May 28, 2014

How Chef's David Lebovitz and Dan Barber Changed How I Think About My Veg Garden

Farm to Table? How about: Garden-to-kitchen-to-table. A more realistic, tastier and achievable approach.
This past weekend, I've become more than a little obsessed with two books which happened to arrive at the same time from Amazon. The first one, by rock star chef and blogger David Lebovitz, MY PARIS KITCHEN- Recipes and Stories ( not a paid promotion here, I just like it, so I am going to write about it), and the second book - THE THIRD PLATE - Field Notes on the Future of Food by chef Dan Barber. For those foodies out there, you may see the connection here, for those of you who do not…read on (also, I just happened to male Alice Waters' recipe for Rhubarb compote this weekend - everything connects, sometimes).

Corn and Zucchini may sound ordinary, but with dozens and dozens of varieties to choose from, only a few rise to the top of the best-tasting lists. I prefer the Italian Zucchini called Costa Romanesco (the Romans kind-of prefer it too!), and you are not going to find it at your local market - so why not grow it?

Books like these remind us why we bother to grow fresh leeks, or heirloom rhubarb. Tart black currants ( cassis), or globe artichokes. They remind us to grow food for flavor, and for the experience, and not  because we are saving the world, or because our table is close to the farm, because anyone who keeps a vegetable garden knows, not everything is better just because it is heirloom or home grown. It's more often than not, better because it's 'better': 'better' flavor. 'better' cook-a-bility, 'better' pickle-a-bility, whatever - you get my point. 'Better' because it's measurably better in some sensual way, not better because you grew it, but OMG better - because it's taste somehow has changed your life.  The earth moved when you tasted a squash, or popped a cherry tomato into your mouth. Don't you want your earth moved in such a way? Read on.

Lemon Scented Geraniums, still in their pots, are set into the ground in the smaller vegetable garden. I love adding their leaves to lemon pound cake ( yeah, the kind made with good, French butter).

There are few blogs that I follow religiously, but I do read almost religiously David lebovitz's - it's like a guilty pleasure (Come on - Paris, desert, street markets,  Chez Panisse). The best are like good magazines - full of interesting stories that explain a journey or personal discovery, they transport one
through words or inspire one with tales and images, and the best do both.  David's blog does that - I cherish my moments with it so much that save reading posts for quiet moments  with my iPad, usually early on Sunday mornings with cappuccino ( really) , or in bed on rainy nights with jazz music and the dogs ( I know - romanticist). Too bad iPads and bubble baths aren't compatible.

Come visit me and Margaret Roach and Aaron Bertleson from Great Dixter  talk about the art of vegetable growing at the Sakonnet Garden Symposium
this July 26 and 27 in Little Compton, Rhode Island.

I'm happen to be preparing my presentation for the Sakonnet Garden Symposium being held in Rhode Island this coming July 26th and 27th, ( along with Margaret Roach and Great Dixter's Aaron Bertleson).  My subject needs to evolve around the symposium's theme THE ART OF THE VEGETABLE GARDEN, so as  an amateur 'cook' and foodie myself, I not only can appreciate the connection between my garden and my kitchen, I am beginning to realize that what I grow tends to be produce which I cannot buy easily. As Dan Barber's book points out, the farm to table movement is somewhat flawed, after all - who can really do it well ( unless one is a Rockefeller, I suppose), but we can choose what we grow, and maximize the experience based on taste, freshness or rarity.

Purple garlic scapes almost ready for pickling.

So even though I am just a few chapters into David Lebovitz'x MY PARIS KITCHEN, I started making lists - seeds and plants to track down now, before it is too late. I spent much of Sunday morning searching online for vegetables popular in France, but difficult to find here such as Crosne and rare winter squashed. Dan Barber's THE THIRD PLATE inspired ( and reminded) me to track down a rare heirloom corn -  8 row dent corn, ( infamous now after an NPR story and the Stone Barns story which are really the same story).  This incredibly old corn variety, with only 8 rows of nutty, golden yellow or reddish orange kernels reportedly makes the most luscious polenta that chefs and foodies equate it with having a religious experience - so transformative, that one can never think about corn in quite the same way again.  Read it's story - it's still  grown at the Blue Hill Restaurant and the Stone Barns  Center in New York state. 

Hmmm…it's looked so cool, but somehow, just didn't' deliver taste-wise. 

When ordering seeds in mid-winter, I must admit that I often order based on the photo - the color and form (that nasty designer gene in me) before taste.  Interesting often trumps taste, unless of course, I have either tasted it, or if the description inspires me to try it, but more often than not, descriptions are written about ease of growth, or  describes cultural methods rather than taste. I  have no problem choosing a gorgeous striped tomato or a creepy, warty winter squash simply because it looks cool, but when I read about how a squash or tomato can taste?  My inner foodie dominates my decision.

Vegetable seedlings wait to be planted in front of my greenhouse. A cooler-than-average spring, has allowed my to wait a few weeks before I need to set tender plants out into the garden.

You've probably experienced this too -  when presented with that incredible spread of winter squashes in the Baker Creek catalog, the choices are almost paralyzing - those colors, those forms, the decorative value or the intriguing backstory? What do I choose? This weekend, David's words have convinced me that Potimarron could very well be the perfect choice for me, as it has both beauty ( It's also known as Red Kuri), and a backstory - one which includes a long culinary history in both Japan and France where it is cherished by chefs for its chestnut -like flavor (marron). I will still grow my favorite - Buttercup, Blue Hubbard and Butternut, but Poti-marron has been added to the back garden.

Growing ones own food should be more about the flavor and the total experience, than it should be about saving the world. The Farm-to-Table movement is great, but few of us could ever do it right. I'm learning how to appreciate the more subtle nuances ( or not so subtle), when it comes to home vegetable gardening.

Which reminds me that space is an issue. Still, I want to know what chefs think are the very tastiest dried bean for Cassoulet, or what Parsnip tastes the best. I encourage more chefs to write books about vegetable gardening. Even better? Why not moonlight and write some seed catalogs!

Heirloom Lima Beans, that I started under glass because of their long growing season, are ready to plant in a prepared bed with compost, manure and lime.

I am off on this journey this year - to grow better, tastier and more difficult to find vegetables and fruit rather than worry about organic ( I am, but still…that's not why I garden), more tasty, and more extraordinary crops. And the timing could not be better, as it is not too late for me to order some new roots ( I was able to find some Crosne tubers  ( did you know that it is actually a Stachys species?) available from an eBay ad in Canada ( they are sold out so I won't list it) , and seeds for the now infamous 8 row dent corn from a grower in the UK, so although it is almost too late to sow corn, ( just in time, really), I am going to take a chance, for around here, May 5th is the old Farmers Almanac date for planting corn, last years green dent corn was sown June first, and I was able to pick about a bushel.

Want to find out more? Then why not register for the Sakonnet Garden Symposium? I hope to share these guilty pleasures and more secrets from my veg garden, or shall I say " my legume variétés anciennes.?


  1. I love Alice Walters and her Chez Panisse, and french butter and everything in your post....I'd love to try your rhubarb compote

  2. We have a small yard and we are not big on canning/pickling so the only thing we grow and harvest that lasts till the next harvest is garlic. We have 2 kinds, both from friend's gardens and I have forgotten the varieties. Benefit is that it grows over the winter. We grow minute amounts of spinach and leaf lettuce when we remember to sow early enough and that makes for a few meals with little work, unless the weather hots up too soon and they bolt.
    Enjoy your posts, they always get me thinking.

  3. I was given My Paris Kitchen two months ago as a birthday prez and haven't cracked the cover. Thanks for the push, Matt.

  4. Anonymous11:39 AM

    We have crosnes here, except they are commonly called rattlesnake grass. Instead of Stachys affinis, they're Stachys floridana, but some people think they're the same species. So they may not grow up there (I've no clue, since I've only ever actually gardened here in Florida 9b), but they taste the same and look the same - would you like some? I can mail some as ours have well-developed tubers on them now.


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