When you have a garden

Treasures abound

June 23, 2011

When you have a garden, magic can happen.

And it often happens with thinnings, odds and ends, sprigs of this, and leaves of that. The garden itself is what makes the food at Ubuntu or the pictures in Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty so compelling. These works of art make me feel as if I’m actually right there, in a garden.

No big surprise here, but then sometimes it’s the obvious that gives us pause. I’ve noticed that every time I plant something that I habitually have in my pantry — say, cumin — when I open the package and tap the seeds into my palm, I always have this little moment of surprise: “Oh look, it’s cumin seed! I have that in my pantry!”

Did I expect something else? Not really, but then I hadn’t thought about it, so there it is, that little shock of recognition. And that happens when I stoop down and take a close look at what’s going on in the garden.

I’m a fairly novice gardener, and I got a late start this year, so I’ve got plenty of crowded rows that need thinning. Even my cardoons need thinning — I had no idea they’d grow with such enthusiasm. But they are too tough to eat and in fact, they look a lot like some thistles that are coming up elsewhere in the garden.

The softer leaves, though, are different. While in the midst of making a birthday dinner recently for a friend, I wandered out into the garden to see if anything had happened in the past hour (where are those beans, and when are they coming up?) and decided to do some picking and thinning to augment a salad of limestone lettuces from the farmers’ market.

The thinnings go into a salad.

They’re all in the photo: a sprig of chervil, some celery leaves, and the thinnings of Mercado amaranth, along with a weed thriving in another bed that looks about the same because it’s in same family.

I also plucked some wild spinach, some little red lettuces hiding under the arugula, and some entire (small) arugula plants. The golden purslane needed thinning as well, as did the carrots and beets. I forgot about the sprouting leeks and basil, and the chive blossoms were done for, but the parsley umbels were small and tender, so I plucked some of those.

If I had a mass of these greens with all their different hues and textures, I’d use them as a little salad on their own, probably atop something else, like sliced golden beets doused with some of Katz’s Gravenstein cider vinegar. But I didn’t have a mass. I had just enough to make a lettuce salad more interesting.

There was nothing special in this combination. It could have included any number of leafy things, but any and all of such tidbits are what can make something good into something better.

I love the mystery and magic such little plants impart. They are at once both exotic and unfamiliar, and as ordinary as carrots and beets. Purslane is nothing new or secret, and the amaranth looks like a lot of the weeds in my garden, which happen to be in the same family. The thing is, you can’t buy these gems at the grocery store no matter how fancy and costly the offerings. You can’t really find them at the farmers’ market, either. But you can find them in a small square of garden.

I may never grow an enormous cabbage, but today it’s these tiny possibilities for wonder that make me doubly appreciate my garden.

Deborah Madison is the author of numerous award-winning cookbooks, including Local Flavors. She lives in New Mexico.

There are 9 comments on this item
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1. by Anna on Jun 23, 2011 at 12:16 PM PDT

I just have a container garden outside my apartment but I still love seeing what the plants are up to every day, harvesting herbs as needed and cutting a few greens to add to a salad. It brings me such enjoyment and delicious meals.

2. by Pat Bitton on Jun 29, 2011 at 1:45 PM PDT

My cardoon got completely out of control and is now 8 feet high with half a dozen flower-heads. But it’s kind of interesting to have a monster-plant, so it’ll probably stay where it is and get chopped down in the fall. After all, I know from experience it’ll be back next year!

Oh, and I found a great recipe for carrot-top pesto the other day - another of those neglected vegetable elements ...

3. by oregon foodie on Jun 29, 2011 at 1:51 PM PDT

You mentioned growing things which you also have in your pantry -- my husband sowed some of the farro from our pantry and now has lovely chest tall plants with gorgeous seed heads on top. It’ll be interesting to see how much we get from his 10x10 plot and it’ll be fun to have our own grain in the pantry instead of have to hunt it down at specialty stores.

4. by Deborah Madison on Jun 29, 2011 at 2:24 PM PDT

Pat - eight feet high? Oh my - I’m going to do some serious replanting as soon as it’s cool - I planted a ton of these things not just once but twice, because it was so gratifying the way the seeds came up! Thanks for the warning.
Yes, carrot tops- very good, utterly ignored.

5. by Deborah Madison on Jun 29, 2011 at 2:27 PM PDT

Oregon Foodie —good to know that about the farro. I once tossed out some old spelt and other groats for the birds, and three days later I had a veritable lawn. Couldn’t figure it out for the longest time. I’m going to plant white Sonoran wheat this weekend -am dying to have a plot of grain.

6. by Cathy Elton on Jun 29, 2011 at 5:51 PM PDT

Lovely post. I can’t wait to go out in my garden and see what little things I’ve overlooked! I had never thought of growing purslane, so that is next on my list.

7. by anonymous on Jun 29, 2011 at 11:02 PM PDT

Cardoons are in fact a sort of thistle as are artichokes they can get huge beware. They always make me think of dinosaurs, they look like they cam from a ‘rough’ time many many moons ago.

8. by Deborah Madison on Jun 30, 2011 at 7:47 AM PDT

Anon - My dad once said, when looking at some pictures of cardoons - “Looks like some rough stuff from the out of doors.” He had dementia, but he completely nailed it. I know what you mean about that dinosaur quality.

9. by debra daniels-zeller on Jun 30, 2011 at 7:59 AM PDT

I love this celebration of small things in your garden. I’m not the best gardener but we grow greens and I love it when they come up from seeds instead of plant starts. We just got enough tiny mustard greens for a salad. Sometimes the best things come in small packages.

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Local Flavors

Deborah Madison, the celebrated cookbook author and local-food advocate, feeds us with her occasional reflections. Her latest book is Vegetable Literacy.

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