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My sister and I both love to cook. We aim for dishes that are nutritious, cheap, quick, and delicious. But our cooking resembles that of our great grandmothers on the farm, whose recipes called for a lump of this, a pinch of that, and a few handfuls of whatever’s available from the garden or the cupboard. If you’re up for this approach, here are some pointers for creating recipes from your garden—plus an “anytime salad” and flavorful dressing to try!
The Rules of Creating Your Own Recipe
Years ago, my sister Patty (we call her Pad) won a weekend for two with all the amenities at a fancy spa for a recipe she thought up on the spot and had never made.
She heard about the contest on the radio driving home from work. An idea popped into her mind, so she pulled over, thought a few moments, scrawled a recipe on the back of a postcard she had in her glove compartment, and mailed it at the next post office she came to.
After Pad’s recipe won, our mom made the dish for years every time we had a family gathering. It was rich (the contest was sponsored by a dairy-products company, and she’d loaded the recipe with their best stuff) but delicious.
I consider myself the more extreme foodie. Unlike Pad, who enjoys scouting for new cooking ideas, I don’t like to eat out. I organize meals around my vegetables, and I’ve never eaten a restaurant meal that did their vegetables proud (or served anywhere near enough of them).
Eat What’s Fresh When It’s Fresh
I grow most of my own vegetables and a lot of fruit. If you don’t, I encourage you to visit a farmer’s market or join a CSA for the very freshest, local produce. If you split a CSA with a neighbor, you’ll find it’s less expensive than the grocery store over the season. In any case, it’s worth buying fresh vegetables at the peak of flavor and nutrition!
We can, freeze, and dry much of what we grow, and we stash winter squash, garlic, onions, cabbage, potatoes, carrots, and beets in two separate cellar compartments.
A giant pressure canner allows us to can low-acid foods such as black beans and vegetable soups safely.
We grow winter salad greens in a solar greenhouse attached to the house and cook on the kitchen woodstove often during the winter.
When your garden weeds are young, pick them! Weeds are just plants in the wrong place. Edible weeds include purslane, wild violets, lambsquarters, chickweeds, and dandelion. Just be sure they aren’t any chemicals in the soil or air near your plants. See pictures of these edible weeds.
Use What You Have, Be Flexible
If Pad and I created a cookbook, we probably wouldn’t make it in the commercial world. We’d no doubt have to self-publish, because it would not be the kind of cookbook editors usually demand, with precisely measured ingredients and exact cooking times and temperatures. We rarely make a dish the same way twice, write down what we’ve done, or measure ingredients, except in a general way.
How would a test kitchen handle a soup that starts with a slow-simmered broth made (that day anyway) from a bag of saved onion skins, celery leaves, potato peels, wilted lettuce leaves, and a cabbage core or two, a handful of whatever fresh or dried herbs are available, and maybe a few Thanksgiving turkey bones?
Recipes to Try
On the other hand, Pad’s made-up-on-the-spot casserole did win that contest. So, here’s a sample of something that appears on my lunch or dinner table often:
Rapidly assemble whatever veggies are on hand that go well together such as:
Any combination of raw or cooked greens, including garden “weeds” such as purslane, wild violets, or lambsquarters
Tomatoes and/or peppers
Steam some young potatoes (small potatoes harvested in spring or summer before reaching maturity).
Lightly-steamed or leftover vegetables such as broccoli, summer squash, corn-off-the-cob, green beans
Any combination of minced fresh or dried herbs
Don’t forget: Fresh fruit of any kind goes well with most fresh salad greens
Fig-infused Balsamic Dressing
Dress with this elegant dressing, which carries the sweet, complex taste of marinated figs:
Pour a bottle of balsamic vinegar into a small saucepan.
Chop a few unsulfured Turkish figs; add to vinegar.
Heat to a simmer (don’t boil).
When the infusion has cooled, decant into a wide-mouthed jar. The vinegar improves with time; don’t strain out the figs.
Use as is or mix half and half with good olive oil. (Great on all vegetables, hot or cold.)
Add minced garlic, a little maple syrup, horseradish, honey mustard, or culinary herbs to vary flavor. (Not all at once!)
Make a meal by spreading the hot or cold vegetables on a large plate. Then plunk a wedge of cheese, a chopped hard-boiled egg, a little leftover chicken/fish/meat, a mound of chickpeas (or black beans, quinoa, lentils, etc.) in the center and drizzle with dressing.