Garden-to-plate: Chefs share 11 unusual vegetables to grow and cook at home

How to create your own chef's garden

Chefs James Viles from Biota Dining in Bowral and Scott Bridger from North Fremantle's Bib and Tucker share their tips and tricks on how to get started in the garden.

If you've tried your hand at growing tomatoes or herbs, why not take your garden-to-plate game to the next level? We've asked some of Australia's best gardener-chefs to dish the dirt on 11 easy-to-grow edibles, from the lesser-known tips and tendrils of a tromboncino to the citrusy crunch of the salty ice plant.

Apple eggplant

(Solanum melongena)

Thai eggplants - no need to soak or salt.
Thai eggplants - no need to soak or salt. Photo: Supplied

Could apple eggplant be a victim of veg-rage? "In Thailand, there's a particular type of eggplant, and its literal translation is, 'lying b-tch of an eggplant!'," says Palisa Anderson, from Sydney's Chat Thai and Boon Farm Cafe.

It's hard to understand such anger towards a vegetable, particularly after you've tried it. These winners are round-ish, green, the size of a golf ball, and look a bit like a granny smith apple.

Grow it Plant from September to October in a sunny, well-drained site with composted soil. They love a long, hot growing season. Keep the water up, and cover at night during a cold snap.

Eat it "You can eat it raw, with chilli relish, or in a stir-fry with garlic, chilli and wild ginger," says Anderson. You won't need to soak or salt apple eggplant to remove any bitterness; just use as is.

Find it $3.50 a packet from 4seasonsseeds.com.au.

Begonia x hybrida (dragon wing begonia) flowers. Begonia flowers, leaves and stems are all edible.

Begonia flowers, leaves and stems are all edible. Photo: Shutterstock

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Begonia

(Begonia semperflorens; common name, Wax begonia)

Beloved by nannas, begonias are having their day in the shade. And in the kitchen. Chef Ben Shewry​ grows 500 of the fleshy-leafed perennials in the Attica garden at Rippon Lea Estate.

"I was visiting one of our nursery suppliers and there just wasn't anything new or interesting available," Shewry says. "I saw hundreds of begonias sitting in an area with the non-edible plants and was drawn to them. I immediately felt that they were edible so I ate one and it was acidic and delicious."

The leaves, flowers, and stems are all edible, adding a citrusy-sour crunch to salads.

"We use them in many different ways," Shewry says. "Currently they're in a dish called Tac'Oz, which is a crisp taco made from wattleseeds and filled with as many different seasonal greens, herbs, leaves and flowers as possible. Begonias add an exclamation mark with their acidity against the sweet apple balsamic that we dress them with."

Grow it Native to Brazil, wax begonias love a sheltered, shady spot in well-drained soil, but will tolerate full sun. They're frost tender, so in colder climates, plant in pots and take indoors for winter.

Eat it Use the flowers as a garnish to pretty up cakes or salads, and eat the leaves and stems raw or cooked, as you would leafy greens.

Find it At most nurseries (check they haven't been treated with pesticides), or propagate from a leaf cutting next time you're at your nanna's.

Stinging nettles.

Stinging nettles have many uses. Photo: Marina Neil

Nettles

(Urtica urens; common name, Stinging nettle)

Mark La Brooy, born of Swedish and Sri Lankan parents, won't hear a bad word about the stinging nettle, calling it "an amazing plant". For him, nettles are a taste of his heritage, and he has "a gnarly bush" growing at Three Blue Ducks cafe in Rosebery.

"It grows wild in Sweden and I'd pick it with my grandfather on walks around the lakes on the west coast," he says. "When me and my brother were little we'd ride our bikes around Kosta Island and try and push each other into the ditches filled with nettles."

La Brooy uses it to make a traditional Scandinavian dish by frying up onions, garlic and nettles, adding chicken stock, cream, salt and pepper, and whizzing it up to make stinging nettle soup.

He also serves it as a salsa: he chars the nettles on a barbecue, then adds them to chopped spring onion, coriander, parsley, lemon juice, chilli, sliced red onion, dijon and olive oil and grates fresh garlic over the top.

"It's awesome with steaks or wood-fired fish," he says. You can also use it like spinach, pan-cooked as a dish of greens with a spritz of lemon juice, or as a tea by adding boiling water to the leaves.

Grow it If this weed is wild in your vegie patch, stop it from going to seed or beware nettle mania. Growing in pots can contain the spread.

Eat it Don't eat it raw (unless you're trying to win a bet). Nettles must be cooked to remove the sting. Dunk stems and leaves in boiling water for a minute or so. Make nettle tea (ladies, it's good for cramps), use it in soups and salsas, and as a substitute for spinach to make nettle pasta or swap it in for basil in pesto.

Find it Nettle seeds $1.10 a packet at theseedcollection.com.au, or forage at the start of winter near local creeks or wet gullies. But wear gloves and long pants! "Urtica", meaning "to burn" is right, and those prickly hairs hurt.

Finger limes.

Finger limes come in a variety of colours. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Finger lime

(Microcitrus australasica)

"Finger lime is the greatest citrus in the world," says chef Dan Hunter, who describes the flavour as "electric" and reckons "the whole world's going crazy for them". The finger-shaped native citrus is filled with gorgeous translucent "pearls" (vesicles) that add a literal fresh "pop" to dishes. The hues range from green to pinky red and it's a fab vegetarian substitute for caviar. At Brae, Hunter mixes desert limes and finger limes through prawn head butter to dress baked kohlrabi.

Grow it The finger lime is native to the rainforests of south-east Queensland and northern New South Wales and can grow in part-shade to full sun, but in cooler climates it needs a partly shaded north-facing site. Mulch in spring and keep the soil moist in summer.

Find it citrusmen.com.au; finger lime $55.

Cornichons

(Cucumis sativus)

Hands up who loves the tart crunch of this mini pickle? Chef Annie Smithers does. She's been growing this tiny cuke for nine years. "They take forever to pick and they're prickly little buggers," she says fondly.

Smithers' favourite variety is the Paris Double Yield, a great cropper. Smithers trains them on strings so they're easier to pick, which she does when they're very small, but says, "There's always a whopper somewhere. They hide!"

Grow it Sow seeds directly in the ground in spring and summer, in slightly acidic soil, and plant in full sun. They're thirsty plants so water well.

Eat it Eat pickled cornichons (see Smithers' recipe below) with terrine, rillettes, or a bitey hard cheddar. Adding a climbing frame when planting and training the shoots can make them easier to pick.

Find it Cucumber Parisian Pickling seeds $3.95 a packet from diggers.com.au.

Baby Sun Rose

(Aptenia cordifolia)

"One of my favourite things I didn't know you could eat is Baby Sun Rose," says Blayne Bertoncello​, chef at O.My, and gardener at the restaurant's two-acre farm. "It tastes like fresh, sour, green apple and it's all over our menu."

Bertoncello uses it to add crunch to leafy greens, or to make a green bean and Baby Sun Rose salad dressed with a lemony vinaigrette and served with steamed fish. Raw is best, he says, the plant can lose its structure when cooked.

Grow it This hardy, sprawling, evergreen groundcover is an easy grower and loves full sun or part-shade in well-drained soil.

Eat it Munch on the fleshy leaves and pretty rose-pink flowers in salads or it can also be used as an apple alternative with pork as a raw garnish.

Find it Swipe a cutting of Baby Sun Rose from a neighbour's garden, or check your local nursery.

Winged beans

(Psophocarpus tetragonolobus) )

More than 1500 schools are part of the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation. Alexander loves seeing what kids are growing around Australia and was recently inspired by winged beans, grown by Driver Primary School in Darwin. It's a climbing vine with nutrient-rich, frilled pods that taste like green beans and asparagus.

Grow it Frost-tender, this legume grows best in the tropics, but does well in Sydney and can be grown in protected spots in temperate climates. Soak seeds overnight in water before planting in full sun from September to January. Only the pods are edible and are best picked young at about 2.5 centimetres long.

Eat it The pods can be eaten raw or cooked as you would peas.

Find it Winged bean seeds $1.50 a packet from theseedcollection.com.au.

Cuban oregano

(Plectranthus amboinicus; also known as Mexican mint, Indian borage, Spanish thyme)

Mike McEnearney​ from Kitchen by Mike and No.1 Bent Street says, "It's a real reward to have Cuban oregano in your garden."

Although not a true oregano, the flavour is similar to Greek oregano but much more intense and pungent, which is what McEnearney loves.

"The leaf is a little bit succulent," he says, "I pick it and wrap sardines or chicken, and grill it over coals with a squeeze of lemon."

Grow it Native to South and East Africa, this semi-succulent perennial likes a well-drained, partly shaded site. It thrives in subtropical and tropical climates, but is OK in cooler conditions if planted in a warm and sheltered spot.

Eat it Use it when you want that extra oregano punch, such as in stuffing for a roast chook, or to rev up a boring soup. Take note: it's strong.

Find it Seedlings $5.95, prosperitywithnature.com.au.

Tromboncino

(Cucurbita moschata)

"Italians don't throw anything out," says Sicilian chef Rosa Mitchell, who reckons the tips and tendrils of many plants are under-utilised.

"One of the things I just picked is tromboncino," she says. "My parents called it 'the long pumpkin' and the tendrils and leaves are very edible. If you go to Sicily it's a vegetable that you buy at any market."

Grow it Why wouldn't you? It's so much fun to say. Sow the seeds in spring and summer in full sun, training the vines so the fruit can hang as it matures.

Eat it Add it to soups, as you would zucchini, saute the young tips and tendrils like spinach, make a simple pasta sauce with onion, garlic, tomato and tromboncino, or chop the fruit into small pieces, steam it, and add it to a frittata.

Find it $3.95 a packet, diggers.com.au.

Krachai

(Boesenbergia rotunda; common name, Chinese Keys)

Palisa Anderson loves this member of the ginger family for its aromatic, spicy flavours and fat, fleshy edible roots attached to an underground stem.

"It looks like a keychain," Anderson says, who uses the roots fresh to make curry pastes or soups. "It's very fragrant and earthy and it adds to the umami-ness and mouthfeel of the dish. It's like a bass note."

Grow it Plant this leafy perennial in spring, when it's dormant, in well-drained soil. Krachai is a tropical plant that needs a frost-free environment. It will grow in sub-tropical areas in a semi-shaded spot and it may grow in a protected position in temperate climates but a micro-climate (such as a greenhouse or indoors) will be a safer bet.

Eat it Use the roots as you would ginger, or eat them chopped and raw in salads. You can pickle them too, but if you can't be bothered, head to the closest Asian grocer.

Find it Seedlings $9.90 from allrareherbs.com.au.

Ice plant.

Photo: Shutterstock

Salty ice plant

(Mesembryanthemum crystallinum)

Another succulent love for Blayne Bertoncello is this ripper with a texturally amazing salty, sweet, crunchy flavour. "We serve this fresh at the start of the meal and the customers go crazy for it," he says.

It's a cool-looking plant, its glistening leaves dotted with bumps that look like icy crystals, and its prostrate growth habit means it can spill from pots.

Grow it Plant this rare succulent in full sun in well-drained soil. Bertoncello recommends watering occasionally while the plant establishes, then stepping up the water once it's under way.

Eat it Raw in salads, or as a garnish for fish.

Find it $3.95 a packet from diggers.com.au.

Annie Smithers' cornichons

INGREDIENTS

60 x 5cm pickling cucumbers (about 1 kg)

65g coarse salt

1 litre cold water, plus an extra 375ml

750ml best quality white wine vinegar

1 tbsp sugar

4 large sprigs fresh tarragon

3 cloves garlic, peeled

½ tsp whole black peppercorns

2 bay leaves

METHOD

1. Trim the stem ends of the cucumbers, wash away the little black pines, then rinse and drain.

2. In a large bowl combine the salt with 1 litre water. Stir until the salt is dissolved, add the cucumbers, and let stand in a cool place for 6 hours.

3. Scald two 1 litre jars, lids, and rings with boiling water and drain well. Drain the cucumbers, discarding the soaking water.

4. In a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat combine the vinegar, 375ml water and sugar, and bring to a boil. Remove the cucumbers from the pickling vinegar, layering the cucumbers, herbs and spices into the jars, making sure to divide the ingredients evenly between the jars. Pour the boiling vinegar, water and sugar mixture into the jars, letting a bit of the liquid overflow the jars; this helps seal the lids well. Wipe the rim of each jar and seal.

5. Let stand until cool. Store in a cool place for at least three weeks before serving. Refrigerate after opening.

Makes 2 x 500g jars of cornichons