On Eating from a Garden--A Manifesto
January 01, 2022
When you grow food, you have made food exist in the world. The earth did not previously include that food. From here several things can happen to the food you created. It can show up in some delightful meal you serve yourself and maybe others; it can be donated to someone else who will want to eat it more than you do, or it can sit in your garden until it is no longer delicious but instead is tough and seedy or even rotten. When I have grown some food, I see it as my responsibility to aim for one of the first two destinations for it, and avoid the third as much as possible.
It feels bad to me to waste food I have created, but neither do I want to feel bad because I am trying so hard not to waste it that it ruins my fun in growing it. Here are the ways I try, without causing myself distress, and without making eating from my garden feel like a responsibility, to avoid wasting what I can grow.
Perhaps most important, I try to grow what I will actually want to eat. If I grew something, but didn’t eat it, I figure I either didn’t want to eat that crop or didn’t plan how much I would eat very well. I sort of like parsnips. One came up uninvited in my garden a few years ago. I roasted it with some other root crops and ate it. It was good, but truly, I could do without it. I'd rather buy a parsnip for the one or two times a year I might decide to roast mixed vegetables.
Root Vegetables to Roast--Including Homegrown Carrots and a Volunteer Parsnip
Roasted Root Vegetables: Golden Gate Gardening, page 378
Same for beets. My husband actively dislikes them. A couple of times a year, I like to grate one to make a lovely shredded beet salad, in which the sweetness of the beets melds with the sourness of the vinegar, and the flavors of onion, dill, and olive oil add to the deliciousness.
But in truth, I don’t need to grow either one to enjoy them once in a while. On the other hand, I will harvest all fall and winter from a big bed of carrots. They will become “carrot coins” in soups and stir fries. They will get cut into sticks to eat raw with hummus. They will get matchsticked with celery, cabbage, and green onion to go into a delectable Vietnamese vegetable dish, flavored with a bit of fish sauce, topped with some dry roasted, unsalted, crushed peanuts.
Vietnamese Vegetables Cooking (carrot, celery, Napa Cabbage, Wild Onion)
Vietnamese Vegetables--ready to serve, with crushed peanut toping (Recipe in an earlier post on this blog)
And parsley! How I delight in having plenty of parsley plants all year long. I will add a tablespoon or two to French or Italian dishes, a quarter cup or more to North African and Middle Eastern dishes. I will mince it with a mezzaluna (curved blade) in a wooden bowl and freeze a little extra to have on hand. When the plants bloom I will cherish the syrphid flies that feed at their flowers and use the umbrellas of tiny pale yellow blossoms to back up larger flowers in a bouquet.
Parsley in my garden.
Chopping Parsley with a Mezzaluna
Parsley in Bloom
In the places where I could be growing some crops, but don’t, I enjoy watching hummingbirds sip at abutilons, fuchsias and other flowers, I grow Alstroemerias for bright, long-lasting bouquets, enjoy the exuberant flowers of Tigridia from my window in July, and wonder at the variety of forms succulents can take.
There are plenty of flowers to enjoy in the areas I don't use for food. The hummingbirds love our abutilon.
I gave myself a few years to decide what crops I would eat, and therefore where I should put my food gardening energies. While I was exploring that, I watched what grew well that I want to eat, and what grew well that I have not eaten in the past. In both cases, I begin to collect recipes. I have found that having shortlists of favorite recipes at the ready to use crops I grow greatly increases the chance I will eat them. (This is why I put some recipes in Golden Gate Gardening.) Collecting recipes is a personal matter. You may not like the ones I collect; I may not like the ones you collect.
It used to be that hunting for a recipe that used a particular vegetable or herb was difficult. Even if you had the cookbooks, in our meat-centered food culture, the index often did not tell you if a dish includes, say carrots, or parsley. But now there are two improvements. First, as our diet has become more plant-centered, recipes including specific crops are much more often identified in an index. (And there are more books on cooking from a garden—I will list some in a future post.) Second, of course, is the internet. In fact the internet is so easy to search that many cooks probably depend mainly on a search for a recipe that will use what they have on hand. But even with these ever-so-handy improvements, I encourage you to do a search, try some recipes, print or copy a short list, try them out, and choose favorites to keep for use with specific crops.
Look for recipes that either use a crop you like and can grow or one with which you are less familiar but can grow well. For example, I found that with good care and timing, I can grow beautiful, large, fennel bulbs. I had not eaten fennel often, and, in fact, am not fond of its anisey flavor when it is raw. But I tried a recipe for it cooked, and found that the anisey flavor disappeared, leaving a quite pleasant and distinctive taste. (See recipe: Sweet lemon-braised fennel, below). So I have been collecting recipes for cooked fennel. A second one I have enjoyed is in the soup Sicilian Beans and Greens. This soup uses other crops I can easily produce, and is a wondrous addition to my repertoire. (I will put it up soon.) Now I am about to try a recipe for a sheet pan dinner with pork chops, fennel, potatoes, onion, tomatoes. If it works out I will have three recipes, probably plenty since I only have room to grow about a half-dozen fennel bulbs a year. But what a lovely contribution they make! I like them so much that I have to buy a fennel bulb now and then to fill in when I have none ready in my garden!
Fennel Bulb Growing in the Garden
Cutting up a Fennel Bulb. I will cook the slices on the plate in the rear of the photo.
Sweet Braised Fennel--recipe at the end of this post
When you are looking for recipes, look for ones that include the vegetable in question, and also represent cooking methods you like—such as roasting, stir-fry, braising, or sheet pan dinners. Also give points for seasonings that sound good to you--curry, middle eastern, tomato-based sauce, whatever. Give extra points for recipes that include more than one crop you can grow and harvest in the same season.
A small garden will always have an unsteady harvest. At the beginning and end of the harvest period for any particular crop, there will always be wee bits to harvest. And in a small garden, you may never have more than a wee bit of some crops. To deal with the wee bits, what you need is recipes that combine just a little of this and that. The world’s cuisines, many of which started in a garden, offer numerous possibilities. There are omelets and frittatas, salads, stir-fries, soups, and many undefinable options. Keep your eyes open and you will find them.
A colorful winter salad, made when I had only a tiny bit of this and that. I used chard stems and a bit of purple cabbage as bright vegetable confetti. I parboiled the broccoli before I chopped it for the salad.
In the middle of its season, there may be a glut of a crop. You can always tell what gardeners of the past, in particular cultures, had a glut of in midseason. You will need recipes that can use large amounts of those that came in all at once or in midseason profusion. To find them, look to cuisines of places where the crop is most easily or commonly grown. You will find recipes for gratins of summer vegetables, lettuce wilted with sweet and sour sauce (GGG, page 233 Wilted Lettuce) zucchini fritters (GGG, page 377). You may also want recipes for preserving the glut, such as by freezing canning, making relishes and jellies, or pickling. (That’s when the watermelon rind pickle and the sun-dried tomato were born.)
Gratin of Summer Vegetables
Zucchini and Cottage Cheese Fritters
Or you may say hell no, if there is too much of something, I don't want to preserve the extra. I just want to grow less of it next year. But for the immediate situation, do find your extra harvest a kitchen in which it will be eaten. Start with family and friends, who might be delighted for a bag of something you grew, or even a small regular sample, or, you may ask yourself: “Is there somewhere I can donate all this food?” Yes indeed, there probably is. You only need a bit of local research to turn up answers. In San Francisco, there is the Free Farm Stand, in the Los Niños Unidos park on 23rd Street between Treat Avenue and Folsom, on Sundays. They are currently bagging food at 10 AM, due to Covid, but will probably return one day to distributing produce from boxes at mid-day, letting people choose what they want to take. Another option is the local food bank. Just be aware a little asking around will certainly turn up places delighted to receive some home grown produce, including herbs.
We give away hundreds of pounds of apples every fall.
Fruit trees are a special case, in that one tree typically bears more fruit than a family can eat up in a timely manner. You can hunt for recipes, make preserves, give fruit away (look for gleaning organizations that specialize in harvesting fruit to give away). A separate kind of solution is to prune to keep your tree or trees small, so they won’t produce more than you can possibly eat. This is best done from the beginning, when you first bring home a sapling fruit tree, but it can also be done when a tree has grown larger. Use the book Grow a Little Fruit Tree, by Ann Ralph, Storey Publishing, to guide you. It tells you what you need to know simply and clearly.
Sweet Lemon-Braised Fennel
Adapted from Fresh From the Garden, by Perla Meyers, Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1996.
One large or 2 small fennel bulbs Juice of ½ lemon (or more, to taste)
3 Tablespoons butter or margarine salt and pepper, if desired
1 Tablespoon olive oil ½ cup chicken broth, vegetable broth, or bullion
½ teaspoon sugar
- Trim the root and leaves from the bulb(s), leaving only the pale green and white “bulb.” Cut each bulb in half or quarters if it is large, then cut into narrow slices, with some central stem holing each slice together. Try to make the slices under ½ inch at the wider, outside, edge. If some pieces get separated from the core, save them to use as well.
- In a large, heavy skillet, melt the butter or margarine (such as Smart Balance) with the oil, over medium heat. Add a single layer of fennel and brown it nicely. When one side is brown, use a fork to turn the pieces over. When they are done, place them on a plate and add more slices to the skillet until all are browned. Reduce the heat to medium low, return any pieces you have set aside to the skillet, and sprinkle with the sugar and the lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper, if desired, turn gently with a spatula once or twice to mix the ingredients. Continue to sauté until the fennel is glazed and brown.
- Add the half cup of broth and braise, tightly covered, for 10 minutes, adding more broth if needed. When the fennel is tender, but not falling apart, transfer it to a serving dish.
- (Optional) if you want to, you can add another half cup of broth, more lemon juice, and some extra butter, heat through and serve with this extra liquid poured over it. I don’t do this, so can’t report the result.