My Brussels sprouts were looking underdeveloped, to say the least. They were slow to size up this year, as were those of several neighbors, including a farmer friend.
Normally, by now, plenty of the golf ball-sized mini-cabbages have formed at the bottom of the stem, decreasing in size as they go up the tall stalk. I wasn’t concerned, because Brussels sprouts are the most valiant of fall crops. They continue to grow as the days get colder, surviving well into early winter.
We often have fat, fresh-picked ones for Christmas Day. If not, we eat any small ones that have at least firmed up.
People are drawn to midget vegetables, as much for their cuteness as for their flavor and tenderness. Some fruiting crops, such as tomatoes and winter squash, are good only when mature (cherry tomatoes and single-serve squash are bred to be small even when fully ripe). But summer squash are tasty as juveniles, and the French, of course, are famous for eating them small as courgettes — as well as for their skinny little beans we call haricots verts.
Melons must be ripe, but according to Amy Goldman in her book “Melons for the Passionate Grower,” fine ladies used to carry tiny, fragrant “pocket melons,” hidden in the folds of their gowns, not for eating but as perfume.
Slender, pointed artichoke buds, formed on side branches after the fat central ones have set, are choice fare. They’re hard to find in the market, and hence a gardener’s special reward if she grows her own.
“How did you grow these beautiful, tiny leeks? A friend once asked when I’d served them in lemony cream on toast. “By having a lousy leek year, when they wouldn’t grow,” I said to myself.
People like their wee watermelons, too, their bantam corn, their button mushrooms and the itty bitty onion in their Gibson.
A lot of root crops have a more delicate crunch when picked both young and small, such as kohlrabi and carrots, though not necessarily a superior taste. Baby new potatoes, though, are always delicious. Beets can be picked early, and Johnny’s Selected Seeds offers one called Babybeat as “a true baby, which means it is well proportioned even when young” — not tapered, but a perfect little round ball.
A gardener can get any number of tiny treasures by thinning a crowded row. A salad of thinnings from lettuce, scallion and turnips is a surprise spring or early fall treat.
The Chef’s Garden, a fascinating outfit in Huron, Ohio, that ships fresh produce, has the sizing of vegetables down to an esoteric science.
“We have learned from chefs over the years,” their online catalog explains, “that every stage of the plant offers something cool and unique to the plate.” Hence its lemon basil is coded M, D and F, indicating a choice of macro, demi or full size. You can order Bull’s Blood beet as M, P, U, B, or Y — for micro, petite, ultra, baby or young.
Meanwhile, our farmer friend pondered how to sell his puny Brussels sprouts. “I once sold some as Fairy Sprouts,” a crew member piped up, “along with Fairy Chard and Fairy Kale.” His wife added, “They’re not puny, they’re petite and hence adorable, like the French petit pois.”
“That’s it,” the farmer declared. “We’ll call them peas.”
Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”