My Vegetable Garden
Enjoy the many rewards of eating what you grow.
Growing and maintaining a vegetable garden will ruin you. I know this for a fact because it has ruined me, and it is all my husband’s fault because he seduced me into believing that a garden would change our lives. It has. It owns us—and that is more than just OK. A plot of land roughly 30 by 60 feet has become the hallowed ground for growing enough vegetables to feed us as well as many of our neighbors.
It always stuns me when I realize what a powerful force our humble garden has become, because it is the connector and envy of everyone who happens to see it and wants to learn from it. Our garden has become a community magnet that brings friends and complete strangers to the top of the hill to see it—many of whom are often the surprised recipients of a just-picked head of crunchy lettuce or shiny, smooth eggplant in varying colors of midnight purple and soft violet or the plumpest, red tomatoes almost too beautiful to eat.
It is our choice to make the commitment to create a backyard garden so that we can maintain that healthy lifestyle and control the quality of what we eat. Backyard vegetable gardens and community gardens have made a huge comeback as many of us want both the assurance of quality and availability of our food and also the knowledge of how it is grown.
The garden is utilitarian in every way. There’s no white picket fence with roses spilling over it. Instead, a solar-powered wire fence is our defense against summer visitors—the deer, rabbits, skunks, woodchucks and, yes, even bears who come to snack on the giant sunflowers. Inside the fence, the rows are precision-straight to maximize the amount of space for the vegetables that we grow. Through years of trial and error, the garden has taught us what to do and what not to do.
Keeping in mind that there are many who lack yard space, if your own garden is out of the question, seize the season and join a community garden or support your local farmers markets.
What I love about our garden is the anticipation and the unexpected little pleasures that reward us for all those days spent sowing, thinning, weeding, mulching, watering and hoeing.
Leave the heavy tastes of winter cooking behind, and make this delicate spring pasta dish with peas and shrimp all nestled together in a fresh lemon sauce that is a nice balance of lighter flavors—and pretty to look at, too.
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups minced leeks
1 large garlic clove, minced
Grated zest and juice of 2 large lemons
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
8 ounces linguine
1½ cups light cream
16 large shrimp, peeled, deveined and cooked
1 cup fresh or frozen (thawed) peas
Melt the butter in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the leeks and cook until they are soft but not brown, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until it softens. Stir in the lemon zest and juice, and cook for 1 minute. Turn off the heat.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add 1 tablespoon salt and the linguine and cook until al dente. Reserve ½ cup of the cooking water, then drain the linguine.
Stir the reserved pasta cooking water into the leek mixture in the sauté pan. Turn the heat to low and stir in the cream until well blended. Season with salt and pepper.
Add the shrimp and peas. Add the linguine and toss well until all is blended and hot. Serve right away.
One of our favorite quick lunches is cooked yellow beets flavored with a simple marinade.
The texture is smooth and velvety, and the longer the beets marinate, the more intense the flavor.
4 medium yellow beets
½ cup thinly sliced spring onions
1 clove garlic, finely minced
⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoon honey
½ teaspoon dry mustard
Salt to taste
2 tablespoons minced fresh thyme or flat-leaf parsley
Scrub the beets well; put them in a sauté pan and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil and cook over medium heat until fork-tender, about 20 minutes. (Or poke the beets here and there with a small knife and microwave them on high power until tender.) Drain, cool, peel and slice them into ¼-inch rounds.
In a bowl, whisk together the onions, garlic, olive oil, vinegar, honey, dry mustard and salt.
Put the beets in a shallow bowl and pour the dressing over them; toss to combine them well. Add the thyme or parsley and toss again. Cover and allow the beets to marinate for at least 2 hours at room temperature before serving. Or refrigerate overnight—this salad tastes even better the next day.
I use small eggplant for cooking because there are few seeds, and this eliminates the need to salt the slices to eliminate their bitterness. I do not peel them either, preferring to take advantage of all the antioxidant power in the skin, called nasunin. Eggplant parmesan should not be a heavy-tasting dish, and I find that frying the slices in peanut or vegetable oil instead of olive oil results in a lighter-tasting dish.
½ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 medium eggplants, peeled and cut lengthwise into ¼-inch-thick slices
3 cups Nonna Galasso’s Neapolitan Tomato Sauce
½ cup peanut or vegetable oil, or more as needed
1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Combine the flour, salt and a few grindings of pepper in a heavy-duty paper bag. Close the bag and shake the ingredients to blend them. Add the eggplant slices a few at a time to the bag, close it and shake to coat the slices. Transfer the slices to a plate.
Spread a thin layer of tomato sauce over the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch casserole dish and set aside.
Heat the oil in a large sauté pan. Fry the breaded eggplant slices until they are deep golden brown on each side. As they brown, transfer them to a large platter.
Place a layer of the eggplant slices on top of the tomato sauce in the baking dish, slightly overlapping them. Spoon a thin layer of tomato sauce over the slices, then about a third of the grated cheese. Continue making layers until all the eggplant and cheese are used. Finish off the top layer with more tomato sauce.
Cover the dish tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 45 minutes. Remove the dish from the oven and allow it to sit for 15 minutes before cutting it. Serve warm or at room temperature.
This dish is even better made a day ahead of time. Cut it when cold for neat, even pieces.
Ziti and Vegetable Salad
You won’t find cold pasta salads in Italy, but every so often I take a little cultural license and inspiration from the garden for this refreshing room-temperature ziti and mixed vegetable salad.
4 cups halved cherry tomatoes
1 teaspoon sugar
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Juice of 2 large lemons
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup thinly sliced spring onions or shallots
¼ cup minced, fresh, flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup diced zucchini
1 cucumber, cut in half lengthwise, then cut crosswise into half moons
1½ cups diced fresh mozzarella cheese
8 ounces cooked ziti
Put the tomatoes in a small bowl and sprinkle the sugar over them; toss and set aside.
In a large serving bowl, combine the olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, onions, parsley, 1 teaspoon salt, and pepper. Add the zucchini, cucumber and tomatoes with their juice and mix again. Add the cheese.
Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Add the ziti and 1 tablespoon salt and cook until al dente. Drain well, then add the ziti while still warm to the vegetables and mix to combine well.
Cover and let stand at room temperature for 1 hour before serving.