When it comes to cookbooks and the garden, we usually wait until we have a backyard full of tomatoes or zucchini before we go searching for recipes to use them up.
And long before then, in the disconnected dreams of winter and the hopeful glow of spring, we often decide to plant things that, in reality, we will never want to wash, cook or perhaps even eat. It's a cart-before-the-horse approach that leads to a garden that's overgrown from the get-go. It's no wonder we let such gardens go to weeds before we get around to picking a thing.
But this winter a couple of new garden books have come out that put the eating first, or at least right alongside the planting, to make those decisions oh so much more satisfying.
"All New Square Foot Gardening Cookbook" by Mel Bartholomew and "Grocery Gardening" by Jean Ann Van Krevelen are practical guides that help demystify not only the growing of edibles but also the subsequent harvest, storage and preparation of them.
Having some recipes for a particular vegetable in front of you, coupled with some information about the degree of difficulty in harvesting it or a challenge to storing it that you know won't work for you, can go a long way to helping you get real about what you want to plant.
For example, when it comes to washing greens, the prep work can be more than the cleanup. When I'm looking at a kitchen sink full of grainy greens, I'm faced with a personal puzzle that Bartholomew addresses in his chapter on Salad Greens:
"Even when greens are watered from below ... they still get dirty and hold grit and dirt in their folds, so be sure to wash them well. Swish them in a sink or basin of water. You may have to handle each leaf individually if they're very dirty. At the very least it usually takes a second washing, so lift the greens out of the water before draining the sink. Rinse the dirt out of the sink and refill with fresh water."
Last year these words would have had me running for the bagged lettuce. This year, I hope to grow more greens, knowing that this washing is the lot of the grower and that I need to make some time for it.
"All New Square Foot Gardening Cookbook" is the latest in Bartholomew's stable of Square Foot Gardening books. The basic principle is that you plant in 4-foot-square boxes, allowing for the human reach and keeping plants dense to discourage weeds.
Like me, Bartholomew is a fan of snacking on greens. After having eaten lettuce leaves like potato chips and having read that French women spray lettuce with olive oil and sprinkle it with salt for a snack, I was happy to see a recipe in this cookbook for roasted kale chips (see accompanying recipe). On the same page is a recipe for rotini, garlic and greens along with this tip for how to chop greens: "Bunch a handful together on a cutting board and run a knife through the pile. For more finely chopped greens, cut them again after they've cooked."
I was thrilled to read that Bartholomew's preferred way of dealing with fresh food mirrors mine.
"To me, the most efficient way to eat vegetables is fresh and uncooked. There's no heat involved, so it conserves energy. Uncooked vegetables retain all their nutrients. And your energy is conserved, too, when dinner involves merely selecting your food, cleaning it and eating it.
"My own garden emphasizes salad-type foods that can be eaten fresh, with a minimum of preparation. As a bonus, there's very little clean-up or dishwashing involved."
My motives are pretty much from the laziness standpoint. The actual recipes, unfortunately, are mostly not of this variety. But the food writer who developed them says she took into account how gardens grow, so that some recipes are for bumper crops, some are for vegetables that have grown past their ideal picking point, and some may call for, say, just a handful of beans or a single cucumber.
There is also plenty of gardening advice alongside the cooking. Various tips I picked up while going through the book:
* Children's scissors with rounded tips are good for cutting and can go safely in a shirt pocket.
* You know you need to use winter squash when it starts wrinkling at the stem.
* If you leave leaves on carrots after harvesting, the leaves will continue to grow, sapping the flavor and moisture of the carrots.
* Pick asparagus when spears are 3/8inch (finger) diameter size for best flavor and stop harvesting when there are no more shoots larger than that (a 3-year-old bed can produce edible spears for as long as six weeks).
* Choose young snap or bush beans for roasting — runner or pole beans are not juicy enough for roasting.
* A strawberry plant should yield about a quart of fruit each harvest period.
Bartholomew gives companion planting tips for each vegetable, but the jury is out on whether this works (see accompanying story for more information).
Not a lot of the recipes tickled my fancy, but once the garden is producing, the vegetables will again provide the impetus for dipping into the recipes.
Next week I'll give a peek into "Grocery Gardening."