and you just might become a beet believer.
Mangini features simple, quick-pickled Chioggias in her book, The Vegetable Butcher: Simmer 1⁄3 cup apple cider vinegar; 2 teaspoons sugar; 1⁄2 teaspoon sea salt; 1 garlic clove, halved; and 1 bay leaf over medium heat until sugar is dissolved. Pour over roasted Chioggias cut into chunks, and refrigerate overnight. Before serving, drain the liquid and toss pickled beets with 1 tablespoon olive oil, 1⁄2 teaspoon lemon zest, 1 teaspoon chopped fresh herbs, and a sprinkle of coarse or flaked salt.
Cucumber: Metki Painted Serpent Melon
What has the versatility of a cucumber but the flavors of a melon? The Armenian cucumber. The light- and dark-green striped plant produces late into the season, making it popular with chefs aiming to serve up garden-fresh flavors well into autumn, and they grow large without producing big, mealy seeds. (Also look for the Metki White Serpent melon, which is light green with no stripes.) Mangini likes to use these thin-skinned cucumbers in raw preparations, such as in green salads. Hayes is also a fan of serving these cucumbers for raw eating, but likes them best combined with other vegetables in her fermented pickle kraut. “Pick them when they’re smaller so they’ll be even more tender and sweet,” Hayes says. “With these and all cucumbers, you don’t have to wait until they get big.”
Carrot: Early Scarlet Horn
Named after the town of Hoorn, where it originated in the Netherlands, these small carrots are only four to six inches long, but don’t let their size fool you — they’re bursting with sweet, crunchy carrot flavor. The small size can be a benefit if you’re looking for a variety to grow in a shallow space or container. The seeds for this carrot are somewhat rare, so you’ll probably have to look online to get your hands on some (try the members’ section of Seed Savers Exchange).
To maximize the great flavor of Early Scarlet Horn carrots, try this technique from Sean Brock, owner of the acclaimed Husk and McCrady’s restaurants in Charleston, South Carolina, and Nashville, Tennessee. Brock likes to braise vegetables in their own juices and then reduce the juices into a glaze to intensify vegetables’ natural flavors. Here’s his method for braised and glazed carrots from his excellent cookbook Heritage: Juice about a pound of carrots, and run the pulp through your juicer a few times, too, to get as much fresh carrot juice as possible. Place the juice with about 3 pounds of carrots in a saucepan along with the juice of half an orange and simmer, covered, over medium-high heat until fork-tender, about 6 to 8 minutes. Increase heat to high, and when liquid is reduced to a glaze, stir butter into the sauce, and then stir in 11⁄2 teaspoons each of tarragon and chervil. Spoon glaze over carrots and serve.
Finding Heirloom Varieties to Grow
Now that you have a new set of heirlooms to try, it’s time to get growing. While we hope the list here will inspire you, branch out on your own, too. The dozens upon dozens of heirlooms out there offer an amazing variety of flavor and appearance — which will lead to a more diverse and beautiful garden and a more diverse and beautiful plate. You’ll be able to find some of the more popular varieties at your local garden center. For more options, take your search online. Seed Savers Exchange is an excellent place to start. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange are also highly respected. Finally, be sure to check out Weaver’s company, The Roughwood Seed Collection.
12 Top Heirloom Tomato Picks
The chefs and gardeners we spoke to had so many heirloom tomatoes to talk about that we had to put their best picks into a list. Mixologist Kate Brubacher uses a variety of heirloom tomatoes in her cocktail recipes for Myers Hotel Bar in Tonganoxie, Kansas. She says blending different varieties helps her achieve a slightly sweet yet wonderfully sour fermented tomato water shrub, which she combines with tequila and Mezcal for a refreshing summer sipper. Heirloom tomatoes are easy to grow, and they provide an incredible bang for your buck when compared to market prices, so consider adding a few of these favorites to your garden plot this spring.
Aunt Ruby’s German Green: Huge and delicious with neon green flesh
Cherokee Purple: A Cherokee heirloom with a dusky, purple-pink color and old-time tomato flavor
German Johnson: Very large, flavorful and productive bright red tomato
Gold Medal: Firm, sweet and mild flavor with yellow and red-blushed skin
Green Gage: A Victorian classic, with a sweet plum flavor — perfect for cool climates
Green Pineapple: Hyperproductive with superb flavor that is sweet and smoky with a hint a citrus
Japanese Black Trifele: Pear-shaped, deep red fruit with a rich, chocolaty flavor
Moneymaker: Intensely red, flavorful greenhouse variety that loves hot, humid climates
Pilcer Vesy: A classic, huge, yellow beefsteak-type tomato
Pink Oxheart: An “old-timer” classic with a heart shape and pinkish red exterior
Thorburn’s Terra-Cotta: A rare treasure with honey-brown skin, orange-pink flesh and out-of-this-world flavor
True Black Brandywine: The progeny of now-extinct fejee improved, with deep earthy flavor and dark flesh