I really enjoy reading my seed catalogs each spring, but they all seem to say everything tastes great. Any suggestions on how to pick truly great-tasting vegetable varieties?
Kansas City, Kansas
Look for catalogs that at least differentiate some varieties as having “average flavor” while others are noted as “great tasting.” Also watch for companies that are running taste tests and reporting winning varieties. If you notice that a catalog seems to say everything tastes great, then you probably can’t trust its claims.
Be aware that there are some trade-offs to choosing varieties based only on great flavor. I once asked vegetable breeder-extraordinaire Rob Johnston of Johnny’s Selected Seeds about the yields of a great-tasting variety he was introducing, and he responded that you can only ask so much of photosynthesis. What he meant was that you may get great taste, strong disease resistance, high yields or compact plants, but it’s rare to find everything you want in a single variety. However, if flavor is your priority, you can find some true standouts. The pepper, tomato and grain corn varieties listed below have such outstanding flavor that they’ve earned a permanent spot on my annual “must-grow” list.
The sweet pepper is ‘Carmen,’ and for me here in Kansas, it is pretty much the perfect pepper. The yields are excellent, it ripens early and the flavor is extraordinary — especially if roasted over charcoal. Last summer my 20 plants produced 10 gallons of peppers! I roasted them all at once and froze them so I could enjoy these smoky, candy-sweet treats year-round.
Among tomatoes, many gardeners agree that ‘Sungold’ is a flavor standout. These orange cherry tomatoes taste so good that several people I know who claim not to like fresh tomatoes have told me they enjoy ‘Sungold.’ This variety is a hybrid, so it’s not a good choice if you want to save seeds, but Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds is now offering a de-hybridized version of ‘Sungold,’ which I’m going to try this year.
Finally, there’s ‘Floriani’ red flint corn. We’re working with seed companies to make this wonderful variety more available. Our thanks to Ira Wallace at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange for adding it to the company’s catalog. And now the Fedco seed co-op in Maine has discovered how good it is. Here’s what it says in its catalog: “Stop the presses! Fabulous flavor is why we stuck ‘Floriani’ in the catalog at the last possible moment ... Floriani’s richly sweet and delicious corny taste beat the competition silly in our pancake and corn bread muffin bake-off.”
It’s a good idea for us all to avoid high fructose corn syrup, but whole-grain corn should be a staple of North American diets. Grain corn is a terrific crop for any garden — productive, easy to harvest and store, and the whole-grain meal makes nutritious grits, polenta, corn bread and more. Compared with many modern corn varieties, ‘Floriani’ has low yields, but the exceptional flavor of this heirloom, open-pollinated variety makes it worthy of a place in every homestead garden. (To learn more, search our site for “Floriani.”)
By the way, Fedco and Johnny’s are among the catalogs that do an excellent job of highlighting the truly better-tasting varieties, and of providing lots of expert how-to-grow advice. Fedco also has some of the lowest prices for mail-order seeds.
Cheryl Long is the editor in chief of MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, and a leading advocate for more sustainable lifestyles. She leads a team of editors which produces high quality content that has resulted in MOTHER EARTH NEWS being rated as one North America’s favorite magazines. Long lives on an 8-acre homestead near Topeka, Kan., powered in part by solar panels, where she manages a large organic garden and a small flock of heritage chickens. Prior to taking the helm at MOTHER EARTH NEWS, she was an editor at Organic Gardening magazine for 10 years. Connect with her on Google+.