Eastern veggies, weeds and wisdom

Posted: July 22, 2007

First-time visitors to the city's new (well, in a manner of speaking) Headhouse Farmers Market a few weeks ago fell hungrily on the assembled bounty, making short work, in particular, of the somewhat-exotic harvest from Queens Farm.

The farm's name is curiously at odds with its produce, which leans heavily to the East - long-leafed Chinese lettuce (now gone by), tender edamame beans, homegrown shiitake mushrooms, and bok choy, supplementing the more common bunches of basil and fava beans, snow peas, and not-so-usual purslane.

But it makes more sense when it is explained by the farmer herself, aglow under an umbrella shade-hat, surveying the progress of her long beans and melons on an unruly Chester County spread between West Chester and Kennett Square: Her name is Xiuqin Qin, which in her native province of Hubei (north of the more familiar province of Hunan) is roughly pronounced "Shu-chin chin," she says, touching a finger to her jaw. Westerners, on the other hand, invariably take a stab at Quinn, or Queen.

Her husband, Zuohong "Ed" Yin, who works as a chemist for DuPont, sells the produce (some of which also comes from the couple's second plot south of Coatesville) on Thursdays (3 to 7 p.m.) at Clark Park; Saturdays (9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the West Chester Farmers Market; and Sundays (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) at the historic Headhouse, the centuries-old "shambles" at Second and Lombard, which celebrates its official grand re-opening today.

But it is chiefly Qin, a onetime farm girl with an agronomy degree in Chinese medicinal botany, who tends the plot. Daily she takes her hoe to the vegetable beds, battling the profusion of weeds, the whirlwind a farmer reaps for eschewing herbicides and chemical sprays.

To the east of her three-acre plot is Brandywine Creek, and next door is Pocopson Elementary School overlooking Route 926 and a crop of million-dollar mansions, small palaces, really, that contest across this rural stretch with lush cornfields and farmstands.

Xiuqin Qin is charming and lithe at 42, the mother of three daughters, dispensing traditional lore as we tour the ragged rows: The sweet Chinese cucumber? Cooling for summer; good stir-fried with eggs. Take a bite. The slightly sour purslane? Boil in water and wash with it to mitigate hot flashes. Bitter melon? Good for Chinese salad with vinegar (even cider vinegar), sesame oil and salt.

I buy the last of the Chinese lettuce and a handful of the fresh shiitakes (Qin sells them at a lower price at the farm), and stir-fry them the next evening for a fabulous wilted greens and mushroom salad, dressed with soy sauce, sugar and rice vinegar - the shiitakes said to boost the immune system, the spinach or lettuce said to aid digestion. (The recipe – and others for cucumber, squash, Asian eggplant and so forth - is in Nina Simonds' engrossing source on healing cookery, A Spoonful of Ginger, $30, Knopf.)

In all, Qin estimates, she cycles through more than 100 varieties of produce, many difficult to find outside (or even inside) Chinatown; others she wants to introduce "to the American people to make them have the diversity."

Her hillside here is no storybook farm. At a glance, in fact, it appears Qin has lost her battle with the weeds. Then you detect the safe havens - the sturdy rows of tomatoes, the cleared edamame patches, the long-bean refuges, and leafy redoubts of cucumber and melons (summer, bitter, winter), specimens of which can inflate to 40 pounds.

It is a bastion of ancient Chinese tradition, even as China itself industrializes its farms, a piece of good earth, still on a learning curve: Next year, vows Ed Yin, the weeds won't get a free pass; Qin will rein them in with a trick she has learned from an American farmer up the road - punishing layers of plastic mulch.

Queens Farm

2069 W. Street Rd.

West Chester (Pocopson Township)


To take a video tour of Xiuqin Qin's farm, visit .

Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. To view Rick's columns about remodeling his kitchen, along with a video, go to http://go.philly.com/rickskitchen.

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