Green thumbs are in fashionBobby R. Presents Thursday, March 17th, 2011
Form versus function seems to be an omnipresent choice in my world: shoes, clothes, kitchen organization and even vegetable planting. With spring next week, I will face a new wealth of these choices: a whole quarter of my closet to choose from again, spring cleaning, organizing and what kind of vegetables I will grow. Of all these choices, I have come to find that vegetable planting can be a perfect marriage of both form and function.
I did not always think that the last statement could be true. In Massachusetts, we always had a vegetable garden, but it wasn’t always the prettiest thing to look at. It wasn’t until the spring of 2009, when I initiated an urban raised-bed garden on the back patio of California Cuisine, that I became painstakingly aware that an edible garden could (and in this case had to) be aesthetically pleasing.
We called it the “Avant-Garden” and by careful planning, diligent maintenance and 300+ square feet of soil grew more than 20 different types of vegetables. Not everyone will have the space, time or desire to command such an intensive feat.
I’d prefer you forego the leggy-herb garden and topsy-turvy upside down planters of past seasons. Instead, try planting some simple, ornamental, edible and container friendly vegetables combining beauty whilst producing edible goods.
The components are simple: a well designed container, soil, sunlight, plants and minimal care.
I prefer square containers made of redwood (plastic works, too), at least 12 by 12 by 12 inches with adequate drainage holes evenly spaced over the bottom surface area. Line the bottom with chicken wire, purchased and cut to size at the hardware store. Fill the bottom about 2 inches deep with river rocks that will facilitate drainage. Lastly, fill the pot with pre-fertilized vegetable potting soil to just beneath the rim. These types of containers are ideal for larger, fruit bearing vegetables, such as eggplants and tomatoes.
I go to the Hillcrest Farmer’s market to buy starter vegetables for planting. The growers are very knowledgeable and will tell you precisely what kind of light and soil the plants need. I prefer to grow vegetables that require full to medium sun to make my life easier.
For small-apartment container gardening, I find that the most visually stimulating and easy to maintain are a combination of Malabar spinach, Asian varieties of eggplant and red chard.
Malabar spinach is not part of the spinach family but named so because of its similar taste and appearance. It produces beautiful deep purple berries during its life cycle and instead of growing close to the soil like traditional spinach, Malabar spinach grows as thin red vines and works very well up trellises. With time, the spinach will fill a square trellis (plant three to four equally spaced in the container described) and act as an edible border for a street or condo facing balcony. Sauté the Malabar spinach as you would any other dark green or serve raw in salads.
Asian varieties of eggplant are good patio plants, not only because they don’t generally grow over 3 feet tall, but continually produce both flowers and small fruit throughout the season. Choosing multiple heirloom varieties for several different containers provides the growing space color diversity without the hassle of different growing conditions. Be sure to pick the fruit when it has reached three-quarters of its full maturity to encourage new flower growth and provide you with the main ingredient for the included recipe.
Red chard can be planted alone in a slightly smaller container than the one described or as a border for either the Malabar spinach or eggplant. The chard will use the top soil while the larger plants root deeper, called underplanting, utilizing all the soils nutrients. The red chard produces very dramatic red stalks against its dark green leaves filling in the perimeter of the planting container in a very short period of time. Once mature (about 10 inch long leaves) cut the chard four inches above the soil and it will grow back multiple times throughout the growing season.
As with all plants, they will only grow as well as they are provided for, so please do not neglect watering them. In the heat of the summer, patio vegetable plants will probably need to be watered daily before the heat of the noon sun.
Stick your finger deep down there. If the soil is dry more than 4 inches below the surface, then it’s time to spray them down. Water the soil until it is completely saturated and water is draining from the bottom holes.
While choosing to till the soil, design an edible patio garden or wear white shoes before Memorial Day. Let’s keep in mind the balance of form and function. Looking for an equilibrium between the two in our lives and, perhaps, in ourselves during this time of new growth and emerging life.
Pan seared baby eggplant with herbed goat cheese spread
With the mention of California Cuisine (1987-2009), I was reminded of this dish they served when I first started working there in 1999, under chef Chris Walsh. This is a simple derivation from memory to show off the true flavor of the small, sweeter eggplant.
For the eggplant
To start, pre-heat an iron skillet over high heat.
Leaving the stem intact, carefully slice a baby eggplant lengthwise in 1/4 inch slices. Salt, pepper and oil the fruit being sure to coat all the exposed surfaces without breaking the stem.
Fan out the eggplant and apply to the grill or skillet. Cook until the eggplant is darkened to golden brown. Turn the eggplant and cook until the same coloring is achieved.
Set aside on an oven-proof sheet and repeat with as many eggplants as desired. Transfer the eggplants to a 350 degree oven and warm until the fruit reaches the desired softness and temperature (approximately five minutes).
Serve a whole eggplant per person with one heaping tablespoon of herbed goat cheese spread.
For the goat cheese spread
5 ounces softened goat’s cheese at room temperature
2 teaspoons fresh chopped thyme
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
1 garlic clove, finely minced
2 teaspoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
1/4 teaspoon pepper
Mix all ingredients together in a small bowl. Serves six.
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