By: Lynn Ogryzlo
One of these summers I’d love to plant a garden that gives me the right kinds of foods to create my favourite French dishes. Each ingredient, naturally grown and plucked from the garden at their peak of ripeness. That’s exciting. Or perhaps it will be a Thai summer. I’ve fallen in love with the way Thai cooks use combinations of lemon grass, mint and hot peppers and I want to grow some of their green leafy vegetables.
You too can explore a country this summer by planting a garden filled with the vegetables of an ethnic cuisine. Imagine savouring the flavours of baked sweet fennel reminiscent of French cuisine, mouth watering tender asparagus picked just the way they like it in Alsace, grilled sausages over steaming German-style sauerkraut, Mexican tamales stuffed with fresh corn and a Thai stir-fry made with home-grown ginger. Let your garden and your kitchen, carry you round the world this summer in these amazing ethnic gardens.
Most of the vegetables and herbs planted in an Italian vegetable garden contain tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, a variety of greens, beans and zucchini. There are differences though. Italian tomato varieties, like Roma are grown to make tomato sauce. Sweet peppers are frequently long and thin (also known as banana peppers) rather than short and blocky and the small, hot Pepperoncini is often used in antipasto. It is the red pimento variety that Italians love to char on the barbecue to make the succulent roasted red peppers.
Eggplant is one of Italy’s favourite vegetables because the flesh absorbs the flavours of other ingredients in the pan, especially garlic and oregano. They tend to be smaller and either elongated or round. Rosa Bianco is a white variety with a creamy-textured and mild tasting flesh.
Other Italian vegetables that are easily grown in an ethnic garden include arugula (rocket), escarole, dandelion, Catalonian chicory, broccoli raab, rapini, sweet fennel and garlic. Italian herbs include the large, flat leafed variety of parsley, large, green leafed basil and small-leafed oregano bushes. You can harvest all summer long with these prolific herbs. Not all Italian vegetables such as artichoke will grow in Niagara because they like an extended and warmer growing season, but you can still create delicious dishes with those that will produce here.
Potage is the French word for soup and in a gardening context a potager is a garden containing whatever is necessary for making a delicious soup such as onions, leeks, asparagus and tomatoes.
The French harvest long, thin, beans and sweet salad greens daily to capture their tenderest flavours. Other vegetables like carrots, summer squash and peas are harvested early and petite for vibrant flavours.
The family of onions are much honoured in French cooking; the common onion (for spectacular French onion soup), scallions, shallots and leeks (brilliant in tarts) in particular. Leeks have their own special taste, buttery, mild and oniony They’re not used merely as invisible flavouring or stir-fry ingredients as we use them, but are served alone as a salad with vinaigrette. The baby ones are served hot with a cream sauce or cooked into a rich soup and all leeks can be used as a filling for tarts, quiches or pastry squares.
Shallots are milder and sweeter than most onions, tasting between that of garlic and onion. The rich, subtle and complex flavour is considered important in mirepoix, a basic minced-vegetable mixture which includes onions, celery and leeks and is used to flavour many sauces and stews.
Use shallots in cream soups with leeks, stuffings and wherever you want a mild onion flavour.
Asparagus is considered a great delicacy in Germany. The most prized asparagus are the fat, tender, white ones. The good news with this perennial plant is that it is capable of producing delicious spears for up to 20 years. Harvest them in the spring when they are is 6 to 8 inches high, any larger and they’ll begin to taste woody. Simply steam asparagus and serve it with butter or prepare it German-style with hollandaise sauce and a few slices of ham on the side (Black Forest ham, of course).
Beets are a favourite German vegetable that grow well in a sunny Niagara garden. They’re frequently pickled in vinegar and sugar and seasoned with mustard seeds, cumin or caraway. Germans often prefer them grated and used in salads or combined with cucumbers in a pureed soup. The leaves are also delicious and can be prepared very much like spinach or Swiss chard.
Cabbage is a German staple and they grow varieties that will store well in a cool cellar so theoretically they eat cabbage almost all year round. The large, dense, velvety smooth cabbages are best for sauerkraut. The flavourful red ones are good for slaw or for pickling with vinegar and sugar and flavouring with apples, prunes, cloves and red wine. Sliced cabbage is also wonderful steamed with onions, apples, pears or prunes.
Most vegetables in a Mexican garden are often the same or similar varieties to those we usually grow in Niagara; tomatoes, onions, green peppers, squash and sunflowers are often the same or similar varieties. Mexican ingredients include exotic epazote and chia (both herbs) amaranth, lima beans, runner beans, tomatillos and different kinds of chili peppers.
Hot Serrano peppers are the most popular and are used in fresh salsa, guacamole and chili to spice it up. For a milder dish jalapenos are used. You may try to seek out the variety called “Early Jalapeno” as it grows best in our shorter season or the “Texas A & M”, which is a milder form. Smoked jalapenos are called chipotles and when they’re prepared in a tomato sauce they’re called chipotles en adobo.
Both summer and winter squash are used in Mexico. Summer squash is perfect for absorbing the flavours of chilies, garlic, onion, tomato and numerous herbs. To this mixture add cubed pork and serve it with corn tortillas for an authentic Mexican meal from the garden.
Tomatillos are related to the tomato, they have a paper-like husk that is removed before eating. You can stew tomatillos with chilies and onions which complement their tart, slightly tomato-like flavour. Probably the most popular way to serve them is in salsa verde and in a sauce for enchiladas verdes.
The countries of the Orient encompass diverse climates so it is not surprising that the vegetables and herbs grown throughout are an extremely varied lot. Oriental gardeners grow such familiar vegetables as eggplants, carrots, onions and cauliflower as well as the unfamiliar.
Chinese mustard is a blanket term used to cover a whole range of mustard plants from mild to strong, that can have a slightly bitter or hot bite. They’re most often combined with ginger and used in soups or blanched and served with oyster sauce or stir-fried with meat and bean sauce.
Daikon refers to a wide range of winter radishes. The tops of Oriental radishs are braised or added to soups and the roots are cut up or grated for stir-fries of pork, shrimp or shellfish, in soups, stews and sauces but rarely used raw.
Lemongrass is an aromatic grass-family herb with a rich lemon flavour. Root several fresh stalks in a jar of water, just as you would a geranium cutting. Harvest the leaves of the lemon grass once the plant is established and use them as a seasoning in Thai dishes, sparingly in light soups and as a wonderful refreshing tea.
Lynn Ogryzlo is a food, wine and travel writer, international award winning author and regular contributor to REV Publications. She can be reached for questions or comments at www.lynnogryzlo.com.