Next time you want to go beyond the basic cantaloupe or bunch of basil, head to the one of the many farmers' markets in the metro area and scope out what's growing locally. We promise you'll find something unusual and most likely an item or two you've never heard of. While using this weird produce might feel daunting, plenty of chefs around town have embraced the strange and are whipping up tasty Colorado-focused dishes. Here's a handful of the cool things we found last week at the Union Station Farmers' Market, and some of the experts cooking with them.
Although this vegetable looks more like one of the dragon eggs that foreshadowed Daenerys Targaryen's rise to power, it's actually a cucumber. The first trick to eating it is to break the outer shell, which proves tougher than the average cuke, but not so leathery your teeth can't sink into it. Once you get inside, the flavor of the flesh is that of a stronger, more pungent cucumber — in all the good ways. This heirloom vegetable is native to the Himalayas, and as far as we know, only ACRES at Warren Tech is growing it. Josh Olson, who oversees the program at the high school, says he isn't sure if any chefs are using the vegetable. Either way, we thought it was too unusual not to include. While the sikkim is in season, you can find it Saturdays at the Union Station Farmers' Market, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Olson's stand.
Unlike regular old mustard greens, frills mustard looks more like the top of frisee or some sort of herb. It's, well, frilly, but still packs a slightly bitter spice that makes the stuff great for cutting fatty food, adding a bit of pizzazz to a salad or pairing with rich meats and cheeses. Find frills mustard at the Ollin Farms stand and on the menu at the Plimoth, where chef Peter Ryan uses it to accompany his luscious stuffed quail dish. At Beast + Bottle in Uptown, chef Paul Reilly says his kitchen uses frills mustard as a stuffing for pork loin with scamorza cheese.
Is it a flower or an herb? Spilanthes is both: The yellow and red buttons are the bud of a flower, but they can be used like an herb in cooking. We stumbled on a bowl of these pretty little buds at the Thistle Whistle stand, owned by Mark Waltermire, who has a reputation for growing some pretty unusual plants.
As Waltermire described the plant and its unusual flavor, a customer popped one in her mouth, exclaiming "Celery, avocado...bing!" as a cool, tingling sensation took over her tastebuds. Spilanthes, as it turns out, creates a sensation in your mouth that people describe as numbing, tingling, buzzing or cooling. That might not be the easiest thing to fit into recipes, but chefs have found ways to use them, though they're not as well known as Sichuan peppercorns, which impart a similar tingle. Waltermire recalls a chef who used spilanthes in a sizzling simple syrup, and his son Baxter says he saw them as a garnish once but thought it was a little weird. The variety of folk names given to spilanthes — toothache plant, buzz button and electric daisy, for example — also makes it tricky to track down.
Yes, celery comes in red, and it's even tastier than its green counterpart. At the ACRES stand, Olson says this variety is more flavorful, and while he sells it with the roots attached, you don't necessarily want to eat that part. Instead, he recommends using the roots in a stock. At Coperta, sous-chef Jillian Shaw has been using the stalks in a cucumber tartare for spuzzulia (small shared plates) and the leaves in a carrot-top and celery-leaf pasta for an amuse-bouche. So far, we haven't seen any other farm growing this stuff, so you'll be on the cutting edge if you grab some this Saturday.
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You may have noticed small fruits resembling freckled lemons with pale stripes; they're lemon cucumbers. Right now is the right time for nearly all members of the Cucurbitaceae family (which includes cucumbers, melons and squash), but this sunshine-hued orb stands out for its shape, color and flavor. It tastes, as you might have guessed, a bit like a lemon. That cool cuke-and-citrus combo makes for a refreshing bite, and chefs all over town have been using lemon cucumbers in a variety of ways. At Acreage in Lafayette, chef Eric Lee has taken a liking to these bright vegetables and throws them in a few dishes. There's also a place for the cucumbers at Flagstaff House, where chef Chris Royster uses them for various menu items, such as a baby squash byaldi, which also has quinoa, carrots and heirloom tomatoes. Find lemon cucumbers for yourself at farmers' market stands such as Cure Organic Farm and ACRES at Warren Tech.
Chances are you haven't heard of this herb, unless you're from Puebla or other Mexican towns where the bold plant is common. The flavor is similar to cilantro, but also includes elements of arugula and rue, a flower with a tingly bite. The herb is commonly used in medicine in Latin America, but chef Duncan Holmes of Beckon and Call sticks with culinary applications. He buys papalo from Thistle Whistle's stand and uses it in a potato dish at his RiNo restaurant. Try it yourself while it's still in season.