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IncrEdible soup vegetables

Sarah Cody
11 October 2013

Autumn brings with it a feast of colours and flavours which warm the belly and lift the spirits, easing us into the winter months. Inspired by the Global Kitchen Garden at Kew, Sarah Cody takes us on a tour of some of this season's vegetable delights.

Something tells me that those hazy days of warmth and glorious summer sunshine have left our British shores until next year. While I might shed a tear for the close of summer, autumn has its own box of treats to delight us with: refreshing winds and rustling leaves aflame in amber and burnt orange; moist earth squelching beneath your wellies. Autumn is in the air (stick a hat on) and let’s embrace it! The change in season also signals a change in diet for most of us. We think about ditching the salads in favour of heart-warming soups and stews loaded with nourishing, energy-rich vegetables that will keep us going through the winter months.

A perfect autumn day at Kew's sister site, Wakehurst Place in Sussex, home of the Millennium Seed Bank (Photo: Wolfgang Stuppy)

The Global Kitchen Garden at the IncrEdibles Festival enchanted us through the summer with a bounty of tomatoes, grapes and pomegranates. This season it offers us a visual spectacle of some of the nation’s favourite autumn vegetables, some of which you will find growing in your own back garden. I have picked just a few of these delectable vegetables to inspire you to get your apron on and get soup-making.

Memory boosting onions

Fundamental to any good soup, the merits of the onion (Allium cepa) go beyond colour, flavour and texture. Onions have a role to play in our health as they contain high levels of vitamin C, folic acid and fibre as well as free-radical fighting antioxidants, such as quercetin. For centuries, onions have been used as a home remedy for the common cold and more recent research indicates that they are effective in combating hayfever and heart disease, and they even boost memory.

Onions growing at the Global Kitchen Garden (Photo: Sarah Cody)

Love onions, but don’t want the tears? Well, there are hundreds of methods out there to avoid onion tears (your grandmother should know a few) and, if the old “chomping on bread* while you slice” (*substitute bread with: lemon; the tip of a match; chewing gum; sugar cubes etc.) trick doesn’t keep the tears away, then try refrigerating the onion 30 minutes prior to slicing and avoid cutting the root end of the vegetable. Wearing contact lenses while you chop is also very effective!

Parading Pumpkins

No blog post on autumn vegetables would be complete without the iconic pumpkin. Cucurbita pepo belongs in the family Cucurbitaceae which also includes cucumber, squash, and melon. If you grow any of these vegetables you will notice that they all have tendrils that sit at right angles to the stem and their leaves have three or more veins joined at the base – defining characteristics of the Cucurbitaceae.

Pumpkin owes its bright orange colour to the nutrients lutein and alpha and beta carotene, the latter of which generates vitamin A in the body and helps you to see in the dark. In Indian Ayurvedic medicine, pumpkin is valued for its cooling and astringent properties and is consumed as a cure for fatigue and used to purify the blood. The seeds have a delicious nutty flavour and are rich in zinc; important for keeping your immune system healthy and strong.


Pumpkins glowing in the late afternoon sun at the Global Kitchen Garden (Photo: Sarah Cody) 

With Halloween around the corner, you may want to get some inspiration from Kew’s Pumpkin Pyramid at the Waterlily house. A tremendous 4 metre high installation of 75 different varieties of pumpkin with names reminiscent of my childhood: Cinderella, Munchkin and Peter Pan. This amazing diversity is a testament to the role that selective breeding has played in the kinds of food available to us today. As well as variation in size, colour and taste, genetic diversity underpins a crop’s yield, its resistance to pests and diseases, its tolerance of environmental stresses and even lifecycle events, such as flowering time.

The Pumpkin Pyramid in the Waterlily house at Kew (Photo: Andrew McRobb, RBG Kew) 

Potato Pandemonium

Where would we be without potatoes? Boiled, sautéd, fried, mashed, roasted – it doesn’t matter how you prepare them, potatoes are heavenly. Being an integral part of the European diet, it is easy to take potatoes for granted. However, the Irish potato famine of the 1840s teaches us that unless we maintain a certain degree of genetic variability in our potato crop, potatoes are in desperate trouble. At that time Ireland was dependent on only a few varieties of potato, none of which contained resistance to Late Blight, a disease caused by a fungus which leaves potatoes rotten and completely inedible. In 1845 when Late Blight struck, a million people starved to death and millions more emigrated to unaffected areas. The social and economic consequences of a famine are devastating and the poor are always the first to be affected.

Genetic diversity is the key to resilience against such threats and the best source of genetic variation can be found in the wild relatives of crop species. The Sárpo varieties developed in the 1950s by Dr Istavaán are the most blight-resistant potatoes available today. Their resistance can be traced back to genes found in the crop wild relative, Solanum demissum, collected in the ancestral home of the crop, Central and South America. In a project called Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change, the Millennium Seed Bank and the Global Crop Diversity Trust are collecting, protecting and preparing the wild relatives of 29 of the world’s most important food crops, including potato, so that the genetic diversity they hold can be used to breed new varieties that are better equipped to deal with diseases such as Late Blight and which are more resilient to the effects of climate change.

Potato diversity (Photo: Bioversity International)

Colourful Carrots

Like many other plants, carrots (Daucus carota) store energy in their roots so that they can survive the winter and have the energy they need to sprout in the spring. These root vegetables are especially nourishing for humans because they are filled with starch which the body breaks down into simple sugars when eaten, supplying us with energy. If unused, this energy becomes stored in our bodies as fat, keeping us warm in the winter. Parsnips, turnips, beetroot, potatoes, yam and sweet potato are examples of plants that adopt the same strategy and it is no wonder these vegetables are so popular when the weather turns colder.

Carrot was first domesticated in the area around Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan and originally had dark purple roots due to high levels of anthocyanin. It was only in the 17th century that the Dutch developed varieties with higher concentrations of the orange pigment (beta-carotene) to give us the orange cultivar all of us are familiar with. Today hundreds of varieties exist in many different shapes, sizes and colours.

The many shapes, sizes and colours of carrot (Photo: Wikipedia commons) 

To purée, or not to purée, that is the question

I hope you've enjoyed this whistle-stop tour. Fortunately, nature doesn't stop at four vegetables; there are many more out there to get excited about and I am hard pressed to think of any that don't work in a soup. My personal cooking style is: chop it up; stick it in a pot; throw in loads of herbs and salt, and simmer away. For those with a more discriminating palate or who prefer to work with tried and tested recipes, this little gem of a cookbook may be the answer for you. The Global Kitchen Cookbook will take your taste-buds on a journey through the world of edible plants with 101 mouth watering recipes accompanied by beautiful botanical illustrations. A feast for the eyes and the belly!

Cover of Kew's Global Kitchen Cookbook (Photo: RBG Kew)

- Sarah -


Related Links 


Come and see autumn vegetables at the IncrEdibles festival

The Pumpkin Pyramid is in Kew's Waterlily House. It rises 4 metres up out of the central pond. 75 different types of pumpkin, including the fairytale-titled Cinderella, Munchkin and Peter Pan varieties, were used in the installation.


Kew's Global Kitchen Cookbook

Kew’s Global Kitchen Cookbook is available to buy from Kew’s online shop or in the Gardens for the exclusive price of £10 (RRP £14.95)

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