Words & Photos Diana Noonan
Most humans like to feel as different from other animals as possible, which may explain why some very good vegetables are classed as ‘stockfood-only’ and never see the light of day in the kitchen. But many years ago, in what was a minor crisis, I found myself challenging this line of thought, with some rather interesting results.
It all started one cold winter’s day when neighbours, who were in the throes of setting up a now-flourishing eco-tourism business, phoned us with a desperate plea. They had gone to the nearest town for supplies but their way home had suddenly become blocked by unexpected snow and they had no one to cook for the party of six German guests arriving at their house from the south later that afternoon. Would we be able to provide a meal for the travellers? They asked. Not wanting our friends’ fledgling business to suffer a setback, we agreed.
Living in the deep south, our garden wasn’t much chop in August, but we did have stored pumpkins, loads of shallots and garlic, and a sack of flour. Pumpkin soup and fresh bread – who could ask for more! We piled wood into the fire box of the stove and began chopping. A couple of hours later, the phone rang again. It was our neighbours once more, terribly apologetic, and just calling to check we weren’t giving the Germans anything with pumpkin in it. “Germans don’t eat pumpkin,” they said. “Over there, it’s stock food only.”
My husband and I looked at each other. It was already growing dark outside, snow was now falling thickly, and there was a limit to what one could cook on a wood stove at very short notice – apart from which, we didn’t have anything else to give the guests. I muttered something encouraging into the phone, put down the receiver and pulled open the spice drawer. A minute later I was pouring large quantities of ginger and nutmeg into the cauldron bubbling on the stove.
“Spicy vegetable soup,” I smiled brightly at the Germans that evening as I set steaming bowls in front of them.
“It’s a local specialty,” added my husband, cutting generous slices from the still-warm wholemeal loaf.
We dined with our guests (part of the brief from our neighbours) and discussed everything from yellow-eyed penguins to umlauts while bowls were emptied and refilled and the last crumbs of bread disappeared. The only hiccup of the entire evening was when one of the guests asked if they could have the recipe for the soup. “Of course,” I smiled, heading for the door. “Tomorrow.”
That was more than 30 years ago, and today pumpkin is as popular in Germany as anywhere else in the world. Meanwhile, in our home, we are still eating a range of vegetables that many consider stockfood – and enjoying them immensely!
Chicory ‘Giant Chioggia’ (Cichorium intybus)
I first discovered this mildly bitter green when cycling through Greece in the late 1980s, and because I was able to purchase its seed in an official packet marked with its botanical name, New Zealand customs kindly allowed me to bring it into the country where I have grown it ever since. Much later I became aware of its use in the New Zealand dairy industry as a fodder plant grown for cows. In fact, the New Zealand Plant Conservation Network lists it as having become naturalised in 1867. Cichorium intybus is currently available from Kings Seeds where it appears in the ‘Field Crops’ section of the catalogue with the following (amusing, considering I enjoy eating it) description: “Italian heirloom. Fantastic, year round, upright growth which grazing animals, including cows, deer, sheep, pigs, and even pet chooks and rabbits find highly palatable. It is not only nutritious it is very beneficial for them. Can be directly sown in spring or autumn.”
We use this robust chicory, which survives our cold southern winter and comes away again in spring, as an addition to summer salads, teaming it with a sweet-ish vinaigrette. But it really comes into its own chopped up with other garden and foraged greens to make a filling for spanakopita (vegetable pie). In fact, this delicious filo pie wouldn’t be the same without it. C. intybus happily runs to seed over summer producing a pretty sky-blue flower that provides fresh seed for the following season.
Chou moellier (Brassica oleracea var. acephala)
The winter fodder crop chou moellier (usually shortened to ‘chou’ – which is French for ‘cabbage’) is actually a kale and enjoys common names such as tree kale, marrow-stem kale, fringed cabbage or the Swahili alternative: Sukuma Wiki. It may also have been the Medieval mainstay: ‘colewort’. An open brassica, the ‘acephala’ part of its name is a Greek word meaning ‘without a head’.
In New Zealand, chou seldom, if ever, appears on the plate, but a while back, while out walking with a friend on her farm in mid-winter, I spied the crop sending up appealing sprouts similar to those which form on broccoli when the main head has been removed and the side shoots are allowed to develop. I picked a bunch, took them home, and tossed them into the flat-bed sandwich press for a minute or two to let them steam. The result was delicious: lime-green, tender, sweet sprouts. Now I enjoy chou sprouts this way whenever a friendly farmer allows me into the paddock to harvest. The sprouts are also tasty in stir-fries, steamed with a cheese-sauce topping, or as a filling for an omelette. I’ve yet to experiment with the leaves, but if the East Africans are enjoying them, there’s no reason why I won’t, too. In sourcing seed, however, I may have to beg a few from my farming friend as I don’t seem able to track them down in small quantities from regular garden suppliers.
Fodder beet (Beta vulgaris)
Who could resist a beautiful, golden, root vegetable with lush, shiny, silver beet-like leaves – and a whole field of them to boot. Out on another farm walk with my friend a few weeks ago I spied what I now know is fodder beet. I pulled the 700-gram root out of the ground and lugged it, and its top, home so I could experiment with both in the kitchen. The tops cooked up much as silver beet would, although I found them more tender. The root itself was tasty raw (and not at all astringent, as I feared it might be, having once rejected golden beetroot for this reason). But it was in roasting that fodder beet came into its own. I peeled it, rubbed it with olive oil and baked it alongside parsnip and potatoes. It was absolutely delicious – quite a lot sweeter than regular beetroot and with the advantage that it didn’t stain the other lighter veges in the pan purple.
The New Zealand dairy industry informs me fodder beet comes in three colours: orange, red and yellow, but I see Kings Seeds offers a pale variety which matures in 90 days. It is billed as a “high energy crop for animals” (although also with the suggestion that it can be used to sweeten preserves or make home-made wine). I recently tracked down this pale version in a field and tried it, but I think I prefer the golden-skinned variety.
As well as dining on my favourite fodder crop (swede), I will be including several others in the menu this year and joining the animals in enjoying a great selection of stock food. If you feel like a change, and don’t mind the connection with ‘the beasts of the field’, you might like to do the same.
Note: Always check before harvesting food grown for stock. It may have been sprayed with insecticides you would not wish to consume.