10,000 years ago – give or take – mankind started domesticating plants for food. Permanent abodes, communities, societal etiquette and laws, architecture, mechanization, so many of the other aspects of civilization flowed from that. A dissertation from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences hypothesizes that the various cruciferous/cole crops – including cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, mustard greens, etc. – were developed in different areas for unique reasons.
Human selection included breeding sweeter, less fibrous and easier to digest plants. Some areas had readily available means of starting cooking fires, but less sunshine: thus, leading to development of root crops. Areas with sunshine went for leafier, more voluminous sources of food that had the possibilities of being eaten raw. Some of what people preferred, of course, had to do with what would grow by their home. Local methods of preservation also affected crop favorites, including cold storage, salting, drying and pickling with vinegar.
Clearly, for thousands of years, we grew what we liked and tried to grow over the generations the best of the best. However, as much as the Age of Industrialization advanced so much of life, it also put the brakes on certain experiences. People around the country, around the world, demanded foodstuffs from far away. Companies and corporate agriculture learned that certain varieties shipped better, packed more uniformly, grew more predictably and in greater quantity. I once attended an outdoor agricultural seminar in Ottawa and learned that 90% of the varieties of produce available at the beginning of the 1900s are gone. Every once in a while, some wild seeds or isolated farm crops reveal a long, lost heirloom.
Part of the joy of patronizing a gourmet restaurant is their ability to source – and even commission custom-grown — special vegetables, unusual varieties, even unfamiliar stages of growth. For over 35 years, Farmer Lee Jones at his Chefs Garden has been the go-to farmer for Michelin-starred chefs around the world. But he is not merely a producer, but also an explorer and experimenter. His farm is also the site of The Culinary Vegetable Institute, where work on growing the most flavorful and nutritious vegetables takes place. Additionally, they have a 2-story kitchen and dining space for chefs to experiment and learn about exciting produce.
And now, thanks to Farmer Lee Jones, you can be learning and experimenting – just like the Michelin chefs – right at home! His new book, Chef’s Garden: A Modern Guide to Common and Unusual Vegetables – with Recipes is a work of art. I was happy to be hosted to experience it!
This gorgeous 639-page tome will prove to be the most intriguing coffee table book you ever owned, sure. I also predict that it will be the most well-thumbed reference book in your collection: there are guides to must-have tools (that definitely are on my wish-list), cleaning, storing, identifying and cooking both veggies you know and ones you’ve never heard of. But I think it will become even more than that: you might get yourself a vintage music stand or lectern and keep it out and open, like some people do for the Oxford English Dictionary or the Bible. This thought came because it occurred to me that in the world of veggies, Farmer Lee Jones occupies a place rather like a museum curator or a conservator of one of the great private genealogical societies.
Though the recipes do have some buzzier ingredients – like fennel pollen – the recipes for the most part concentrate on the highest quality of vegetables and herbs. All the produce is available from the Chef’s Garden, sometimes depending on the season. Careful thought to presentation sharpens the appetite, as great chefs well know.
Reading the section on edible flowers, I learned that some are sweet and some are spicy or savory. You can customize something so simple as a glass of water or cup of tea to better pair with your dishes. Here’s a tip: flowers look nicer in lukewarm-to-cold foods and drinks.
The Chef’s Garden takes pride in its variety of micro greens. Micro greens have more nutrients and pack more flavor than their full-grown counterparts. They suggest using micro cress on butter, like the English do for tea sandwiches. I used them with cream cheese on thick slices of smoked salmon loin. That’s a low carb snack!
I learned that spring onions are not the same as “bunching onions” that are also called scallions. The red bulbed spring onions are sweet, with a little spicy bite. The stalks are a little asparagus-like in a way. I’d heard of lots of old-timers in Southern Appalachia raving about always including whole spring onions on the plate along with a good dinner. I could never understand why wouldn’t they chop them up, thinking of scallions. Now, I get it! One of the serving ideas suggests to grill them, like the Spanish do. I am not allowed to grill where I am, so I broiled them. That made them even sweeter, a less pungent tapas than garlic bread.
The several varieties of carrots that Farmer Lee Jones grows range from sweet to herbal in flavor and come in many colors. It’s healthy to eat a wide array of vegetable colors. The book’s recipe for Carrot Pot Roast is an easy to make vegetarian masterpiece! They suggest using it as a dish to accompany a bottle of red wine with friends.
The carrots retain a firm texture after cooking, making them heartier and more meat-like. I suppose you could omit the butter in the recipe and throw in a bunch of black olives for buttery flavor or green for tangy notes, making it vegan. It’s a fairly low-salt recipe, too. Use what you have: I substituted some cassis liqueur for the red wine and it was so good!
Farmer Lee Jones grows a wide variety of kale. The smaller leaves are particularly good raw and in salads. He suggests a rich dressing with nuts and root vegetables. I made my own blue cheese dressing, roasted a beet and added black walnuts, which are far more savory and have a greater protein content than English walnuts. Can you tell that I’m ready for spring and summer salads?