Articles in Gardening
A little lavender goes a long way in the kitchen. But use too much and that floral essence you love from one of the world’s most versatile culinary herbs might turn a dish to something as welcome as a perfume-soaked Chatty Cathy on a long-haul flight.
Below are seven ways to use lavender in a manner that will enhance, not overpower.
Preparing the flowers
A member of the mint family, lavender grows in upright, evergreen shrubs that might reach as tall as 3 feet and as wide as 4 feet. The bushes are fragrant on their own, but summer is when lavender stems shoot up, blossoming in tight, brilliantly purple flowers. These flowers will produce the most pungent and aromatic additions to your experiments in the kitchen, lending a perfume that mingles well with the flavors of the season.
Now is the time to let your dreams of cottage life in Provence come to life, no matter where you live. If you have access to one of the many wonderful lavender farms popping up in the United States, such as Hill Country Lavender in Blanco, Texas, Los Poblanos Historic Inn & Organic Farm near Albuquerque, N.M., or the English Lavender Farm in Applegate, Ore., you can pick your own. Better yet, you might be growing it in your backyard. Note: If you buy lavender from a farm for culinary use, be sure to ask whether it was grown with pesticides. You don’t want to eat it if it was grown using pesticides.
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If you grow lavender, here’s the steps to preparing the flowers:
- Harvest the lavender. The blossoms are ready when the brilliant purple flowers have emerged and have not yet begun to wilt. If you are cutting lavender yourself, cut the stalks a few inches above the plant’s woody growth and gather the lavender into a bunch. Tie it together.
- Dry the lavender. At this point, you can use it fresh, or you can hang it up or lay it flat to dry it. Note: If you are cooking with fresh lavender, use three times the number of flowers as in a dried lavender recipe.
- De-stem the lavender. You can use the whole stalk in cooking, but many people prefer to remove the flowers from the stalk and store them separately.
- Store it well. Store lavender in an airtight container in a cool, dark place. A Mason jar is a good choice.
7 ideas for eating and drinking your lavender
Lavender works a lot like rosemary — a little can create a great perfume. But just as with all scents, too much can overpower. Use it sparingly, and adjust the amount of lavender according to your specific palate.
Take a stick (½ pound) of room-temperature butter and top it with a tablespoon of dried, ground (if desired) lavender. Mix the lavender and butter together in a bowl. Chill it for a few days to let the lavender flavor develop. Use it with honey atop your favorite biscuit, scone or other baked good.
Use about 1 tablespoon dried lavender for every 2 cups of sugar. Grind the lavender in a food processor for about 15 seconds to develop the lavender flavor. Add a cup of granulated sugar to the process and blend well, about three or four quick presses on a Cuisinart. Store the lavender sugar in an airtight container such as a Mason jar and use it in all of your favorite sweet baking recipes that call for sugar.
Using a funnel, drop about a ¼ cup lavender flowers into a bottle of your favorite vodka. Take out the funnel and close the bottle. Shake, so the flowers mix throughout. Store in the freezer for three days. Strain the vodka into a separate container, using a fine-mesh sieve, a cheesecloth or a paper towel. Squeeze the bundle with the flowers in it to extract as much lavender flavor as possible. Pour the vodka back in the bottle and store in your freezer for use in a lavender vodka tonic with a splash of lime.
Lavender balsamic vinaigrette
Lavender can add a quick, floral kick to any basic vinaigrette recipe. In vinaigrette recipes calling for a combination of balsamic vinegar, oil, honey and ground pepper, add 1 tablespoon of fresh lavender (or a third of that of dried) for every 1½ cups of vinaigrette.
Create a rub for roasted chicken using about a tablespoon lemon juice, 1 teaspoon lemon zest, 1½ tablespoons dried lavender, 1 teaspoon dried thyme, 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil and 1 tablespoon honey.
Lavender and blueberry anything
Lavender and blueberry are fast friends, and in many parts of the country appear at the same time. Try putting lavender sugar into your favorite blueberry cobbler at the height of the season, bake some lavender directly into blueberry lavender scones, or infuse some milk with lavender and pour it atop fresh blueberries. About half a teaspoon of lavender is usually a good fit with a pint of fruit.
Salmon and lavender
Create a rub of lime zest and lime juice from two limes, ½ teaspoon thyme, ½ teaspoon dried lavender, 1 teaspoon pepper, 1 teaspoon sea salt and 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil. Rub the seasoning mix on salmon fillets and bake as you would in your favorite salmon recipe.
Main photo: Lavender is ready for harvest when most of its brilliant purple flowers have emerged. Credit: Emily Grosvenor
I am not a licorice-lover — far from it — but I have become fanatic about the anise-scented fennel.
The first hint came when I had it slow-braised with a roast and reduced to a mild, sweet, and meltingly delicious vegetable with just the barest hint of anise. The next step was roasting it with Parmesan cheese, which only a fool would turn down. My conversion experience came when I was presented with thinly sliced raw fennel, served in a bowl of lemony ice water, after a meal in Sorrento, Italy.
As a confirmed fennel fanatic and evangelist, my tip for first-timers or skeptics is to try fennel that has been mellowed out through cooking. Chances are you will soon find the sweet, delicately nuanced aroma and flavor of raw fennel also enticing.
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Five reasons to love fennel
- It’s versatile. You can’t really go wrong with fennel, whether you cook it or eat it raw. And all three parts — the base, stalks and feathery leaves — are edible. The bulb is the part most commonly used, cooked with meat, braised on its own, or used in salads or on sandwiches. The stalks can be used for soups, stocks and stews, while the leaves can be used as you would herbs such as parsley, dill, or tarragon.
- Easy to prepare and enjoy raw. You can slice fennel thinly, and mix with a vinaigrette on its own, or toss with a green salad or potato salad. It’s fast, simple, and delicious.
- Easy to cook. For those who don’t like the anise scent and flavor of fennel, try cutting the bulbs into large chunks, and roast them under a chicken or other meat or fish. And no one I know can resist fennel lightly sautéed in wine, cooked in cream, or roasted in the oven with Parmesan.
- Low calories and high nutrition. One cup of sliced fennel has only 27 calories, but large amounts of vitamin C, folate and potassium.
- Its phytochemicals promote health and may fight cancer. Fennel contains many health-promoting phytochemicals, naturally occurring chemical compounds such as the antioxidants rutin and quercitin, and other kaempferol glycosides that also give fennel strong antioxidant activity. But perhaps the most interesting phytonutrient in fennel is anethole — the primary component of its volatile oil, which has antimicrobial and antifungal properties. In animal studies, the anethole in fennel has reduced inflammation and helped prevent cancer. One study showed that anethole stopped breast cancer cells from growing. Researchers have also proposed a biological mechanism that may explain these anti-inflammatory and anticancer effects by showing how anethole is involved in the shutting down of an intercellular signaling system, thus stopping tumor growth.
Of course, the main reason to love fennel is that it is delicious. One of the simplest ways to cook it is this recipe from Jane Grigson’s “Vegetable Book.” Grigson also turns out to be a fennel fanatic, and notes: “My favorite fennel dish, the best one of all by far. The simple additions of butter and Parmesan — no other cheese will do — show off the fennel flavor perfectly. The point to watch, when the dish is in the oven, is the browning of the cheese. Do not let it go beyond a rich golden-brown.”
Fennel Baked With Parmesan Cheese
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cooking Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
Yield: 6 servings as a side dish
6 heads fennel, trimmed, quartered
2 tablespoons butter
freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons (or more) grated Parmesan cheese
1. Cook the fennel in salted water until it is just barely tender.
2. Drain it well and arrange in a generously buttered gratin dish.
3. Be generous, too, with the pepper mill.
4. Sprinkle on the cheese.
5. Put into the oven at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes, or until the cheese is golden brown and the fennel is bubbling vigorously in buttery juices.
You can make this salad as simple or as fancy as you like. Adding sweet dates and salty capers or olives make it exotic, but when you have fresh fennel all you really need is a light vinaigrette.
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cooking Time: 0 minutes
Total Time: 15 minutes
Yield: 2 servings
2 fennel bulbs, thinly sliced, by hand or with a mandoline
Black olives, capers, dates (about 2 tablespoons each, or to taste), optional
Juice of one lemon
3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Rinse the fennel and slice very thinly. Also slice the dates and olives, if you’re adding them.
2. Toss the fennel with the dates, olives and capers.
3. Whisk the lemon juice and olive oil together with a pinch of salt and pepper.
4. Dress the salad and toss to coat well.
Main photo: Fennel in the field. Credit: Terra Brockman
To a certain extent, all gardens are “unnatural.” We take a plot of land and bend it to our will, whether that is growing fruit and vegetables, flowers, lawns or even making a barbecue. Over the centuries, our gardens have changed beyond recognition from their natural state. So don’t worry too much about tampering with nature as you try to grow fruits and vegetables. The important thing to remember is that while it is perfectly possible to adapt the natural landscape, it is never worth going to battle against nature; in the long run, you will certainly lose.
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There are a few ways you can make your kitchen garden both easier to maintain and more productive. When choosing which fruits and vegetables to grow, it obviously makes sense to plant things you want to eat — in particular, crops that are hard to buy or do not travel well. It also pays to take the conditions in your garden into consideration. Is the soil damp or prone to drying out in hot weather? You will need a sunny spot for most fruits and vegetables, but how sheltered is it? Are there pockets that are particularly warm, or others that are at risk from late frosts? All these factors will influence what you will be able to grow successfully.
Much is often made of growing “native” plants, but it is frequently hard to tell exactly which crops are native. Many that seem firmly established were invaders years ago. Rather, chose crops that are suited to your environment. There is a reason why weeds always seem to thrive; the particular weeds in your garden have chosen to grow there. Whatever conditions you have, they are exactly what those particular weeds need. Choose your crops carefully, picking the ones that will like the conditions in your garden, and they will grow just as well, or even better than, the weeds.
The case against spraying aphids and other pests
If you are going to grow your own crops, it seems illogical to cover them with sprays and chemicals. Left to its own devices, nature will establish a balance of predators that will keep your garden healthy. If you spray plants at the first sight of, say, aphids, you will succeed in killing the pests, but you may also kill the good ladybirds and hoverflies in the garden. Even if they escape the spray, you will have killed their supply of food and, by the time the next batch of aphids emerges, there will be no good predators to eat them.
Remove the pests you see by hand and let the natural predators do the rest. Birds get bad press for eating fruits, but many do a vital job, eating slugs and snails. Surely for that help, and the beautiful birdsong, it is worth sharing a bit of your harvest? Your productive garden will soon develop a system of its own, and while you may not have complete control, you will have a healthy balance of beneficial predators that will protect your crops.
Plant breeding advances in the last 50 years mean that we now have a huge range of varieties to choose from. You can get blight-resistant potatoes, mildew-resistant gooseberries and wilt-resistant strawberries. If you know your garden is at risk, choose varieties that will not be vulnerable.
Making your own compost is one of the most important ways to harness the benefits of nature in your garden. It is easy, need not take up much space and will give you wonderful, nutritious organic matter with which to enrich your soil. It is not, or should not be, slimy or smelly. To see just how easy it is to make, watch this video.
In between your crops, set companion plants. Pollen-rich flowers such as Verbena bonariensis will attract the bees and other pollinating insects that are so vital in any productive garden. Other flowers such as nasturtiums, alliums and tansy (Tanecetum vulgare) can be used to deter woolly aphids and other pests in search of food. Sweet-smelling herbs such as rosemary, sage and lavender will disorient many pests and so protect your crops.
All gardening is about some level of control, but your plot will be a better place if you don’t turn it into a battle with nature. You will still be able to harvest fruits and vegetables, the garden will look lovely and you will get to relax, using nature’s resources rather than fighting them.
Main photo: A bee feeds on the blossom of a Meech’s Prolific quince. Credit: Jane McMorland Hunter
Asparagus is one of the quintessential harbingers of spring and, as the piles of it in markets can attest, the season is in full swing right now. After you’ve had your fill of this charming, green vegetable served steamed with a pat of butter, branch out with these quick and simple preparations.
Cooking the spears in a hot oven brings out the juicy sweetness of this versatile vegetable. First, break off the tough woody ends at the bottom, then toss the asparagus with olive oil, salt and pepper. Spread in a single layer on a baking sheet and roast at 400 degrees until crisp tender, about 7 to 10 minutes depending on the thickness of the spears. Serve as is or garnish with a shaving of Dry Jack cheese; a sprinkle of pine nuts or roasted almonds; or a drizzle of best-quality balsamic vinegar.
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Enjoy it raw
For the freshest, young, sweet asparagus, try cutting the spears into ribbons. Using a vegetable peeler, shave each spear into long strips or use a sharp knife and cut on the diagonal into thin slices. Raw asparagus is delicious in a salad with lemon vinaigrette (see recipe below); tossed with spring onions, garlic and olive oil and used as a topping for cheese pizza; or mixed with tomatoes, cucumbers and olives for a new spin on Greek salad.
Probably the most traditional and versatile technique for cooking asparagus is steaming. After you’ve trimmed the woody ends, spread the spears in a 10-inch or 12-inch frying pan. Add just enough water to cover a quarter-inch of the asparagus. Put a lid on the pan, turn the heat to high and bring the water to a boil. Watch carefully to be sure water doesn’t boil dry or the asparagus doesn’t get mushy. Cook until the spears are tender with a little bite when pierced with a sharp knife. Plunge into an ice bath to stop the cooking.
Use roasted, grilled or steamed asparagus spears as dippers for spicy peanut sauce, tzatziki, roasted red pepper dip or ranch dressing. Spread hummus onto thin slices of prosciutto then wrap the meat around cooked spears for salty, herbaceous bites.
Cut 1 pound of trimmed asparagus on the diagonal into bite-sized pieces. Steam until just tender. Make a dressing with sesame oil, lemon juice, soy sauce and sugar. Toss the warm asparagus with the dressing and chill. Sprinkle with sesame seeds before serving.
Steam a mixture of 1 cup trimmed asparagus cut in 1-inch pieces, a ½ cup thinly sliced or shredded carrots and 1 cup de-strung, halved sugar snap peas. Mix into cooked quinoa along with sautéed leeks, Parmesan cheese and olive oil or toss with cooked pasta, torn fresh basil leaves and grated Asiago. Add the vegetable mixture to risotto just before it’s done along with some sautéed mushrooms and snipped chives; top with a drizzle of truffle oil. Use whole, cooked asparagus spears as a bed for a fillet of grilled salmon, poached eggs or roasted, boneless chicken breasts. Stir-fry asparagus with strips of red pepper, garlic, ginger and shrimp, add a splash of soy sauce and finish with sesame oil.
How to buy
When shopping for asparagus, look for tips that are firm with tight buds and stems that are freshly cut and not woody. In the past, pencil-thin asparagus was valued, but now fat spears are gaining in popularity. Choose a size depending on what you will be using it for — thinner works well in pasta and rice dishes, while fat is best for grilling and appetizers. Trim the spears by holding the end between your thumb and forefinger and bending it until it breaks. Asparagus comes in green, purple and white varieties. Purple is beautiful raw, but it turns green when cooked. White is created when the plant is buried in dirt, therefore depriving it of light, and is more popular in Europe than the United States. Although fresh asparagus will be around for another month or so, now is the time when tender young spears are in abundance. Lucky for us that there are so many ways to use this versatile vegetable.
Springtime Asparagus Salad
For the salad:
6 or 7 asparagus spears trimmed of woody ends and cut on the diagonal into very thin ribbons, equaling 1 cup of ribbons
1 cup upland cress leaves or baby arugula
½ cup radishes, julienned
¼ cup feta cheese, crumbled
For the dressing:
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons best-quality olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh chives, finely chopped
½ teaspoon lemon zest Salt and pepper to taste
1. Mix all the salad ingredients together in a medium-sized bowl.
2. For the dressing, place lemon juice into a small bowl. Gradually add the olive oil, whisking constantly, until a cohesive dressing forms.
3. Whisk in the chives and zest; add salt and pepper to taste.
4. Toss dressing with salad, coating all pieces.
5. Serve immediately.
Main photo: Purple asparagus. Credit: Brooke Jackson
Our family loves working in the garden, but it wasn’t easy to convince our daughters that planting vegetable seeds was a great family adventure. In fact, the combination of “work” and “vegetables” seemed guaranteed to provoke horror in our children. What did the trick was a simple question: “Do you want some pizza?”
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My husband and I have gardened with our two daughters from the day they were old enough to hold their tiny trowels. Every year we plant a garden with a theme that they choose – usually a food they are eager to eat. They each get to plant, water, and weed their very own corner of the garden. And when harvest time rolls around, they pick their edible treasures and eat them with delight, often while still standing in the garden bed. My kids know that if they put in the hard work that gardening entails, they’ll get to eat a lot more of their favorite foods when summer comes.
I usually know exactly when to start our spring crops, but this year is different because we live in new and unfamiliar gardening territory. My family and I relocated from sunny Los Angeles to Virginia — a place with real winters and plenty of snow (at least this year.) Once spring finally arrived, weren’t sure how to start gardening in this new foodshed, but we had a plan.
These top 10 tips for planting a family-friendly garden have made our gardens more productive and our kids more excited about growing their own food.
1. Ask yourself, “What do my kids like to eat?” Then name your garden after your child’s favorite food.
There’s no point in having a bumper crop of squash if your kids hate squash. My daughters love pizza, so we started a pizza garden this year, but a salsa garden or a spaghetti garden will work just as well. Don’t worry if your garden’s name isn’t entirely accurate. If you start a spaghetti garden, you will think, “tomatoes, basil, onions.” Your kids will think, “SPAGHETTI!!!” It’s a win-win.
2. Do your homework.
Unless you’re already an experienced gardener, taking a family-friendly class or doing a bit of online research can make your gardening project go much more smoothly. Nothing ruins a kid’s budding enthusiasm for gardening like a patch of brown dead plants. Local plant nurseries and Master Gardeners often teach free classes on vegetable gardening. If looking online, check out University of Illinois Extension’s fun introduction to gardening with kids.
3. Find the right spot for your garden.
Choose a location that gets sunlight throughout the day. If you’re lucky enough to have a bit of land available for planting, check the location for good drainage and accessibility to water. If you’re planting a container garden, consider using a self-watering container, which you can buy or make yourself.
4. Get to know your soil.
Whether you plant your garden in a container or in the ground, good soil quality and proper drainage can make or break a garden. Adding a soil conditioner like manure, compost, or peat moss to your resident dirt can help drainage and give your vegetable plants much-needed nutrients.
5. Start now — or as soon as the last danger of frost has passed in your area.
It’s easy to put off starting a garden, but if you want the best plant selection, you need to start early in the growing season. Many nurseries and small-scale growers have a limited amount of the most popular plant varieties, especially herbs and tomatoes.
6. Pick plants thoughtfully.
Select plants best suited to your environment and garden space. Areas with hard frosts need hearty specimens that will survive lower temperatures. Choose drought-tolerant plants in Mediterranean climates. There are even vegetable varieties made specifically for container gardens. Planting the right varieties can mean the difference between a disappointing family project and a huge harvest.
7. Visit your local farmers market.
Farmers markets have already started for the season in most parts of the country and there is usually at least one vendor selling herbs and vegetable seedlings at every market. Local farmers are an underused (and often under-valued) resource for helping you choose varieties of plants that will be heartiest — and tastiest — in your climate. Farmers and growers can also help you solve problems related to pesky bugs and plant diseases prevalent in your area.
8. Keep a gardening journal.
I’ve followed my grandfather’s tradition of keeping an old yearly diary as a lifelong gardening journal (Thomas Jefferson did the same thing). I write the date I plant and harvest each crop, noting which varieties of plants did best. I look back on this journal each spring to see when it’s time to plant. My kids enjoy comparing our plant journal with this year’s crops.
9. Water your garden regularly.
Sporadic or inadequate watering stresses plants. If you want beautiful produce, you must water plants regularly, especially during hot weather. Create a watering chart to help your kids remember to water their garden. Consider hiring a garden-sitter to water your garden if you’re away from home for more than a few days in hot summer months. (We asked a friend to water our garden for a week last summer in exchange for all the produce she could eat.)
10. Get ready to work, but take time to enjoy your garden.
Raising a garden is like raising kids in many ways. It’s a lot of work, it’s more expensive than you think it will be, and it almost never turns out the way you expect. But it will be rewarding in ways you never considered. As rewarding as seeing your vegetable-hating daughter gobble handfuls of homegrown sugar snap peas.
Main photo: Planting a pizza garden in the backyard. Credit: Susan Lutz
Herbs look good, smell good and do you good. They also instantly elevate any meal from quotidian to sensational, transforming the simplest sandwich or salad into a gourmet occasion. Best of all, anyone can grow them. No green thumb or backyard required.
Because most herbs are not far removed from their wild ancestors, they don’t need to be coddled and will do just fine in a pot on a windowsill or porch, as long as you give them a well-drained soil and plenty of sunshine.
Five Easy Tips For Growing Your Own
What herbs should I plant? Choose the ones you like and will indulge in often. Many people go for parsley, basil and thyme, but you may also want oregano for your tomato salads, mint for your mojitos and lemon verbena just to brush your fingers against for a hit of aromatherapy. Whatever you decide to plant, you’ll soon find that your homegrown herbs are better than any store-bought ones because there’s no time for the volatile oils to disappear between the time you pick the herbs and the time you eat them.
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Seeds or starts? Seeds are very economical, particularly if you’re going to grow and use a lot of herbs. But seeds can take a couple of weeks just to germinate, so you may have to wait a few months from the time you plant to the time you begin to harvest. If you need only a few herb plants, and want to start enjoying them sooner than later, it’s best to buy starts.
Where should I get my starts? Although home and garden centers often carry herb starts, you generally don’t know much about them, including whether the variety will do well in your area, whether the plants were hardened off or what chemicals may have been used on them.
When you buy your starts from local farmers, you can ask about their practices and about the specific varieties. A local farmer tends to choose varieties that are hardy, tasty and suited to your soils and climate, and can help you choose what you want. Summer or winter savory? Lemon or Thai basil? Chocolate or mojito mint? They also can give you tips about how to plant, nurture and harvest what you buy.
Speaking of harvesting, too many websites tell you to pluck individual leaves of basil or snip chives a few inches above the ground. Any farmer will tell you that if you want fresh basil leaves all summer long, you should cut a whole branch, leaving a few leaves at the base where new branches will come out. Chives should be cut just under the surface of the soil, so that tender new leaves will emerge. When treated right, the more you take from herb plants, the more they give back.
Where should I plant my herbs? Most herbs will do well indoors, but they tend to be more productive when grown outdoors, either in a pot or in the ground. Whether you choose indoors or outdoors, be sure they have lots of sunshine and a well-drained soil, and plant them close to your kitchen so you’ll get into the habit of using them every day.
What if I have more than I can use? Rejoice! Dry any extra and put it in a tight-lidded jar to use all winter long or to give as gifts. Or make a fresh herb bouquet for yourself or your friends and neighbors. Herbs will last longer than flowers, give off wonderful aromas and you can graze the bouquet every time you walk by.
An herb a day
Most people naturally think about the kitchen uses for herbs, but long before they were culinary, herbs were medicinal and their healing properties are what people have valued throughout most of human history. Chinese and Ayurvedic herbal medicines had been used and passed down orally for thousands of years before they were finally written down.
In Western cultures, herbal medicine can be traced back to Hippocrates, often called the father of modern medicine, whose gentle treatments were based on the healing power of nature. Famous herbalists who followed Hippocrates’ famous dictum, “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food,” include Avicenna from Persia, Galen from Rome, Paracelsus from Germany and Culpepper from England. Most of the first modern pharmaceuticals came from herbs, and even today about a quarter of our drugs have botanical origins.
When you grow your own herbs, you get all the medicinal and culinary properties for mere pennies. So forget the poor substitute of dried basil, forgo the last-minute dash to the supermarket for overpriced basil and reach over to snip a stem from your very own plant. It’ll be good for your body, your budget and your taste buds.
Quick and Easy Herb Vinaigrette
This flexible dressing can be used on a lettuce or spinach salad, potatoes, green beans, pasta or as a dip for bread. Feel free to substitute whatever herbs you have on hand, in any amount you like.
2 tablespoons white wine or sherry vinegar
¼ teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons finely chopped herbs of your choice (favorites include thyme, tarragon, chervil, chives and/or parsley)
Whisk the vinegar and salt, then slowly whisk in the oil. Stir in the herbs and use immediately.
Main photo: Lavender. Credit: Terra Brockman
For many people, the idea of a vegetable garden conjures up an uninspiring image of regimented rows of plants with bare soil in between and functional supports where necessary. But this is not the only way to grow produce. Imagine going out onto a flower-filled terrace and cutting some lettuce for lunch, or, in the same space, collecting herbs for soup and unearthing fresh new potatoes. All this is perfectly possible, even in the tiniest of gardens.
A quick look at history shows that gardens that were both attractive and productive were far more common than one might think. The Romans had beautiful fruit and vegetable gardens, and monks living in monasteries across Medieval Europe were usually self-sufficient and grew everything they needed in charming walled gardens that were used for quiet contemplation as well as produce. The designers of large country house gardens often tucked the vegetables out of sight in a walled garden, but even here there was frequently an emphasis on beauty as well as productivity. Saint Ignatius, a priest in 15th-century Spain, said, “It is not enough to cultivate vegetables with care. You have a duty to arrange them according to their colours, and to frame them with flowers, so they appear like a well-laid table.”
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At the beginning of the 20th century, one of the most famous ornamental vegetable gardens was created at the Chateau of Villandry, on the River Loire in France. When owner Joachim Carvallo purchased the estate, its original Renaissance garden had been replaced with an 18th-century landscape park. He wanted to restore the garden, but none of the plans for the original had survived. So Carvallo looked to the ornate gardens of the Renaissance and combined them with the kitchen gardens of the Benedictine abbeys in the area. The resulting plan gave vegetables pride of place next to the chateau, laying them out in intricate patterns.
Whether you have a large kitchen garden or simply a couple of containers, the theory behind growing vegetables beautifully is the same. First, consider what you would like to eat and what you are able to grow; there is no point growing chard, however pretty it may be, if you don’t enjoy eating it. Equally, there is no point trying to grow tender plants, such as chilies, if your garden is prone to frost.
Having chosen the vegetables you would like, consider what they look like as they grow. Many vegetables are available in ornamental varieties such as red Brussels sprouts, purple broccoli or rainbow chard. Lettuces can be any colour, from the palest green to deep crimson and many have the advantage of astonishingly frilly, or handsomely sharp, leaves. If you have room, a block of sweet corn looks striking (for pollination purposes you need to grow a block of it), but in a smaller space, peas, beans and tomatoes will give your garden height. Consider colour and shape, remembering that different shades of green with a few white flowers can look as spectacular as rainbow of colours. Think laterally, using parsley or lavender as edging and put tomatoes and herbs into hanging baskets.
How to fill the spaces
Of course, harvesting will affect the aesthetics of your garden. Sow a succession of seeds, rather than planting them all at once, and you will have new plants ready to fill any spaces. You also never will get a glut of anything, as the harvesting will be staggered. “Cut-and-come-again” crops can be harvested without removing the whole plant. Many salad leaves fall into this group and will regrow four or five times during the season. The other way to avoid gaps is to plant crops that grow at different speeds. Radishes mature in about 25 days and are invaluable gap-fillers while slower plants get going.
Having chosen the vegetables you want to grow, you can then add the flowers; annuals and bulbs and even perennials and shrubs, if your garden is large enough. Most vegetables are annuals, completing their harvest cycle within a year. Annual flowers make good companions, and each year you can vary the plants that you grow. Growing vegetables in different areas of the garden or even in different containers from year to year helps prevent soil depletion and disease. You can also vary your plants, for taste in the kitchen and looks in the garden.
Flower power helps vegetables
Flowers can also improve the health of your vegetables, with French marigolds or Tagetes attracting hoverflies, which will gobble up aphids and blackfly. Many of the prettiest flowers are edible; and pansies, nasturtiums, borage, lavender and many others will find a place in your kitchen as well your garden.
Whatever style of garden you have and whatever size it is, you can grow wonderful vegetables and enjoy a truly beautiful harvest.
Main photo: Vegetables and flowers mingle in a garden. Credit: J.M. Hunter
In 2008, Susie Middleton was looking for a quiet place to chill out from her intense 11-year position as editor at Fine Cooking magazine. She visited Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., in the dead of winter, and there discovered her inner pioneer woman, New England-style. She promptly gave up her job in Connecticut, started raising vegetables on the Vineyard and opened a farm stand at the end of a quiet road. She said, “It’s really rewarding to see the food you grow go directly into people’s hands.”
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by Susie Middleton
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What was the major draw for you to leave a top glossy magazine for life on a small island?
I’d been editor at Fine Cooking for all those years, but I gradually had come to realize that I felt disconnected from the source of my food. I liked the idea of helping people get access to local food and learn to cook farm fresh food. Also, the minute I got my first little vegetable garden out here, I realized that it made me very happy. I am totally charmed by vegetables.
What elements of this lifestyle influenced your decision to start a commercial farm?
I was very fortunate to meet a man who became my life partner, Roy, and he had a little girl who is now just like my daughter. Her name is Libby. Together we lucked into renting an old rustic farmhouse that came with a couple acres of land. We liked it so much that we not only increased the size of our garden, we also built a hoop house and started raising more and more chickens. We’re very small but we raise 500 chickens and have another quarter acre of vegetables planted and a farm stand, which is very popular.
Access to land is one of the biggest barriers for small farmers. It sounds like that was your entry point.
It’s huge. I wrote about this on Huffington Post. We did start very, very small. We were able to be profitable without going into debt. So, if you don’t think you have to get a lot of acreage, you may be able to get started. Considering as a farmer you’re probably going to have to be doing something else anyway, it’s not a bad idea to start small so you can see if you like it.
You’ve been immersed in food for a long time, so how does owning a farm influence your cooking life?
If anything, it’s solidified my approach to cooking: Start with really fresh ingredients, learn some techniques and keep a well-stocked pantry. This book really reflects the kind of food we like to eat and what we like to cook. I want people to have fun in the kitchen and then get it out on the picnic table or the farm table — or the tiny oak table we have in our kitchen — and eat it and enjoy it.
I’m crazy about vegetables. Everybody wants to cook more of them, not just vegetarians. So I feel like opening up the world of vegetables to everybody is a good thing.
I’ve always loved high-heat cooking. To me, caramelizing vegetables is a huge way to make them really tasty. I tell people to keep some good olive oil, some good vinegars, plenty of lemons and limes, good Parmigiano-Reggiano, fresh herbs, aromatics — onions, garlic and ginger — and a few condiments from your favorite cuisines, and with that you can make delicious meals.
With 500-plus laying hens, you have to have a good egg recipe or two. So, what’s your favorite?
Gosh, we do a lot of frittatas. We use the eggs in a lot of custards. We make a lot of French toast around here [laughs]. I like to make my Green Island Farm open-faced egg sandwich with some of the early Asian greens, like tatsoi. Greens and eggs are an amazing combination.
How did your first two books lead toward this one?
I started out life as a writer. When I first started doing cookbooks I thought it best to maximize my expertise at the time, which was cooking techniques. I started my blog sixburnersue.com six years ago and it has transformed itself into the story of the farm.
Readers do respond to stories. So, will you do more of this?
I have mixed feelings about food memoirs that have a dozen recipes. I think what I’d like to do is something that does have a lot of writing in it, but also has a fair amount of recipes.
Top photo: Susie Middleton and the cover of “Fresh From the Farm.” Credit: Courtesy of Taunton Press