Vegetables Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything


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How to eat spinach like a child: Divide into piles. Rearrange piles. After five or six maneuvers, sit back and say you are full.
- Delia Ephron 1983

The word vegetable can simply mean 'plant', as in 'animal, vegetable or mineral', but what we're talking about here is plants as food items. Vegetables - or 'veggies' as they are sometimes called - increase fibre in the diet, are free of cholesterol and are full of minerals and essential vitamins. However, sometimes people would rather just have the meat and potatoes and forget about the green stuff. Well, here's a newsflash: veggies are more than just green stuff, and sometimes they even taste really good.

Types of Vegetables

There are many types of vegetables. One classification system says that if it is the part of the plant that contains seeds, it is not a vegetable, it is a fruit. However that classification system seems to have as many exceptions as it does vegetables that fit the rule. Another way of classifying vegetables would be by considering exactly what part of the plant gets eaten.

In one group of vegetables such as carrots or radishes, we may eat the root. In another like celery and asparagus, we eat the stems. In the main group where we find lettuce or spinach, we eat the leaves. And in cases like squash or tomatoes, what we are eating is the fruit of the vegetable. Added to this, there is a whole subcategory called legumes, including beans and peas, which are grown for their edible seeds.

A Notable List

  • Artichokes

    The globe artichoke, a type of thistle, Cynara scolymus, originated in southern Europe near the Mediterranean. The base of leaves, making up the unopened flower bud, is eaten with the 'choke' removed and is often stuffed. It can also be made into a herbal tea or an Italian liquor called Cynar. The leaves and stem of the globe artichoke are said to increase bile production. There is another vegetable with the same name, the 'Jerusalem artichoke' in which the tuber rather than the upper part of the plant is eaten. They are often made into soup and renowned for producing 'wind', so beware!

  • Asparagus

    The young shoots of asparagus are prized as a food crop in many parts of the world. Asparagus was cultivated and eaten by the ancient Greeks, who recommended it as a cure for toothache. Green asparagus is the most popular variety, but white asparagus, which is grown by denying the plants light, is also eaten.

  • Aubergines or Eggplants

    The aubergine is one of only a few vegetables that are coloured purple. Aubergines have been cultivated in southeast Asia since prehistoric times. At one point, it was believed to be poisonous because it is in the nightshade family; it is a relative of both the potato and the tomato. Commonly known as an ingredient in the Greek dish moussaka, they are also widely used in other Mediterranean dishes.

  • Beans

    These come in many sizes, colours and varieties. Beans make up a large proportion of the legume category of vegetable and have been cultivated for countless centuries. Broad beans were cultivated in Ancient Egypt, and beans are still highly popular today. However, many varieties of the common bean, especially kidney beans, can be toxic if raw or undercooked. The Greek mathematician Pythagoras and his followers, the Pythagoreans, would not eat any sort of bean because of their religious beliefs. They are not to be confused with Mr Bean, a popular TV character.

  • Beets

    This vegetable has both leaves and roots that can be eaten. The beetroot is an excellent health food, has plenty of iron, and is well known for staining everything red. The Romans used beetroot to treat fevers and constipation. The leaves (also known as beet greens) boil down to a nice side dish sometimes served with olive oil. The way to prepare beet greens is to boil the washed leaves for about 5 to 8 minutes (depending on the age and thickness), toss with olive oil, fresh lemon juice, salt, and pepper. The Greek Hippocrates used the leaves as bandages.

  • Broccoli

    Broccoli originated in Italy and is related to the cabbage, the cauliflower and the sprout. It looks a little like a miniature tree. It is usually green but it is possible to get purple-sprouting broccoli.

  • Cabbages

    Originating from the Mediterranean, cabbage can be eaten raw or cooked and is used in folklore to treat inflammation. It is a leaf vegetable notorious for causing flatulence. Various cultures use it to make into coleslaw, sauerkraut, or egg rolls.

  • Carrots

    This moderately anti-inflammatory root vegetable is full of vitamins and minerals. Most carrots today are orange in colour but this wasn't always the case.

  • Cauliflowers

    This member of the species Brassica oleracea, which includes broccoli and cabbage, is most commonly white, but can also be purple, green or orange. Usually, just the centre section is eaten and the leaves, though edible, are discarded.

  • Celery

    Eaten raw as celery sticks or cooked, celery has lots of good things in it, including phthalides. These chemicals have been proved to improve the flavour of soups and stews, a fact that cooks and chefs have known from first-hand experience.

  • Cucumbers

    Eaten raw and sliced into a salad it gives rise to the phrase 'to be cool as a cucumber'. But pickled with spices or turned into dill pickles or gherkins1 it may be far from cool in taste.

  • Leeks

    These close relatives of the onion have a long history. Roman emperor Nero is believed to have thought that eating leeks would improve his singing voice. One source2 says that the Welsh adopted the leek as a national emblem in the 7th Century when a Welsh army triumphed against the Saxons after wearing leeks in their hats to distinguish them from their enemy.

  • Lettuces

    Whether it is iceberg, romaine, or a simple garden variety, people would find it hard to make a salad without using lettuce for the base.

  • Nettles

    You had better wear thick gloves if gathering nettles, because they will sting you. Of course, when they are cooked the stinging ability of the leaves is destroyed, so you can eat them rather in the same way that you can eat spinach. There is even a World Nettle Eating Championship in Dorset. Nettles have plenty of vitamins, A, B,and C, as well as iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and zinc.

  • Okra

    The pods of this large plant, which originated in Ethiopia, have become a major part of Cajun and Soul Food recipes in the US. They are often served fried, as shown in this recipe.

  • Onions

    This root crop will bring tears to your eyes. These common round onions differ from scallions or leeks in that their base is large and round. Peeling onions and chopping them for use releases chemicals that irritate the tear ducts. This is why people often cry when preparing onions. If you grow your own onions, you may end up with lots of very tiny ones which are perfect to make into your own pickled onions.

  • Parsnips

    Instead of roast potatoes why not try roast parsnips?

    This root has a distinctive taste all of its own and, due to its high sugar content, tastes quite sweet. They are a winter root crop; the flavour develops more sweetness after the frost has affected the stored carbohydrate of the parsnip, converting it to sugars.

  • Peas

    A popular legume that grows in a pod. Peas have been around in many ancient societies, from China right across to Scandinavia. One source3 states that in Norse mythology, Thor gave peas to humans as a punishment, not as a reward. It was believed that he sent flying dragons to fill up and foul all of the wells on Earth with peas. The dragons were a little careless though, and some of the peas landed on arable land, giving humanity a new type of vegetable. To ingratiate themselves with the now even angrier Thor, the mortals dedicated the vegetable to him and would only eat peas on Thursday, the day of the week named after Thor.

  • Peppers

    Whether it is a bell pepper or a chilli pepper, one thing is certain, it is the fruit of the capsicum plant that you will be eating. In 1912, pharmacist Wilbur Scoville invented a test to measure the hotness of peppers by diluting the pepper until the heat was just perceptible on the tongue. Bell peppers, which by the way grow in several colours, are the coolest, being sweet rather than hot. The hottest chillis would be the Trinity Scorpion Butch T4 and the Bhut Jolokia. There is a whole range of peppers in between. The chemical, capsaicinoid, which makes these peppers hot has been credited with a host of properties which include everything from enhancing flavour to killing bacteria and increasing metabolism.

    Peppercorns, from which we get the the spice black pepper, come from a vine, Piper nigrum, and not from the bell pepper plant.

  • Potatoes

    What you are digging up here is a root crop. But there are roots and then there are roots. Potatoes are actually underground tubers which contain the ability to produce a new plant without seeds5. Most potatoes are grown from a seed potato6 and letting the eye7 develop into a new plant. There are many easy to prepare Potato Recipes. As the potato has a long history, you might also like to look at The Potato - Its Unexpected Historical Impact.

  • Radishes

    Many people enjoy a nice crunchy radish picked fresh from their own garden. It is one of the first root crops to mature and, as it is such a quick and easy vegetable to grow, makes a suitable introduction to vegetable growing for children. They may not all enjoy the hot peppery taste, though!

  • Shallots

    Named after an ancient city of Israel called Ascalon, this relative of the onion has a more tapered bulb and can be sliced without making you cry. They are really a very easy vegetable to grow and worthwhile doing so, as they are expensive to buy in comparison with onions and also extremely versatile in the kitchen as a basic ingredient.

  • Spinach

    A dark green leaf vegetable made popular by the cartoon character Popeye, spinach can be eaten raw or cooked. Just remember to wash it first.

  • Squashes

    Squashes come in many shapes and sizes; these include acorn squash, summer squash, hubbard squash, and butternut squash. The butternut squash originated in Mexico. It is a winter squash that tastes similar to the pumpkin; the Australians call it the butternut pumpkin. It has orange flesh and a pale yellow-orange skin. Because of its thick outer skin it has a long storage life. There are many tasty things to do with a butternut squash

  • Sweetcorn

    Often eaten as corn on the cob, this is actually the seed from a type of grain. It is raised for consumption as a vegetable and even canned as a vegetable, but botanically speaking it should be in the same category as wheat or barley.

  • Sweet Potatoes

    The sweet potato has been cultivated in Peru, South America, for thousands of years. The natives of Peru call the sweet potato Kumar, while the natives of Easter Island call it Kumara. Spanish and Portuguese sailors took this tuber to many ports of call but it was already in Polynesia when they got there. How it got there is known as the Mystery of the Sweet Potato.

  • Tomatoes

    A tomato is a vegetable for the simple reason that society says it is - that is, a salad vegetable. Many would not consider a salad complete without one. Also note that while some fruit (for this is what a tomato is, biologically) is eaten without the seeds, a tomato is eaten complete with the mature seeds still intact.

  • Turnips

    An everyday dietary staple as far back as the Roman Empire, turnips are sometimes harvested for their leaves but more usually they are grown for their root. They seem to go well with venison or lamb.

  • Yams

    The word yam comes from the African word 'njam' and first entered the English language in the 1670s. In appearance they are larger and darker than a sweet potato; the true yam is the tuber of a tropical vine, Dioscorea batatas.

  • Zucchini or Courgettes

    The dark green member of the squash family might occasionally be mistaken for a cucumber. However, it has a smooth surface while most cucumbers are bumpy. Also one will notice courgettes have a larger flower-base and the remnants of a stem at their ends. Markets in the UK or France will most likely name these 'courgettes' which is the French name, while in Italy or America they are called by the Italian name 'zucchini'. Other colour varieties of zucchini are available, including pale green and yellow. While a cucumber is more likely to be served raw, a courgette is usually cooked.

Some Things That Are Not Vegetables


Many people will pay a high price for truffles. There are festivals devoted to the morel mushroom. But this does not make them, or any other mushroom, a vegetable. Technically, fungi are not even plants, because they are unable to create their own food from sunlight. People have been accidentally poisoned by eating the wrong fungi.

Decorative Items

Just because a poinsettia looks pretty appetising, this does not mean you should eat one. This also applies to many other flowers or plants used for decoration, as they may very easily be poisonous.

Gold leaf may not do you any harm, being made out of actual gold, which is inert; the 'leaf' in this phrase has nothing to do with plant matter.


While there are stories of people being saved from dehydration in the desert by eating cacti, this in no way makes them a vegetable. Although you can eat the fruit of one cactus - the prickly pear.

1Gherkins are a type of miniature cucumber specially grown for pickling purposes.2Eat the Seasons - Leeks.3Washington State University.4This strain was developed in Australia.5It is possible to grow potatoes from seed but that is not the primary way potatoes are grown.6Seed potatoes are not seeds, they are small potatoes specially produced to be planted, rather than eaten. They are usually disease-free, and so cost more than potatoes bought from the supermarket.7The eye is the bud where the new stem starts. Seed potatoes are planted with the eyes looking upwards.

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