Standing with a friend who was planning the annihilation of her garden, I asked the grocery-store-tomatoes-are-$2.50-a-pound question, “Look at all these beautiful tomatoes! Why would you want to give it up?” A sigh. A scratch on the head. “Because I hate tomatoes and I’m sick of pesto.” Only one thing is so effective at causing a devoted herb and vegetable gardener to pass on her pots, turn in her trowel and cede her seeds – culinary boredom.
To prevent such tragedies, the kitchen gardener (one who gardens solely to provide fresh fare for his own cooking) should think about what ingredients he wants and what he can get to grow. If you love salsa, then go nuts with the tomatoes. But if you can’t stand tomatoes, don’t grow them just because they’re a mainstay of most gardens. Also, if you adore basil and other sun-loving plants but find that all your available growing space is shaded, you’re either going to have to get very creative or be satisfied with growing things that do well in shade.
Assuming you have already considered those things, the question of what to do with what one grows remains. If you find yourself stuck in a salsa and pesto loop, try some of the following suggestions to liven up summer garden regulars.
The usual suspects are pesto, pasta sauce and Caprese salad. Try wrapping those big, beautiful basil leaves around some Thai peanut chicken. Most people don’t think of dessert when they think of basil, but those poor souls haven’t tried grilled pineapple with a basil ginger sauce or basil lemon granita.
The yawners here are tomato sauce, salsa and Caprese salad. (Hey, the theme is repetition after all!) Forego the expensive “sun-dried” tomatoes at the grocery store and dry your own to chop and sprinkle on salads. Tomatoes are also great in sassy jambalayas and spicy Cuban black beans and rice. If you find yourself with a bounty of tomatoes, green peppers, onions, herbs and other garden favorites all at the same time, try a simple gazpacho. Throw everything in the blender with some olive oil and hit puree. Go seriously old-school with some of George Washington Carver’s recipes. Tomato, fig and nut salad sounds like something you might order at a fancy restaurant, but he was a man ahead of his time.
Jalapeño Peppers
Again with the salsa! Jalapeños are fabulous in anything that calls for zing, such as chili, corn salad, and just about every Latin dish you can think of. You’ve got to love a little pepper that does double duty though – smoke them to use in any dish that calls for chipotle. Go even farther outside the box with drinks or desserts with jalapeño in them or a jalapeño marinade for lobster tails. Oh yes, it’s out there! ( And don’t just stick with the jalapeños. Plant poblanos and enjoy some chiles rellenos. Dry your serranos to use in tons of Asian recipes.
Fresh fruit is fantastic in the heat of the summer, but your fiftieth fruit salad may leave you yearning for a little creativity. Fruit is not just for dessert! Try a lamb with blueberry wine reduction or dry your strawberries to sprinkle on salads. Fruit makes some wonderful cold summer soups too. They are simple and tasty enough for every day, but unusual enough that they can be dressed up to impress. One example, first encountered in Paris and so named by the adorable waiter who pluralized everything, melons balls soup involves simply pureeing cantaloupe with a pinch of sea salt and a dash of cream and chilling it. You would think it would taste like…well, cantaloupe, but the flavor is somehow much more. Dress it up with chunks of mozzarella, dabs of pesto, and a couple of those “melons balls” and you’ve got a dish that looks so fancy no one will ever guess how easy it was.
The same goes for your beans, cukes and everything else in your garden. (Sadly, other than basil, herbs are a topic for another day.) If you normally think of it as a main ingredient, look for recipes where it’s a minor ingredient. If it’s usually a minor ingredient, make it the star of the dish. If it’s a vegetable you always grill, figure out how to bake it or use it in a soup or bread. Repurpose a main dish ingredient in a dessert or side dish. Whatever you do, though, don’t let culinary boredom kill your garden this summer!
don’t poison your plants!
You wouldn’t chase your Thai peanut chicken basil wraps with a swig directly from a bottle of pesticide, so don’t spray such poison on your plants. Here are some alternatives for your summer kitchen garden:
• The cleanest approach is prevention, so make sure your plants are healthy and growing under the right conditions. Many times, healthy plants can survive a bug or disease attack just fine on their own. Other prevention methods may be mechanical, such as using collars to discourage cutworms.
• One of the best backyard kitchen gardens in Jacksonville belongs to Mary Jo Trenkler of Arlington. She recommends getting your soil tested to find out what nutrients are missing. She also recommends composting rather than using commercial fertilizers. “This is the first year in about three or four that we have something we are excited about, and we have discovered that it is mainly based on the fact that we are not using commercial fertilizers,” she says. “After conversations with long-time farmers, I have discovered that the pests love the commercial fertilizers.” Evie Pankok, of the Duval County Extension Service seconds that. “My tomatoes are taller than me, and I planted them in the compost area.” If you would like to learn how to compost, the Extension Service is offering a series of workshops beginning on June 9. Pre-payment for the June 16 composting session is due by June 7, so call 387-8850 for details.
• Should the aphids worry you, blast them off the leaves and flowers each morning with the hose. The larger creepy-crawlies can be picked off by hand.
• Do as Grandma did. Mix up a little dish soap and water in a spray bottle and go to town on the wee beasties. Just remember not to do this in the heat of the day as it can burn the leaves. Pankok also advises that a “tea” made from a quarter cup of compost steeped in a gallon of water and sprayed on leaves can be effective against some fungi.
You can find more great non-pesticide options at