Last week I had the pleasure of working four hours in a kitchen and garden not my own. I say pleasure because that kitchen and garden belonged to chef and author, Monique Jamet Hooker. It was part of a free job shadow program she is offering to anyone interested in coming to her home. There were six "students" the day I attended, two of them young aspiring chefs. We began our day in the garden, harvesting what would later become lunch.
On our way to the main garden, we stopped at this perennial garden densely packed with fragrant herbs. Monique identified them all, plucking a leaf or two for us to crush between our fingers and experience their flavor through smell. Lavender, rosemary, thai basil, chives, tarragon, oregano, mint, parsley - all commingled in the garden and morning air.
As we inhaled their heady scent, she plucked the tops off a few that had gone into bloom. "Nothing goes to waste," she said as she dropped the tops into a jar sitting in the sun. She went on to explain that the jar was filled with cider vinegar. The plastic wrap is used to prevent the acidity of the vinegar from rusting the metal lid. She uses the herbs and summer sun to infuse the vinegar. The jar remains in the garden all summer and then in fall is strained and divided into gift portions to share with family and friends. "It is the most requested item from my garden."
Moving on past the row of curly-willow trees we came upon a small, but extremely prolific vegetable garden overlooked by a terraced tomato and potato garden. As a chef, I was expecting a large sprawling garden full of fancy produce and devoid of weeds. I was a bit taken back by the quaint cottage garden that lay before me and charmed to see weeds. Monique later explained that these "weeds" were in fact edible and added them to our salad basket.
She divided us up and delegated each a task. One to gather greens, herbs and blooms for a our salad, two to dig potatoes, another to pull onions, and someone to harvest a basket-full of basil for pesto. I was relegated to the squash patch - the waist high squash patch!
As I waded through the plants - half as tall as I - gathering squash blossoms I thought back to my own garden... 40 feet long with 21 raised beds and no where near as productive as this "quaint" little chef garden. I still have a lot to learn.
After gathering our bounty we headed to kitchen to prepare our feast. We piled everything on to the counter for a photo op. Seeing it all together, again I was surprised at the amount of food we pulled out of that small space. Row gardeners take heed! You do not need vast amounts of spaced, perfectly aligned, to produce an abundance of food to feed your family. This garden was wild, free-flowing, exuberant and jam-packed with nourishment.
We set to work straightaway: snipping beans, slicing squash, shredding kale, de-stringing pea pods, chopping onion, processing pesto, sorting salad greens, blanching beans, working bread dough, stuffing squash blossoms, shredding cabbage... all the while learning tips and techniques. A few things I picked up along the way were: the proper way to hold and pass a knife, how to shred kale, saving the ends of veggies to freeze and later use for stock, freezing pesto in ice cube trays for pre-made recipe portions, storing garlic cloves in the freezer for quick use, simple salad dressings, how to make foccacia bread, and naturally turning cabbage into kraut. My head was swimming by the end of the day! I want to go back again just to process it all.
Once all the food was prepped and put up we sat down to enjoy the fruits of our labor. We dined al fresco on fresh mixed green salad (including "weeds" and blooms), curry-stuffed-fried squash blossoms (my favorite part of the meal), summer-squash quiche and warm pesto-foccacia bread.
It was a lovely afternoon. I enjoyed fresh air and great company, learned a few tricks and tasted things I never have before. Monique was wonderful to welcome us into her home and let us trash her kitchen. From the beginning she instructed us to never use the word "perfect". "Nobody is perfect, you can always do better," she said in her heavy French accent. I agree, but I have to say, in my best French-imitation accent, that this day was "parfait".