We are so connected to the seasons. As the weather becomes warmer, I just can’t wait to spend more time outside and when it comes to food, I crave fresh garden salads. Hey wait – it’s garden planting season!

No one knows this more than Casino Rama Resort’s chef James Simpson.

“I had no garden last year,” laments Simpson, “the rabbits ate the entire garden in one day.”

This year, armed with enough fences to surround his entire garden, Simpson is once again planning his garden. To a chef like Simpson his planning takes into consideration some of his favourite dishes, more to the point, some of his favourite salads. He likes the refreshing, bitter edge of Italian salads and the savoury, sophistication of a French Niçoise, so he plans accordingly. This means he’ll be planting some chicory and radicchio for his Italian moods and some Frisée and string beans when he’s looking to make a French dish.

From French to German, Italian to Oriental, you too can tailor your garden plantings to make this a year of satisfying your food moods. Before you put a shovel into the ground, Chef Simpson wants to encourage you to plan your garden based on what you want to eat, not what you traditionally plant and to help you, he has some sage advice for planning your new flavour forward vegetable garden.

Planting a French Garden

The French harvest their greens early and petite for fresh, vibrant, almost sweeter flavours. Some of the greens to plant for a French garden include endive, baby beet greens, watercress, Lambs lettuce (Mache) and arugula (Rocket). French vegetables like carrots, string beans (Haricot vert), summer squash (Pattypan), heirloom baby tomatoes and sweet peas are also harvested early and so are more delicate and cook up quicker. For a real French influence, no garden is complete without herbs such as French tarragon, marjoram and thyme.

Few people understand the French influence of the Simcoe Yard House signature salad of baby kale, rocket, frieze, with candied walnuts and fresh pear slices. Even the dressing includes the perfect amount of Dijon mustard.

Overall, the French honour their onions so any French garden must include a variety of them. The French use the common onion (for spectacular French onion soup), scallions, shallots, leeks (brilliant in tarts) and chives. Leeks have their own special taste, buttery, mild and oniony. They’re not used merely as invisible flavouring ingredients like other members of the onion family, 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.

Planting an Italian Garden

Most of the salad greens planted in an Italian garden include radicchio, chicory, escarole and like the French, rocket. Unlike the French, they’re not traditionally harvested early for a tender, sweet flavour, the Italians like their greens fully grown and bitter.

Interestingly, Casino Rama Resort have their signature blend of salad greens custom blended with the Italian influence of bitter frizee and radicchio along with the more tender French elements of baby spinach and lambsleaf. It’s available in almost every restaurant on the resort.

An Italian garden is heavy on the vegetables like meaty tomatoes, banana peppers, beans and zucchini. Italians grow cluster tomatoes for salads and Roma to make sauce. Sweet peppers are frequently long (also known as banana peppers) rather than short and blocky and the small, hot Pepperoncini is dried, crushed and used dried or preserved in oil to flavour all sorts of dishes from pizza to pasta. It is the red pimento variety that Italians love to char on the barbecue to make the succulent roasted red peppers. Beans lean on the side of lima and fava instead of the more elegant French string beans and are traditionally boiled and dressed with lots of garlic and olive oil.

Other Italian vegetables that are easily grown in an ethnic garden include eggplant, broccoli rabe, rapini, sweet fennel and garlic. Italian herbs include the large, flat leafed variety of parsley, basil and small-leafed oregano bushes.

Planting an Oriental Garden

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, cabbage, sweet potato and cauliflower.

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. Some greens in general include Mizuna, spider mustard, Bok Choi and Tatsoi (spoon cabbage). 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. These are sliced or grated for stir-fries of pork, shrimp or shellfish, in soups, stews and sauces but rarely eaten raw. The tops of Oriental radishes are also enjoyed braised or added to soups.

Coriander (Chinese parsley) is mostly found in Southern Chinese and Thai dishes such as soup, chutneys and salads. It’s most often added to a dish just before serving to reflect the refreshing nature of the herb. The roots of the coriander plant are commonly used in Thai curry pastes and soups. Lemongrass is an aromatic grass-family herb with a rich lemon flavour. The leaves are used as a seasoning in Thai dishes, sparingly in light soups and as a wonderful refreshing tea.

Planting a Mexican Garden

Not a lot of lettuce grows in the hot Mexican climate but they’re big on vegetables like tomatoes, onions, green peppers, squash and sunflowers. These are often the same or similar varieties as grown in Ontario. Mexican ingredients include amaranth, lima beans, runner beans, tomatillos and hundreds of 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 Ontario’s shorter growing season or the “Texas A & M”, which is a milder variety of pepper. Smoked jalapenos are called chipotles and when they’re prepared in a tomato sauce they’re called chipotles en adobo.

But don’t think you can grow one variety of chili peppers and grind them into chili powder. Mexican chili powder is actually a blend of many dried, powdered chilies with cumin and oregano. It’s frequently used as seasoning for meats and vegetables and has a mild spiciness.

Tomatillos are related to the tomato, it has a paper-like husk that is removed before eating. You can stew tomatillos with chilies and onions. The combination complements 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.

Cilantro is not just for Thai dishes, in Mexican cuisine it’s commonly found in salsa and guacamole and sprinkled over a dish as a garnish. Coriander is the seed of the cilantro plant and it’s what gives chorizo (sausage) its super distinctive flavour.