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Six Quick Cooking Tips

Anybody new to cooking with garden produce has this experience at least once (or 100 times)….

Ok, so you have successfully grown something in your garden! You have lettuce to cut, carrots to pull, and zucchini to harvest before they get too big. Your herbs always have something to give. And your first tomatoes are ripening on the vine.

You fill your kitchen bowl with an odd assortment of homegrown produce. (Always 100% satisfaction guaranteed).

But the romantic walk back to the house ends in the kitchen when you start to ask the looming question: “What do I do with all this?”

“What coherent dish can a gardener make with three large kale leaves, a couple carrots, two summer squash and a lone beet?”

As a cook and gardener, I’ve developed a handful of cooking habits that allow for any produce available, are easy to use, and always taste good. Here is a short list of cooking “foundations” – guidelines and ideas for how to get started once you’ve harvested your bounty. Enjoy!

Tip Number 1: A list of things I always have in the kitchen during harvest season

  • olive oil
  • balsamic vinegar
  • apple cider vinegar
  • white or red wine vinegar
  • maple syrup
  • Dijon mustard
  • honey
  • butter
  • kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
  • dried fruit
  • nuts
  • sesame seeds (I prefer black, but white sesame seeds are great too)

Tip Number 2: How to Make Salad Dressings

Knowing how to make a good, quick dressing will go a long way with your fresh veggies. And there are a million ways to make a good dressing. Here are a few basic ideas that will get you thinking and from there, you can just look in your cupboard, see what you’ve got, and shake up a jar of it.

  • There is an old rule of thumb that dressings should be 1 part acid to 3 parts oil. I generally stick to this rule as a good starting point, but you should always taste your dressing and let that be the real test.
  • I make dressings in glass jars. That way, you can see the ratios of all the ingredients, you can lid and shake to mix, and you can store extra in the fridge straight in the jar.

Citrus Style
Start with about 2” of olive oil in your jar. Add a 1/2” of some kind of nice, light vinegar (apple cider, white wine, red wine). Squeeze half of a lemon into it. Or for a sweeter tone, squeeze an orange in. You could also add a little zest of either lemon or orange. Or do both. Add a dollop of mustard. Throw in a pinch of kosher salt and a grind of pepper. If you’re going slightly sweet, drop in a bit of honey. Lid the jar and shake to combine. Taste. If its too sweet or tastes too much of olive oil, add a little more vinegar or lemon and an extra dash of mustard. If it tastes to acidic, add a bit more olive oil or an extra dash of honey.

Balsamic
Start with about 2” of olive oil in your jar. Add about a third as much balsamic vinegar. Drop in a dollop of mustard and then a dollop of maple syrup. Throw in a pinch of kosher salt and a grind of pepper. Shake to combine. Taste.

Miso
Start with a neutral oil, like vegetable, grapeseed, or canola. You can use olive oil, but the olive flavor does not always marry well with the miso. Add an equal amount of vinegar (preferably rice wine vinegar, but white or red wine vinegar work as well). Drop in a tablespoon of white or red miso paste. Add a drop of honey if you’d like to sweeten it a bit. Lid the jar and shake to combine, and taste.

Creamy
Pretty much any of the above dressings can be turned creamy with a little yogurt or mayonnaise. Citrus style dressings usually do better with yogurt and balsamic style dressings usually do better with mayo, in my opinion. Or to just make a simple yogurt dressing, start with about 1/3 cup yogurt in your jar. Add a couple tablespoons of white wine or red wine vinegar (or apple cider). Add a glug of olive oil, a pinch of salt and a grind of pepper. Shake to combine and taste.

With any of the above dressings, you can add all sorts of things to get more flavor, like minced shallots, garlic, or chopped fresh herbs from the garden.

Tip Number 3: Fresh Summer Slaws

My favorite summer kitchen tool is a mandolin (the sharp cutting tool, not the instrument). Especially if you have one with a julienne setting, you can turn just about any vegetable into a fresh, tasty summer slaw.

Basic recipe

  • Summer squash or zucchini
  • Some kind of salty, hard cheese like pecorino or parmesan
  • Almonds or any other nut
  • Butter
  • A citrus style dressing (see above)
  • Salt and pepper
  • Dried apricots (optional)

Thinly slice (the thinner it is, the more tender it will be) or julienne the zucchini into a large bowl. Roughly chop the almonds or other nuts. Melt a tablespoon of butter in a small pan and allow it to brown just slightly. Once the butter is beginning to brown a bit, throw in the chopped nuts and stir on med-high heat until a nutty aroma comes off the pan and the nuts are just browned. Throw the nuts and butter together in with the zucchini and toss quickly to cool the nuts. Grate a handful of pecorino or parmesan and add to the zucchini. Make a simple citrus-style dressing and combine with the zucchini, along with salt and pepper, to taste. If using, roughly chop dried apricots to 1/2” chunks and toss with zucchini.

A second basic recipe

  • Root vegetables of almost any kind (carrots, radishes, beets, turnips, etc)
  • Other veggies like kohlrabi, cabbage, or kale
  • Miso dressing from above
  • Sesame seeds
  • Any other nuts that you’d like

Using your mandolin, julienne the root vegetables (and kohlrabi if using) so that they are 1/8” in diameter. If using greens like cabbage or kale, wash and chop in small strips. Combine all the veggies together in a large bowl. Toss with a miso-style dressing (see above). Let the dressing sit on the veggies for at least 15 minutes but up to an hour before serving, so the flavors can meld a bit. Toast the sesame seeds in a dry skillet until just browned and a slight nutty aroma comes from the seeds. Toss with the veggies. Similarly toast any other nuts that you’d like to use and toss with the veggies. Salt and pepper to taste.

With these same basic concepts, you can take just about any garden vegetable, combine it with a dressing, add nuts and seeds, sometimes add dried fruit, and have an endless variety of slaws to eat alongside a beautiful summer dinner. Experiment and see what you like best.

Tip Number 4: Sautéing Greens

You have so many greens! Your kale is a veritable forest and your braising mix is getting too tall already. Pump through a lot of greens with a quick sauté.

  • Any greens from your garden (kale, mustard, braising mix, chard, collards, bok choi, or tatsoi)
  • Garlic and (optional) a little shallot or onion, minced finely
  • Olive oil or another oil (vegetable, canola)
  • Balsamic vinegar
    OR soy sauce and ume plum, rice wine or white wine vinegar
  • Salt and pepper

Wash and roughly chop your greens. Greens will reduce quite a bit when cooking, so prep more greens than you think you’ll need and you should be good. Mince your garlic and onion or shallots, if using. Put a tablespoon of oil in a large skillet, on med heat. Add the garlic and onions and cook, stirring frequently so as not to burn the garlic for 2-4 minutes. Add the greens in a huge pile on top of the skillet and let wilt and cook down, stirring occasionally for about 5 minutes. You can also turn down the heat a bit and cover with a lid to steam the greens. Once the greens have wilted, throw in a dash of either balsamic vinegar (for a more Italian, European flavor) or thrown in a dash of soy sauce and red wine, or white wine vinegar (or ume plum or rice wine for a more Asian style flavor). Serve immediately.

Tip Number 5: All Greens Pestos

Most of the greens in your garden will make a great pesto. Here’s a basic recipe for basil pesto. But you can swap out basil for lots of other greens as well (arugula, kale, braising mix, radish tops, parsley) or, better yet, for a combination of greens.

  • About 3 cups of loosely packed basil leaves (or other greens)
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • 1/2 cup of parmesan
  • 2/3 cup pine nuts or almonds or walnuts (or other nuts)
  • 1 Tablespoon lemon
  • About 1/3 cup olive oil
  • Salt to taste

Combine all the ingredients minus the olive oil in a food processor and pulse to combine. Then slowly add the olive oil and continue to pulse to combine until smooth. Taste. The level of saltiness, nuttiness, and smoothness of the pesto is totally up to you.

Tip Number 6: Roasting

 You may not want to turn on your oven in the summer, but roasting is a great, easy way to eat out of the garden. And you can roast veggies on your grill as well!

  • A wide variety of veggies from your garden (any root crops, onions, broccoli, leeks, summer squash, etc)
  • Olive oil
  • Herbs (the more the better!)
  • Salt and pepper

Preheat your oven to 450 degrees. Chop up all your veggies. Try to get your veggies chopped to roughly the same size, so that they will cook evenly. If you have a mix of veggies that will cook at different times (zucchini, for example, will roast way faster than carrots), you may want to roast in two different batches. Combine your veggies in a large bowl and add olive oil. You want to add enough olive oil to coat all the veggies, but not so much that they are swimming in it. Wash and roughly chop herbs from your garden. Oregano, sage, rosemary, and thyme will all roast very well. If you’d like to add parsley, cilantro, or dill, they are better added fresh at the end. Salt and pepper the veggies generously. Toss all the ingredients together in the bowl so the veggies are evenly oiled, herbed, and salted. Spread onto a rimmed baking sheet and roast in the oven, stirring occasionally, for 45 minutes, or until tender and golden.

Don’t be afraid to let the veggies get nice and browned in the oven. The longer they cook, the more their natural sugars will caramelize and become sweet. Some blackened and crispy edges will also add a good depth of flavor to the sweetness.

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