Growing my own food has always been a part of my life.
As a child, my father kept an impressive vegetable garden in our back yard, complete with rows of green beans, patches of cucumbers, tomato plants, pepper plants, onions, radishes, potatoes, and on the rare occasion, a few stalks of sweet corn. There was an asparagus patch in the way back, which happily shared space with a veritable forest of dill. At one point we had rhubarb growing in the corner of the garden and a tiny patch of strawberries. You name it and my dad probably grew it at one time or another.
Nowadays, the garden is much smaller, as my brother and I no longer live at home; though I haven’t helped my dad in the garden in quite some time, the memory of doing so is still as fresh as if it happened yesterday. Digging in the dirt, planting seeds and starter plants, watering, and picking weeds were all a part of my childhood. The rewards came in the shape of softball-sized tomatoes, crunchy bell peppers, and the best kosher dill pickles this side of the Missouri River.
I wanted to continue the tradition of backyard gardening at my own home; unfortunately, the space simply wasn’t available for a garden the size of my dad’s. Thankfully, my husband is quite handy and built for me a series of raised garden boxes which line the fence on the northern side of our yard.
We’ve been enjoying the boxes for several years now, and each year we try a few new things as well as our “garden staples.” You see, growing up in the Midwest means being faced with a relatively short growing season, so careful consideration is of the utmost importance when planning a summer garden.
We always plant three to four different tomatoes, a couple of pepper plants (one hot, one not), some sort of leafy green like kale or Swiss chard, and lots of herbs. I love cooking with fresh herbs and luckily, they are ready to use quite soon after planting. I should explain that we usually purchase seedlings or young plants from the farmers market; starting everything from seed is a great way to go if you have the time and space for that sort of thing.
We tried it once and didn’t have the best of luck. These days we leave it up to the farmers we know and see every year at the market to provide for us the best vegetables and herbs. We know that the plants we buy from them are free from herbicides and pesticides, which is important to us.
This year we decided on thyme, rosemary, chives, chocolate mint, parsley, oregano, and sweet basil. In fact, we’re growing two basil plants; I love pesto and I absolutely love caprese salads. There is something so perfectly summery about the combination of basil, tomatoes, and mozzarella cheese.
Most of the time, herbs are used for savory dishes, but I like to include fresh herbs in desserts, as well. Recently I baked a plum tart and decided that the addition of fresh thyme might pair well with the walnut crust and sweet, yet tart, plums. Sure enough, the lemony flavor of fresh thyme worked quite nicely. Fruit tarts are a great way to incorporate herbs such as basil, thyme, and mint.
Speaking of mint, if you’re into making your own ice cream like I am, consider churning a batch of homemade mint chip with mint from your own back yard! Steeping mint leaves in warm milk and cream imparts a perfectly delightful flavor, and is only slightly green.
Oregano can be easily dried and saved for soups, stews, and your favorite marinara sauce. Chives are quick growers and are a lovely addition to any salad, vinaigrette, or omelet. Rosemary is one of my favorites and can be tossed with garlic, potatoes, and brussels sprouts before roasting. It is also a nice addition when roasting a chicken; a few sprigs of rosemary and perhaps a halved lemon inside the cavity of a chicken will make for a lovely-smelling house and a delicious chicken.
As for the rest of our garden, we enjoy eating fresh tomatoes with a sprinkling of sea salt, a crack of black pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil. We love to sauté Swiss chard with a little bacon for a quick and easy side dish. The peppers will be either pickled or made into salsa. Most peppers freeze quite well, so saving them for chili in the winter months is a must.
My husband and I find tending a garden to be one of the most enjoyable activities of the summer months; it takes effort, patience, and a lot of TLC, but the rewards are abundant in both food and peace of mind. Whatever your garden situation is, from a big plot of land to a few pots on your balcony, just get out there and get your hands dirty. Grow something and enjoy the dishes you prepare with food from your own back yard.
Plum Tart with Walnut Crust and Thyme
Prepare the filling:
2 pounds firm, ripe plums (or other stone fruit), pitted and chopped into chunks
⅓ cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, minced
In a medium bowl, combine ⅓ cup sugar with the next four ingredients. Add chopped plums and gently toss to coat. Cover bowl and refrigerate for at least 3 hours or overnight.
For the tart shell:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
¾ cup finely chopped walnuts
¾ dark brown sugar, packed
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
12 tablespoons (1 ½ sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 egg yolk
2 tablespoon apricot preserves
Lightly butter (or spray with cooking spray) the bottom and sides of a 9-½-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom.
Combine the flour, walnuts, sugar, salt, and fresh thyme in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse to combine. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture is crumbly and mealy. Add vanilla extract and egg yolk. Using long pulses, blend just until it forms a moist, crumbly mass.
Press the crumb mixture in an even layer into the bottom and sides of tart pan (sides should measure about ¼-inch thick). You may need to use the flat bottom of a measuring cup to press the dough out evenly. Flour the bottom of the measuring cup if the dough sticks to it.
Wrap pan in plastic and chill for at least 1 hour or overnight.
Blind bake the shell:
Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and heat the oven to 375°F. Unwrap the tart shell and prick the bottom several times with a fork. Spray one side of a piece of parchment or foil with cooking spray. Line the shell with the sprayed side down and fill the lined shell with pie weights or dry beans.
Set the tart pan on a baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes. Carefully remove the liner and pie weights. Should any dough stick to the liner, peel it off and patch it back into the shell. Reduce the heat to 350°F and continue baking until the sides and bottom of the shell are golden brown and dry, 10 to 15 minutes more. Cool on a rack for about 20 minutes.
Assembling and finishing tart:
Drain plums in a colander set over a medium bowl. Pour juice into small saucepan and bring to simmer over medium heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until very thick, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in apricot preserves until melted. Let cool for 10 minutes or so.
Pour juice/preserve mixture into tart shell and evenly spread over bottom and sides (use a pastry brush to get the sides, if necessary). Arrange plums skin side down in tart pan. Don’t go crazy trying to make concentric circles or anything, just cram them in there! Sprinkle remaining 1 tablespoon sugar over plums.
Bake the tart directly on the oven rack until plums are tender when poked with paring knife and caramelized along the edges. Don’t worry if a few blacken, it’s fine – total baking time should be between 40 and 50 minutes. Cool tart in its pan for at least 2 hours before unmolding and slicing with sharp knife.