Wandering the produce section of the grocery store, you’ll often see items that don’t look so hot, from wilted lettuce to over-ripe avocados. Put those days behind you by planting your own garden. Instead of going to the store to get ingredients for dinner, you can go straight to the backyard and harvest fresh, homegrown herbs, vegetables and fruits.
Whether you are an expert gardener or a beginner looking for fresh ingredients to incorporate into your dishes, growing your own produce puts you in control, says Chef Kevin Fonzo of K Restaurant in College Park. Since you are able to pick the produce at its peak, it will be ripe and ready for eating. No more waiting patiently as your purchases from the grocery store are ripe enough to enjoy. An added bonus is that you know exactly how and where the produce is grown, and can stay pesticide and chemical free, which is equally important in home cooking.
Specific herbs naturally agree with the warmer temperatures of summer. Chef Fonzo recommends rosemary, oregano, and mint for a beginner’s green thumb. The longer periods of sunshine ushered in from the arrival of summer marks the perfect time to try your hand at growing basil, thyme, and dill. You can enhance the flavors of fruits and vegetables with items plucked straight from your herb garden. “Make an herb butter from the garden and use it to baste or season veggies while roasting them in the oven,” he says.
Herbs can also provide a unique way of experimenting with the preservation of fruit and vegetables through pickling or canning. “Add lavender to pickled beets, fennel to pickled tomatoes, and ginger to canning peaches,” recommends Chef Fonzo.
Once you feel comfortable with an abundant forest of compact herb gardens, consider expanding to leafy green vegetables and different beans. “For produce, get those peas, pole beans, radishes, beets, kale, and lettuces growing,” says Chef Fonzo.
Dense vegetables such as eggplant can add depth to your dishes when paired with ripe tomatoes from the garden, but quintessential maintenance is required for their health and growth. Also, rotating plants annually and learning which vegetables are seasonal will salvage the soil. “Do not plant the same produce in the same spot, as you will deplete the nutrients in the soil and welcome a bug population,” says Chef Fonzo.
With an array of herbs and vegetables resting atop a bed of healthy, dark soil or fertilizer, planting fruit will add a bright and refreshing touch to your home garden. Some fruit that are best to grow during Central Florida’s summers are limes, melons, or mangoes. When you bring these into your kitchen, consider citrus fruits to add a tart finish to vinaigrette dressings, and try mashing avocados on top of toast with some red pepper flakes and a drizzle of honey for a healthy breakfast or satisfying snack. Mangoes are versatile in that they taste equally delicious fresh off the tree as they do as an addition to smoothies in a frozen state.
No matter what your skill level is when it comes to gardening, you have the opportunity to transform your meals with ingredients you produced yourself, making cooking all the more satisfying. Chef Fonzo’s advice for beginners is, “It takes time to learn what can and can’t grow in Florida. Always start out small and add on. Do not bite off more than you can chew. Start out with a simple herb garden in pots and slowly add one or two potted vegetables. If you find you have a knack for it, go big.”
As your garden grows, so will your menus. Quality ingredients will become the star of your next meal.
When your garden is ready to harvest, pick your favorite vegetables, and try this fresh, and simple recipe.
OJA Ratatouille Pasta
½ cup olive oil
1 each yellow onion, medium size, chopped
2 eggplant, diced
2 sweet red bell peppers, diced
2 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon mint, chopped
1 teaspoon basil, chopped
1 teaspoon parsley, chopped
1 cup tomato sauce
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper, ground
In a medium-sized saucepan, heat olive oil. Add onion, eggplant, and peppers. Cook until tender, approximately five minutes. Add sugar, herbs, cinnamon, and tomato sauce. Cook for 15-20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
Serve over whole-wheat pasta, sprinkle with grated Parmesan, and garnish with a toasted slice of whole wheat bread.