A Pantry in the Backyard

Yikes! That beautiful red pepper you’re about to drop in your stir-fry? It could have a history to make your toes curl. Experts tell us the old approach is what’s new and it’s finally captured consumers’ attention. Kitchen gardens not unlike the ones our ancestors tended are coming back strong.

As with the best dishes, the usual ingredients are simple but satisfying: vegetables, herbs and edible flowers that can be grown on a farm or scaled down in limitless ways to fit a suburban backyard, a big container out on a deck or even a window box. Lettuce, parsley and green onions can nestle with pansies and ruffled petunias. If you have the space, you can also add berries, dwarf fruit trees or grapes. Strawberries, which can be trained on a pole or plunked in a pot, are an ideal choice. Save cane fruits such as raspberries and blackberries, though, for another location as they are space-hungry bullies.

Of course, the colonists, our kitchen garden mentors, packed all kinds of seeds, roots and bulbs for their trip across the ocean. Their gardens were a heady marriage of favorite plants they had known at home and ones they discovered when they arrived. Their goal was to raise vegetables that would sustain them not only through the summer but also through the long, cold winter months. Ornamental gardening came later. Although Thomas Jefferson dabbled with tomatoes at Monticello at the beginning of the nineteenth century, they didn’t really catch on in this country until about 1830.

To get an idea of how an authentic New England kitchen garden would have looked, we trekked out to picturesque Prescott Farm in Portsmouth. The beautiful forty-acre property was rescued in 1973 from demolition by Doris Duke and the Newport Restoration Foundation with the idea of preserving both the island’s history and open space. Never mind the ribbon of traffic unraveling along West Main Road; step onto the eighteenth-century farm and you’re transported back in time. The rhythm of the cars is a barely audible swoosh far, far away.

Master gardener Susan Estabrook and her team of dedicated volunteers, all from the University of Rhode Island’s master gardener program, zealously tend the 1700s-style kitchen garden. The thirty-by-sixty-foot plot is laid out in a sunny location, up the hill, beside a restored 1811 windmill. A weathered picket fence surrounds the garden and does its best to deter deer and rabbits. In the old days, a similar corral would have barred the colonists’ wandering cows from nibbling.

The raised beds are made up of soil removed when the gravel paths were installed and compost. Not bordered by stones or wood, the beds are simply mounded and edged with a shovel. Raised beds warm faster and drain freely, which affords the gardeners a jump on spring planting. Supports for climbing specimens like beans are artfully crafted of tree limbs or bittersweet vine. Frozen in quirky postures, the gnarly structures are a good foil for the exuberant plants.

To help retain moisture during dry spells and to keep the weeds down, the gardeners mulch with straw. As it decomposes, the straw will also help enrich the soil. Compost is generously replenished every year and crops are rotated to ensure no one plant depletes the nutrients in any given area. Crop rotation also helps stave off certain diseases that can develop when the same plants are continually grown in the same spot. 

Instead of letting the beds lie fallow over winter, which leaches nutrients and leads to erosion, the gardeners sow cover crops such as oats or winter rye. In spring, the cover is turned under, adding even more nutrients. “This is an organic garden, which means all the systems work together,” explains Estabrook.

When possible, heirloom seeds are the seeds of choice. The roster includes crops typical of the period: early ones including kale, Swiss chard, lettuce and peas along with later types such as leeks, turnips, green beans, lima beans, carrots, artichokes and squash. Corn, which takes up too much room, has been excluded, but there are plans afoot for flint or Indian corn, which could be then ground in the windmill. Several varieties of cabbage, despite a battle with the pesky cabbage worm, thrive here.

With the colonists in mind, the master gardeners are busy researching  vegetables from crookneck squash to potatoes and hope to incorporate a root cellar, which will safe keep produce out of season. “Ideally, we’re trying to create the kind of garden that through a succession of crops could support an imaginary family of four,” Estabrook says. “My husband and I, for instance, ate a slaw in November from cabbage we picked in July.”

Herbs in the kitchen garden are limited to popular cooking ones such as parsley and chives, because the farm already has an established herb garden. Most of these newcomers are planted along the outside of the fence with rhubarb, snapdragons, China asters, sweet alyssum and yarrow. The last, a must-have with our forefathers, was popular for medicinal purposes and, according to herbal lore, a formidable amulet. Bunches of yarrow were strung up in barns and sheds to prevent anyone from harming themselves with a sharp tool. Bright yellow calendulas, also known as pot marigolds, bob away happily inside the fence.

Plants are sown right in the soil or derived from seeds the master gardeners nurture in the URI greenhouses. Certain plants, such as members of the brassicaceae (cabbage) family, take off immediately while others, in this instance, the leguminosae clan (beans), require more prodding. “All gardening is experimentation,” Estabrook reassures us. “You just have to be willing to try things, to see what varieties work best where and together with what.” 

This is the master gardener’s second season at Prescott Farm. But already there’s no doubt the kitchen garden is a huge success. Last year, the hard-working volunteers raised an abundance of crops, enough to share with several of Aquidneck Island’s food banks. And that’s something they hope to continue on a grander scale.

If the new equinox and the promise of a dinner made with ingredients minutes from the ground isn’t inspiring enough, consider starting a kitchen garden of your own. Prescott Farm is open from May to October (tours are $3 for adults, $1 for children).  Plans are also underway for a series of gardening courses ranging from the history of herbs and historic food preparation to modern gardening techniques to be held this summer. Contact Lisa Dady, director of education and public programs for the Newport Restoration Foundation, 324-6090; lisa@newportrestoration.org. You can also visit the Newport Restoration Foundation at www.newportrestoration.org.

[Call out: Seed sources for the kitchen. Johnny’s Selected Seeds 877-564-6697, www.johnnyseeds.com. The Cook’s Garden 800-457-9703, www.cooksgarden.com. Monticello 800-243-1743, www.monticello.org.  ]

Starting from seed

There’s a cardinal gardening rule that says do not fool around with your soil while it’s wet. Not only will you damage its structure, you’ll be minus a return; seeds won’t germinate in cold, damp earth. Do the test: Grab a clump of dirt in your hand and make a fist. If it crumbles and falls away, it’s a go. If it sits there in a lump, it’s too soon.

Starting seeds indoors is a rewarding and pleasing balm for spring fever. Buy organic soil and heed your seed package. “What you need to do,” says Estabrook, “is count back from when you want to be eating what you’re planting. That way, you’ll know exactly how many weeks ahead you can start.”  
If you don’t relish putting together a collection on your own, Monticello features a kitchen garden seed sampler ($16), which includes white eggplant, beets and lima beans.

To encourage sprouting, keep seedling trays warm on the bottom. And talk about easy: Estabrook suggests placing them on top of the refrigerator or the television. Once they’ve sprouted you can move them under a grow lamp or, less costly, a simple fluorescent bulb. Seedlings require about fourteen hours of sunlight per day. Install a timer to monitor the light. Lights should be kept about four to five inches above, so adjust accordingly as your plant grows.

Water carefully and only as needed. Too much water is a major cause of disease.  Use an organic fertilizer about once a week. And when temperatures have warmed and it’s time to think about transplanting, move the plants outdoors for a few hours to harden off and then bring them back indoors. Expose them to the elements gradually until they’re ready to fend for themselves. Transplants, once they’re established, will have to be weeded and watered regularly. Morning is best, and rather than frequent baths give them regular, thorough waterings to encourage root growth. Direct seeded plants will also require thinning to succeed.

Study your plot. Check the amount of sun (you’ll want at least six hours) and where shadows fall to determine what should go where. Before planting anything, it’s also wise to design the paths to ensure you’ll have easy access for weeding and watering. Note drainage, too. If the soil appears to drain slowly, adding compost will help speed things along. 

Without fail, gardeners tend to stockpile seeds. Pros warn that after a year, most won’t germinate. Try to stick to your plan. Buy only what you can use this season. For questions and news on garden-related matters and events, visit the green thumbs at www.uri.edu/ce/ceec and www.urimga.org.

What’s cooking?

Hungry for ideas on what do with the bushels of fresh produce we plan to grow, we sought out David Scott Dean, executive chef at Newport’s historic White Horse Tavern, for recipes. Each of the following will serve four. Be creative and use herbs or edible flowers as a garnish:

Fresh Horseradish Cocktail Sauce
1 large piece fresh horseradish peeled and
   soaked overnight in cold water
1 cup chili sauce
1 cup Heinz ketchup
2 tablespoons Tabasco sauce
1 large pinch Old Bay seasoning
1 small pinch finely chopped chives

Blend all the ingredients except the horseradish. Very finely grate the horseradish and add to taste.
Serve with fried, boiled, sautéed or baked seafood.

Parsley Pesto
1/2 cup toasted walnuts
5 fresh cloves of peeled garlic
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup grated parmesan
2 large bunches of parsley, rinsed and stems
1 tablespoon cracked black pepper
coarse salt

Using a food processor, roughly blend walnuts and garlic.
Add half the oil and parmesan, pulse.
Add clean, dried parsley and slowly add the remaining oil.
Season to taste with pepper and salt.
The pesto makes a fine marinade for fish and can also be added to pasta dishes and to dips.

Strawberry and Rhubarb Relish
1 cup rhubarb peeled, rinsed and thinly
  sliced against the grain
1 tablespoon canola oil
1/4 cup champagne vinegar
1/4 cup honey
salt and pepper
1/4 cup cornstarch thickener*
1 1/4 cups finely chopped sage
1 1/4 cups fresh summer strawberries
1 tablespoon whole cultured butter**

Lightly sauté rhubarb with oil.
Add honey, vinegar and light seasoning. Bring to a soft boil.
Fold in a little bit of the cornstarch thickener, stirring until smooth.
Add sage, strawberries and butter. Serve with game, pork or chicken.

Chilled Spring Pea and Crème Fraiche Soup with Watercress Garnish
1 pound shucked fresh spring peas
2 1/2 cups crème fraiche
2 tablespoons lemon juice
pinch of sugar
salt and pepper
1 bunch of rinsed watercress

Using a blender, puree peas and crème fraiche until smooth.
Add lemon. Season to taste with the sugar, salt and pepper.
Let rest for one hour. Serve in chilled bowls garnished with watercress.

*cornstarch thickener: mix 2 tablespoons cornstarch with 2 tablespoons water
**available at specialty food stores

Kale and Bacon Soup with Red Wine
1/2 cup olive oil
1 large finely diced onion
2 minced garlic cloves
11/2 pounds kale, stemmed and chopped
1 bottle medium red wine
6 cups seasoned beef broth
cornstarch thickener
salt and pepper
pinch of sugar to balance
1 cup crisp diced bacon
1/2 tablespoon fresh thyme

In a large soup pot heat oil, add onions and garlic and sauté until soft. Mix in kale; cook until wilted. Add red wine and reduce by half. Add warmed beef stock and bring to a slow boil. Simmer for 30 minutes, then stir in a small bit of cornstarch thickener.
Season to taste with salt, pepper and a touch of sugar. Fold in bacon and thyme.

Spring Spinach and Yogurt Soup
1 large white onion, diced
2 tablespoons minced garlic
3 tablespoons flour
2 1/2 pounds fresh spinach, stemmed
12 cups vegetable or chicken broth
4 tablespoons cultured butter
2 cups plain yogurt
salt and pepper

In a large soup pot sauté onions and garlic in butter until soft. Add flour and stir until bubbling. Add spinach and stir until wilted. Add warmed broth and bring to a light boil, stirring continuously.
Puree the mixture, keeping it rough looking, then fold in yogurt and whisk to blend. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Braised Sweet and Sour Red Cabbage with Grilled Apples
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large white onion, julienned
1 head of red cabbage, julienned
1/4 cup cider vinegar
4 peeled Granny Smith or other cooking apples, quartered, grilled and diced
4 tablespoons raw sugar
4 tablespoons cultured butter

Heat the oil in a large sauté pan. Just before the smoking point, add onions and sauté until they are light brown.
Add cabbage, sauté until softened. Slowly add vinegar, fold in apples, then add sugar.
Fold again, season. Right before serving add butter and fold once more.

Fresh Spinach and Carrot Lasagna
1/2 cup crumbled feta
1/2 cup grated parmesan
1 cup fresh ricotta
2 eggs, beaten
2 cups heavy cream
salt and pepper
1 small pinch nutmeg
2 pounds fresh spinach blanched, pressed, tossed, seasoned and cooled
4 large carrots peeled and sliced very thin
3 fresh pasta sheets

Mix cheeses, eggs, cream, salt and pepper. Beginning with pasta sheets, alternate layers of cheese mixture, vegetables and pasta in an 8-by-11-inch pan. End with cheese mixture. Bake at 375˚ for 45 minutes or until lightly boiling from the center. Let rest for eight minutes before serving.

Mashed Turnips and Potatoes with Lovage-Scented Caramelized Onions

3 cups peeled, diced turnips
3 cups peeled, diced potatoes
3 cups beef broth
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons butter
salt and pepper

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 large onions, julienned
2 tablespoons rinsed, chopped lovage
  (a herb with the taste of celery)

In a large pot combine turnips and potatoes with warm broth. Cook until soft (liquid should be almost gone). Mash, adding warm cream and butter. Season to taste.
In a large pan sauté onions in oil until brown. Fold in lovage and sprinkle on top of mashed turnips and potatoes.

Potato and Leek Gratin
1 pound potatoes,washed and thinly sliced
3 large eggs
2 cups heavy cream
salt and pepper
pinch of ground nutmeg
3/4 cup grated parmesan
1 large leek, sliced very thin and soaked in cold water to remove soil
2 tablespoons butter

Butter a 6-by-6 inch, 1 H-inch deep pan. Mix eggs, cream, light seasoning, nutmeg and cheese. Sauté leeks in butter until soft; add to egg mix. Layer egg mix and potatoes. Bake at 375˚ for about 55 minutes.

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