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Cooking From the Garden

I just came from teaching an extended cooking class at Rancho la Puerta, a 70-year-old spa in Tecate, Mexico. The school looks out toward a six-acre organic garden that is gorgeous to behold, walk through, and to smell. Years of composting have enriched the soil and the dry, temperate Baja climate is ideal for vegetables and flowers fed water through drip irrigation. I love to teach from any garden, but especially this one. It forces us to experience produce in a different way from what we’ve come to expect from supermarket vegetables — not only do the vegetables taste different, they look different. They’re younger or older, untrimmed, not graded for size or selected for looks or particular shapes. Pull up one radish and it’s as large as your big toe. The next one is the size of your pinkie finger. We use them all.

If nothing else, everyone discovers that the flavor of garden vegetables is superlative, and also, that recipes become increasingly meaningless. I come prepared to cook my dishes because I know them so well, but things go awry from the get-go. A recipe calls for a lot of celery and a student comes up with some narrow dark green stalks from the garden. Should she use more, she wants to know, because they’re so much smaller? I suggest that we taste it. We take a bite and leap back. This stuff is strong! “No! Don’t use more! Use less, if anything,” I say. This celery is nothing like those pale wide stalks from the store. It’s truly intense and alive (and no, it’s not cutting celery!). The plan was to make a celery salad, but now we have to rethink whether it’s possible. Maybe it is, as long as we mix it with some milder fennel.

Squaring recipes with the reality of garden vegetables

Another student approaches with some just-pulled red onions. Are these large or small or what, she wants to know? (This is why I prefer weight for measure.) The recipe suggests medium, but she’s not sure what she’s holding. They still have their greens on them and it’s not clear where the onions proper end and begin. This is not the distinct unit we know as the cured, Spanish onion, so we explore it, open it up, look at the texture of the stem and figure it out. By the time we’ve done that, we’ve decided that the onion is small, so maybe we need to use more than the recipe calls for. But after we taste it we think maybe we don’t. It’s got a lot of punch, more than most. So that recipe is altered to fit the flavor too.

The leeks present us with a challenge as well. There are several beds of tender looking small leeks, but Salvatore, the gardener, want us to use these big old grandfather leeks first — they’ve probably been the ground for about a year, and they’ve already shot their dome-shaped flower buds into the air. The shanks are wrapped in old, papery leaves from previous seasons and at the base they are as big around as my arm. Getting them out of the ground requires some real work, but they eventually come loose. Altogether there’s about four feet of vegetable in a single plant. Once trimmed and rinsed we see that the shanks — the edible white part — are at least two feet long. Two feet! Far longer than any leek you could buy. Obviously no recipe calls for a 2-foot leek. But are they good? That’s the question. We slice one lengthwise and discover a tough core running down the middle. It’s hard, like a carrot, so we take it out and use it for soup stock. The remainder of the leek, however, is quite edible and even tender once poached. As for the flower buds, we pickle them along with some chive buds and radishes.

And so it goes. The thyme has far more flavor than we’re used to, but the bay has less. The parsley is stronger too, but the turnips are sweeter. What’s also intriguing about this garden is being able to see plants in their entirety, at different stages of their lives. A radish bed has gone to seed, so we pick the pods and pickle them. (They’re too tough to be enjoyable, but the heirloom rat-tailed radish would have worked.) A row of broccoli has gone to flower right next to an arugula patch, and the area is a blaze of yellow and cream blossoms. We pick them for the dining room table and also to use for garnishes. Nettles are growing among the anise hyssop plants, so we alter a recipe so that we can use them in a soup. The anise hyssop gets made into a tea that rivals the Licorice Mint tea bags everyone’s been brewing — because it happens to be the same plant. (“I had no idea it’s so easy to make an herb tea!” says one student.)

We see how really enormous cabbage plants are, and we cook some of those outer leaves and discover that they’re good. The radicchio is gorgeous in its entirety. It’s also tender and rather puffy — not the hard little ball we’re used to seeing — yet it makes a delicious shredded salad. Interwoven varieties of kale fill one long bed, and one look tells you this is all about vigor and health. It becomes salad. Purslane gets picked inadvertently with the lettuce and goes right into that salad along with the arrow shaped leaves of orach, a relative of quinoa and chard, and some wild claytonia, or miner’s lettuce.

Breaking the limits of supermarket fare

As we tour the garden we slow down, take a closer look and see produce in its big and wild forms as well as in its most delicate and enfant forms — the potatoes breaking through the dirt, the first corn leaves.

It’s long been a frustration of mine that despite my long experience cooking from the farmers market and my garden, that in the end, my recipes are still based on the supermarket and its narrow lens of what’s what — bunches of asparagus, each stalk the same length and diameter, chad and kale listed as bunches. Cooking with garden produce keeps us on our toes, adjusting to this, accommodating to that. It forces us to see our world of food up close and then act from what we observe and taste — not what we read — or pay the consequences! It’s a truly exhilarating way to cook, one that depends on our involvement and sharpens our intuitions. It would be impossible to put all the conditions and decisions made based on them on a page. In this sense, cooking from a garden is hugely freeing. Hopefully one doesn’t mind this new freedom — you do have to be present for it and it’s not particularly convenient. But if you are available to your senses, you’ll be cooking in a very different way. Keep your cookbooks for a while, but you might eventually let them go.

Zester Daily contributor Deborah Madison is the author many books on food and cooking, including “The Greens Cookbook” and “Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating From America’s Farmers Markets.” Her latest book is Seasonal Fruit Desserts from Orchard, Farm and Market.”

Photo: Garden-grown kale. Credit: Deborah Madison

Zester Daily contributor Deborah Madison is the author of many books on food and cooking, including "The Greens Cookbook" and "Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating From America's Farmers Markets." Her latest book, "Vegetable Literacy," is a 2014 James Beard Award winner.