Horticultural Hall of Fame

A farmer plants something new, a chef stumbles upon it, and a food fad is born. Here’s the story behind six of the market’s biggest homegrown hits

theessentials_masa_tCavolo Nero
Introduced in 1991by Coleman Family Farms

It’s had more aliases than marijuana: dinosaur kale, Nero Laciniato di Toscana, and Whole Foods ganja. Chef Evan Kleiman called it “cavolo nero” when she brought its seeds from Tuscany 20 years ago and handed them to Bill Coleman for planting. He took the Italian greens to Santa Monica, where Campanile’s Mark Peel found them. “That was a revelation to my generation of cooks who believed you cooked vegetables medium rare,” says Peel, who slow-braises the unyielding leaf.

NOTE: The dark leaves have a nutty, acidic flavor

theessentials_masa_tChioggia Beets
Introduced in 1996 by McGrath Family Farm 

“The Old World below the ground.” That’s how farmer Phil McGrath describes beets. His Chioggia beets, however, are pure New World—candy striped and bright. Cut into one of these, says chef Sandy Gendel of Laurel Canyon’s Pace, “and the pink rings loop like those found inside a redwood tree.”  

NOTE: Roasted, the taste is sugary and earthy

theessentials_masa_tFinger Limes
Introduced in 2010 by Mud Creek Ranch 

What do the didgeridoo, the boomerang, and the finger lime have in common? They all came  from aborigines—although Australia’s first people held out on sharing this citrus until 30 years ago. Split open, finger limes reveal an interior that looks like caviar and tastes like lime and lemongrass. Chef Michael Cimarusti of Providence spoons their roelike orbs, along with basil and diced tomato, on raw kampachi. That’s how you dress an elegant fish.

NOTE: New kid on the block

theessentials_masa_tFava Beans
Introduced in 1989 by Tutti Frutti Farms

When Chris Cadwell set out to grow favas 22 years ago, his Italian friends schooled him: “In Italy we eat them raw with pecorino and bread.” In L.A. we ate them with nothing—they were almost unknown—but Josiah Citrin of Mélisse remembered them from France. “They’re creamy and bittersweet,” says Citrin, “and pair nicely with lamb.” 

NOTE: Great with chianti, too

theessentials_masa_tHeirloom Tomatoes
Introduced in 1996 by Coastal Farms 

Fifteen years ago farmer MaryAnn Carpenter was leafing through a seed catalog when she spotted a problem solver. “The problem was tomatoes,” says chef Annie Miler of Clementine. “The year-round ones have been hybridized to withstand 40,000 others sitting atop them in trucks.” Carpenter discovered, and planted, heirlooms. The taste harked back to tomatoes before test tubes. “It’s a flavor you didn’t know how much you missed until you had it again,” says Miler.

NOTE: They come green, purple, pear shaped, even striped!

Introduced in 2005 by Weiser family Farms 

They look like potato bugs, but crosnes seemed like a secret worth keeping for Alex Weiser in 2004. “I knew they would be hot, so I kept quiet around other growers,” he says. Raw, crosnes taste of jicama; cooked, they’re as buttery as potatoes. Neal Fraser, of Grace and BLD, warms his in a sous-vide bath and serves them with scallops.

NOTE: The “s” is silent

Illustrations by Peter James Field 

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