Garden Variety

Area chefs are growing herbs and vegetables, and even specialty items like edible flowers, to supply their kitchens.

July 31, 2002|By Cynthia Glover | Cynthia Glover,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The red shiso leaf experiment is not going well. Chef Mark Henry shakes his head at three paltry plants poking their heads up from a 2-foot-long row of seeds he planted last spring.

"These leaves sell for 14 cents apiece," he says of this Japanese delicacy often rolled into sushi or used to garnish a sashimi plate. Still, he does not despair of producing his own. This is the first year for his new garden at the Oregon Grille restaurant in Cockeysville. "We're still trying to see what will grow well," he says.

With area restaurants paying more attention to seasonality these days, many are making connections with local farmers to ensure that produce is as fresh as possible. But for a lucky few chefs like Henry - those with a plot of land and some elbow grease to spare - fresh herbs and vegetables are just outside the kitchen door.

The rewards of such an endeavor are clear. Chefs who cook with freshly snipped chives or a sun-warmed tomato straight from the vine are quick to say there's nothing like the flavor of ingredients that travel directly from garden to kitchen to table. Add to this the ability to serve specialty items like squash blossoms, edible flowers and fingerling potatoes that might otherwise be too expensive or unavailable, and the trouble of upkeep becomes worthwhile.

Kitchen gardens are, however, a serious commitment, even if they supply a restaurant with mostly garnishes or ingredients for weekend specials, as at Oregon Grille. Henry's garden, newly expanded this year to the tune of 32 tons of dirt and $20,000, is a series of raised planters brimming with flowers, herbs and vegetables. Henry calls it a "spectator garden," saying that space in which to plant - something most city restaurants lack - is a luxury.

It is also work: After the initial planting, Henry and his staff spend an hour or so each day weeding, harvesting and replanting.

The connection between garden and table runs even deeper with Fernand and Odette Tersiguel, owners with their son Michel of Tersiguel's restaurant in Ellicott City. At their Granite home, the family members maintain a half-acre vegetable plot with lush, neatly tended rows of lettuce, kale, cauliflower, beets, broccoli, butternut squash, eggplants, carrots, radishes, cucumbers, herbs and tomatoes, along with onions, shallots, garlic and leeks.

A separate patch is devoted to potatoes - 14 kinds, this year - and another to berries, including red currants and golden raspberries. A small grove of peaches has just reached fruit-bearing age, and a greenhouse allows the Tersiguels to grow herbs and lettuces during winter. Two gardeners assist, and in summer, weather permitting, this slice of Eden supplies most of the restaurant's vegetables.

For son Michel, Tersiguel's chef, such abundance is a mixed blessing. He loves the flavor of his father's crops and the satisfaction of seeing a vegetable through from seed to table. "But one day last summer, my father arrived with 400 pounds of tomatoes," he says with a laugh. "We made tomato sauce and ketchup, we oven-dried some and froze a lot to use later in stocks and soups. It was a lot of work."

Not every restaurant kitchen garden is so ambitious. Area chefs are equally inspired by small herb and lettuce patches. "For a city boy like me, it's brought a sense of discovery," says Michael Gettier of the culinary garden at Antrim 1844 in Taneytown, where he is chef. "We had baby pea shoots this year that look like overgrown clover. You take a bite and think it will taste like an herb, then this amazing pea flavor comes to you."

At Stone Manor in Middletown, the chef's garden began as a way to enhance the view, says general manager Judith Harne. It has quickly grown to include container plantings of bell peppers, squash, red cabbage, brussels sprouts, mizuna greens and more. Fried squash blossoms stuffed with goat cheese and five-tomato salad are now summertime favorites on the restaurant's five-course, fixed-price menu.

Leaning down to pull a weed hiding among the leeks, Henry mentions an added bonus of such gardens. "Just letting kitchen staff know what these things look like before they get put in a box or on a plate is important," he says. "That's something they don't learn in culinary school."

And for customers, a stroll through a thriving kitchen garden reinforces the connection between the land and the table, an inspiring way to begin any meal.

Michel Tersiguel's Virgin Tomato Soup

Tomatoes and herbs vary greatly in flavor and intensity. Consider this recipe an outline, and taste as you go.

Serves 4

1 quart peeled, diced tomatoes

1/8 to 1/4 cup fresh, soft-leaved herbs, chopped (basil, cilantro, tarragon or parsley, singly or combined)

1 cup canned tomato juice or 2 tablespoons tomato paste

juice of half a lemon, or to taste

1/4 to 1/2 cup good-quality virgin olive oil, depending on the acidity of the tomatoes

1 tablespoon chopped shallots

1 clove garlic, chopped

salt and pepper to taste

Perrier water, champagne or Pernod (optional)

Puree the ingredients together, except the Perrier, champagne or Pernod, in a blender or food processor. Strain the mixture through a large sieve to remove some of the seeds.

If you like, just before serving, add a splash of Perrier or champagne for a little fizz, or Pernod for a hint of anise. Serve the soup cold or at room temperature. For a refreshing summer treat, freeze the soup, then blend or process it into a chilled slush before serving.

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