I hope you enjoy Starting from Scratch, my second book, published each week online, one chapter at a time. Before the book’s final publication, I hope to sprinkle readers’ thoughts, opinions and advice throughout. After all, you each have helpful systems and solutions in the kitchen worth sharing. By making a contribution, your comments will be printed, crediting you and/or your blog, and you’ll get free copies of the book. In addition, for each section, I’m consulting an expert blogger – for this excerpt, it’s Shaina Olmanson, home cook and author of Food For My Family.
Though gardening isn’t directly correlated to cooking, it is the single most important thing that has positively influenced my child’s eating habits. And though I still have so much to learn about fertilizers, soil PH, compost and growing seasons, this lack of expertise hasn’t stopped me from growing some tasty veggies and herbs.
In addition to the scrumptious variety a garden can add to dishes each evening, I have observed delight in my child as he helps me nurture ours. It is a wonderful tool for him to learn about healthy ingredients – and encourage a more adventurous appetite.
And it’s gardening season again! You can check out a few of my tips for growing your own (even if you don’t have a green thumb) and read below for a few ideas on spicing things up and adding variety to the usual dinner routine.
Plant seeds. Planting seeds, then watching tiny sprouts grow into full-grown plans gives a child – or anyone, for that matter – an appreciation for how our food supply comes to be. If Luke is involved in the process from germination to cultivation, he is far more likely to eat that squash or cucumber he picks! Not to mention, home-grown produce tastes better than store-bought foods. And they are a lot less expensive, too.
Start small and expand gradually. Like building mileage gradually when training for a marathon, it helps to expand your knowledge over time as you experiment with gardening. As Shaina suggests, “Don’t bite off more than you can chew! For years we grew one tomato plant in a small pot and several herbs in a larger pot on the back steps. When we felt we had it down, we expanded our garden into new raised beds, adding one first and then two more the next year.”
Experiment with a variety of vegetables. Each year, I plant different types of vegetables to see which one(s) grow better than others in our climate – and which one(s) taste better when fresh. Last year, I grew spinach for the first time and was amazed at how delicious it was. Better yet, Luke pulled it for me and was eager to sample after sautéing it in a bit of butter. Likewise, with eggplant, I have tried different ways of preparation, from sautéing to making eggplant parmesan. And Luke has told me how much he loves this “meat.”
Shaina offers great advice: “Think about things you’ll really enjoy, like fresh ingredients to add to recipes or a vine-picked tomato for your sandwich in the summer, and then adjust from there.”
Grow vegetables that enhance the flavor of other dishes. There are some vegetables that make every dish taste better, like tomatoes and peppers. Growing them in your backyard makes it easy to add to twist to the usual dinner dish.
Spice it up! One of the best ways to help almost any dish taste better, in my opinion, is the addition of fresh herbs. Having an abundant supply of herbs, especially in the summer months, makes meal-time even more pleasurable. Not only does Luke enjoy watching the basil and parsley plans expand 3-fold in matter of weeks, he is even willing to try the “green stuff” if he can pick it himself. More importantly, if he picks the spices in preparation for dinner, he feels like he’s helping me cook.
Though the potential yield or growing season of a specific herb will vary by climate, most home-grown spices are less expensive, more abundant and fresher than those found in a local market. Follows is a short list of herbs which are frequently used in a variety of dishes:
Rosemary is a versatile spice that grows well in a variety of climates, from the dreary fog of Seattle to the arid climate of Boise. It tastes great with everything from potatoes to tomato sauces. I also use it to spice up beef, lamb and poultry.
Thyme also grows in abundance year round. It can be added to poultry stuffing and used to flavor pork roasts. In a single day, I can use thyme for eggs in the morning and to make a vinaigrette for veggies later that evening.
Parsley, if planted in the summer, grows in abundance and lasts all year (I literally just picked some frozen parsley beneath a pile of snow which thawed and looked beautiful in a matter minutes after I brought it inside). I use it in everything – from eggs to pasta dishes to fish. When I once travelled to the Basque Country of Spain, I felt like parsley was served with and alongside every dish I tasted.
Basil, sadly, has a limited life span. It is a wonderful accompaniment to fresh and cooked tomatoes, pasta dishes, fish and more. I’ve also started making tubs of pesto in the summer and freezing it for winter use.
Oregano grows well in the summer months and has a variety of uses, including tomato sauces and other Italian dishes.
Marjoram has a mellow taste and can be used to flavor a variety of foods.
Sage is a common herb for Mediterranean dishes, specifically Italian foods. It is also used in marinades for meat, fish, lam and even vegetables.
Mint is an incredibly versatile herb. It complements the taste of lamb, tastes great in green salads, is used in many Vietnamese foods and is a key ingredient one of my favorite drinks, a mojito. The extract also adds a nice touch to brownies and other sweet treats.
Dill can be persnickety to grow but is great in a number of dishes, from tuna salad to baked salmon to one of our favorite family staples, turkey goulash.