Teeny Weeny Vegetables; Baby vegetables: costly but appealing

Another baby boom is on the way. This time it's vegetables. Call them miniatures, midgets, or baby vegetables, these are finger-size zucchini, half-dollar-size scalloped squash, marble-size golden beets, egg-size eggplant, and tiny beans, carrots, turnips, and bell peppers.

It may be just a fancy fad, but restaurants across the country are serving them as a garnish, raw as an appetizer, or with meat, fish, or poultry.

You can find them at specialty stores if you hunt around, and they're in some supermarkets, but they'll be in more stores across the country by midsummer.

Right now these mini-vegetables are expensive. The replanting necessary for continuous production means a shift in procedures for most small farmers.

But there are several pluses for consumers, such as less waste and no leftovers, and some of the small sizes are even more appealing than their larger counterparts.

People will eat baby beets, for example, quicker than cut-up slices of regular beets.

And talk about ease of preparation. Just wash and snip off the ends, no cutting and in most cases no peeling, since skins are so tender.

Cooking time is short. Most chefs barely cook them. You can steam, boil, or stir-fry them in a very few minutes. Eggplant and squash can be cut in half or sliced in fan shapes, then dipped in batter for deep frying.

Mini-vegetables go well on the platter as garnishes around roasts, as Japanese tempura or as appetizers, with a cheese or yogurt dip, or a red-pepper or green-tomato sauce.

Miniature vegetables are not new to people in Harbor Springs, a Michigan summer resort where Leonard and Sophy Carpenter have been raising and selling them since l935.

Finger-size carrots were first at their roadside vegetable stand. Soon there were so many requests for more that the couple added marble-size potatoes, small beets, sweet corn, pattypan squash, green beans, and eggplant.

This made drastic changes in the planting of the 50-acre farm, which started out with only l0 acres, Sophy told me.

''Today, we replant vegetables a dozen times in one season when originally two or three plantings would suffice,'' she said.

''The idea has apparently taken hold,'' says Frieda Caplan, a Los Angeles produce wholesaler. ''People have had a taste of them in the restaurants and they want them at home.''

Mrs. Caplan has her finger on the pulse of consumer acceptance and is known for her marketing strategy with new items. She was first to put into the supermarkets such produce as fresh sunchokes, enoki mushrooms, ginger, shallots, jicama, spaghetti squash, and sweet dumpling squash, to name a few of the 200 or more different products she handles.

When it comes to miniature vegetables, she admits she was dubious last year, ''but the picture has changed. There are lots of enterprising growers in California,'' she says. ''I know of two young men with l,000 acres who are experimenting with new things all the time.

Just today we got in some beautiful yellow zucchini squash, mini-carrots, tiny golden bunched beets, and our first California-grown haricot verts - the tender, small French green bean.''

''It's having a recipe on the label that really gets the message to the consumer about new foods,'' explains Mrs. Caplan, who was probably one of the first to put cooking information on vegetable and fruit packages.

''When the customer has an idea of how to prepare and serve something new, she's more apt to take it home and try it,'' she says.

Mrs. Caplan's daughter Karen comes up with the recipes after each new item has been completely tested.

Although many of these vegetables are grown on small farms, there's one large producer - Plantation Spice Company, in Homstead, Fla. - that air ships small vegetables all over the United States and to Canada, London, Stockholm, and Paris.

The company grows miniatures of most ordinary vegetables, including French, Italian, and Japanese eggplant. In August its workers harvest tiny leeks, yellow beets, carrots, turnips, and peppers.

Started in l980, the company has grown rapidly, investing thousands of dollars in developing seeds and plants especially for small vegetables of quality that travel well, Ken Glenn, sales manager, told me.

Charles Smolney, head of the company, has a background in engineering and econometrics and is very protective about the company's special technology and plant development.

On the retail level, Alan Warner, owner of Le Jardin, a small specialty market in Cambridge, says mini-vegetables are still a restaurant item in the Boston area.

He sells them at his market on Huron Avenue, along with dozens of colorful fresh top-quality fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers.

''But the shelf life of these small vegetables is short and they're expensive right now. I have to sell them for $4 and $5 a pound.

''If the price comes down this summer that will make them more available and more attractive to the consumer.''

In San Francisco Loni Kuhn, who heads her own cooking school, says most all the top restaurants serve a great variety of tiny vegetables.

For her own use, she goes to Webb Ranch just outside the city for fresh vegetables and this year she finds inch-long blue lake beans, all kinds of squash blossoms, and golden beets.

''They'll have corn soon,'' she says. ''Prices are much lower than those for mini-vegetables at specialty grocers here,'' she says.

For her pickling classes she shops at the Farmer's Market for two-inch long white eggplants which she stuffs with sweet red bell peppers, slivers of garlic, and fresh basil leaves.

Some people have already grown their own miniatures in window boxes or tubs on the porch or patio. Several seed companies have special seeds for midget plants.

But if you can't wait for the price to drop, and want mini-vegetables now, you might just cut and shape your regular carrots or turnips into small sizes.

The taste will be just as good and best of all, the price will be right.

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