While potting up orchids this weekend with my friend Mark Dimmitt (a true plant freak who I am writing an article about soon) we were talking about vegetables and other edibles that are just fun to grow because of their form—I think we were discussing gourds or something of that nature. Mark went into a story where he told me he grew water chestnut (Eleocharis dulcis) one year. Using a kiddie pool as a planter, he planted a few corms and by the end of the summer the entire pool was stuffed with water chestnut.
Basically water chestnut is a sedge (a grassy water plant) that, in addition to having fibrous roots, forms tiny tuberous growths (corm-like growths) that are better known in their peeled and sliced form (most people get them canned), the actual water chestnut. They are a staple in Asian cooking.
After hearing this story, of course, I HAD to try growing this one for myself. I looked online for starts (a plant or a corm) for hours with no results. However, the thought occurred to me that an Asian market downtown I frequent (17th Street Market) sometimes sold such foods. If anyone had fresh water chestnut corms, they would.
I was right. Now I have starters for my water chestnut adventure.
That leads me to my second adventure. Another fun plant I plan on growing this summer is bitter melon; it rambles like crazy like any squash or gourd type plant. I am planning on making some large chicken-wire tunnels that will be stuffed with different squashes, cucumbers, gourds and other similar growing plants.
I have, however, never had or previously grown bitter melon. I was never sure how they were used. With all the plants and food in the world, it is hard to try them all (though I intend to try as much as possible). I have read up a little on them.
So while I was at 17th Street Market, I spied some bitter melon. I thought that tonight I should experiment. I REALLY experimented too. In addition to the bitter melon, I purchased some Jerusalem artichokes (very different from real artichokes which are undeveloped flower buds, Jerusalem artichokes are tuberous roots that comes from a species of sunflower, Helianthus tuberosus), broccoli raab (a broccoli plant which is grown more for its leaves than the floral buds which we all know as broccoli) some fresh ginger, and some shitake mushrooms (my girlfriend hates mushrooms, so since I was eating alone tonight, I could indulge).
I shaved pieces of bitter melon (it is quite bitter, so you want really small pieces so the flavor is made more delicate; otherwise you want to salt them or if growing them, collect really young fruits which haven’t developed so much of the bitter taste). I sliced up the Jerusalem artichokes, minced fresh ginger, sliced up the broccoli raab, halved the shitake mushrooms (stems removed) and added slivers of carrot and red bell pepper. This all got stir-fried in olive oil on my cast iron wok (yeah, I know, cast iron woks are kinda of weird).
Where I am living, I have little in the way of spices (I only sort of half live where I am for now)—but I did have some celery salt, and fresh ground pepper, both of which I used. I also added some soy sauce. One should always cook the thicker veggies first, adding in the leafy stuff (like the broccoli raab), lastly. I finished off by dumping some egg and stirring vigorously (to get some protein in there).
The dish was absolutely delicious. I put the mix over the top of buckwheat soba noodles. Sometimes when I experiment like this the results can be horrible. This is especially true when you mix stuff from different cultures (how often do Jerusalem artichokes get used in a more Asian-type dish. And the celery salt?) But I was just going on my gut, and this time, the result was awesome.
The taste of Jerusalem artichoke is so wonderful: a nutty, rooty strong flavor unlike anything else. This is an old favorite of mine that I have grown many times (and yes, plan to grow this summer amongst the corn plants). The bitter melon was somewhat complementary with the Jerusalem artichoke. The ginger gave it all a nice tang, and the carrots and red bells gave some nice color.
Warning: if you ever grow either Jerusalem artichoke or water chestnut, make sure they don’t take over. If you are in the southern states, the water chestnut is a potential weed, particularly in marshy areas of the southeast US. And sunflowers, especially the tuberous rooted species, can be terribly weedy. But if you are like me, and constantly eating them, you should be fine. But even native species of sunflower have been problematic, growing so vigorously as to swamp out all other vegetation—I have seen this in the San Francisco peaks of Arizona.