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Archive for Wednesday, July 17, 1996

ASIAN VEGGIES TAKE ROOT

July 17, 1996

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— A Douglas County vegetable farm has developed an international flavor.

Scott Gesner and Marlene Graber don't have to leave their Green Acres Farm to find the vegetable ingredients for cuisines from around the world.

During the past two years the couple, who currently have about three acres of garden under cultivation northwest of Lecompton, have targeted the market for Asian vegetables. This week's pickings at Gesner and Graber's truck farm include Ping Tung Taiwanese eggplant; Natsuhikari and Suhyo Japanese cucumbers; Chinese bitter melon; and calabash squash, a versatile cucurbit that turns up on Indian, Malaysian, Filipino and Chinese menus.

Gesner and Graber sell their Asian veggies, along with a full complement of standard produce and some Continental and heirloom offerings, at the Lawrence and Topeka farmers markets. Such rarities as Turkish eggplant and French zucchini and melons round out their inventory.

Gesner said he developed an interest in Asian food in high school when his family's church sponsored refugees from Vietnam. Even so, Gesner says he learns the most about how to cook with what he grows from his customers at the farmers markets.

``I like visiting with people at the market,'' he said. ``I'll get recipes from them. That's part of the fun of it -- getting to chat with people about what they do with these crops.''

The Graber says she and Gesner also pull recipes from Asian cookbooks but ultimately the family improvises from the garden with help from their wok.

``We stir fry a lot with fresh ginger and fresh garlic,'' Graber said.

Gesner, who gave up a career practicing law to become a full-time market gardener, said the Asian varieties the couple grow must be started in flats during late winter.

``For most of this you can't find greenhouse stock. If you want to grow it, you have to grow it from seed,'' he said.

Some of the Asian produce grown at Green Acres is easily adaptable to Western cuisine and in some cases may have an edge over standard varieties. Take the Japanese eggplant, for example. The skins of the long, slender purple fruits aren't bitter tasting.

``You can use the Japanese eggplants like you do the others,'' Gesner said. ``The advantage is that you don't have to peel them or soak them. You just slice them and go.''

The bumpy-skinned bitter melon, which is used in Asian stir fries and soups, seems a bit more esoteric. Gesner said a high quinine content gives the melon its distinctly bitter flavor. Sliced bitter melon must be salted and soaked before it can be used in stir fry.

``It's an acquired taste for Westerners,'' Gesner said, carving out a piece of the melon. ``Here, taste it. You'll see why they call it bitter melon.''

No kidding.

At other points in the season Green Acres' offerings include Chinese kale; Thai peppers; Taiwanese golden sweet melons; bottle, birdhouse and fuzzy gourds, all of which can be eaten when they are immature; snow peas; Chinese greens and cabbage, including Pok Choy; and Asian radishes.

Gesner says most of the Asian vegetables he has planted have thrived in the Kansas climate, as long as they've received adequate water.

``The season is long enough,'' he said. ``The big thing is irrigation because a lot of them are thirsty crops.''

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