Restuarants' gardens grow their own ... Heavenly herbs & veggies

Dill (above) and other herbs (right) from Stern's restaurant garden.
Dill (above) and other herbs (right) from Stern's restaurant garden.
Posted: May 07, 2009

ASK ANY kitchen gardener: The best thing about cultivating a plot of veggies and herbs is being able to walk out the back door and pick something for dinner.

If that gardener just happens to be a chef, the produce-to-plate proposition gets even tastier.

"It's nice to go outside, pick an heirloom tomato for a salad and serve it to a guest while it's still growing," said Chris Beall, executive chef at Lambertville Station restaurant, in Lambertville, N.J.

Beall and his kitchen staff work a 300-square-foot garden located just out the back kitchen door. Thriving with some 300 plants representing 25 varieties of herbs such as sorrel, mint and lavender, the restaurant's garden also includes a section devoted to tomatoes and melons.

Beall incorporates fresh herbs in a variety of dishes, best enjoyed on the restaurant's outdoor deck overlooking the Delaware and Raritan Canal. And they also show up in cocktails, most notably mojitos flavored with hybrid mints like orange and cherry. Chef Beall also uses mint, along with basil, almonds and mint jelly, for sweetness, in an almond mint pesto, an ideal accompaniment to rack of lamb and other grilled meats.

"We'd been doing a rosemary Dijon crust, which I found overwhelmed the delicate flavor of the lamb a bit," he said. "This sauce, which we serve on the side, just pops with flavor."

While some herbs, like sage and rosemary, come back every year, last winter's deep freeze wreaked havoc on Beall's rosemary plants. Not wanting the fragrant remains to go to waste, he took all the clippings and plans to mix them with mesquite wood chips to add a dose of Mediterranean flavor to his house-smoked pork.

Something as simple as an herb butter, created from any kind of snipped herb incorporated into softened butter, can dress up a table and add flavor to simply prepared fish and meats, Beall added.

Snag one of the 24 seats in the back garden at Gayle's restaurant, and you'll see herbs everywhere, growing in pots, planter boxes and as the centerpiece for each table. Chef/owner Daniel Stern grows heirloom herbs, including cilantro, basil, mint, lavender, rosemary, caraway and dill, along with some assorted hot peppers and tomatoes at the South 3rd Street restaurant.

Although his family didn't have a garden when he was growing up in Cherry Hill - "My mom had flower beds" - Stern's visits to area farmer's markets inspired him to seed an urban garden. "I love the flavor of an herb like caraway," he said. "It's good with a simple white fresh fish. All you need is a little olive oil, and the herb does the rest of the work."

Stern serves an herb-garden menu throughout the summer, a selection of small plates that borrow inspiration from his garden.

Since fresh herbs are more pungent and delicate than dried, they need to be treated with a bit of TLC, noted Stern.

"There's nothing better than a sharp knife for chopping herbs," he said. "I personally wouldn't use a chopper - but if it works for you, then go for it. It's really about the meal, having people over, enjoying your food."

Picking and chopping herbs right before you need them is the best way to capture the fresh-from-the-earth flavor, said Stern. And if you add them to a dish that will cook for a while, expect the bright notes of flavor to dim. For the best punch, add more-delicate fresh herbs at the end of the cooking process.

Patrick Feury, chef/partner at Nectar in Berwyn, planted his garden with a nod to the flavors of Southeast Asia, flavors he translates on the menu of the Asian restaurant. Sewn into raised beds that run perpendicular to the rear of the restaurant, Feury's garden, in its fifth year, includes Thai and lime basil, Thai chilies, Serrano chilies, spearmint, peppermint, green zebra heirloom tomatoes and pattypan squash.

"I put the squash on a spot in back going up a hill - they tend to go nuts and take over," he said.

He's learned that by adjusting the amount of water for the chili plants, he can control their degree of heat. "If you see a chili with little brown crackles on the skin, that came from a hot, dry climate and is going to be very hot."

Herbs figure into all kinds of dishes, from the cilantro and chervil that spike Feury's Vietnamese sliders, to those muddled in cocktails and aromatic accents for dessert. While most of his produce comes from local farmers and purveyors, and he needs more thyme than he could ever grow, the chilies and herbs cover much of the restaurant's needs.

"We clip every day," said Feury, who grew up in Monmouth County, N.J., with a big garden.

"My dad was into that," he said. "We belonged to 4-H, raised sheep, had chickens. I always have a garden at home."

At Rats, the fine-dining restaurant at Grounds For Sculpture in Hamilton, N.J., chef Peter Nowakoski and his crew spend about two to three hours a week working on the restaurant's walled herbed garden, planted with 12 raised beds of mint (four varieties), lavender, chives, sage, tarragon - Mexican, Russian and French - and shiso, a savory leaf that tastes like a mixture of cumin and coriander and is most common in Japanese cuisine.

Nowakoski uses the colorful herb, which comes in green and purple varieties, as an aromatic addition to rice dishes and with seafood, including Jersey fluke sashimi.

The garden has changed and evolved since it was first planted in 2005. "When we first started, it was kind of random, not well planned out," said Nowakoski, who grows edible flowers and more herbs for the restaurant at his home in Ringos. "It's become a place where we grow herbs that might be hard to find, or are expensive."

And what's a garden without some tomatoes, heirloom or otherwise? "I really don't eat tomatoes all winter," he said. "We have to have them for the burgers in the restaurant, and every once in a while I'll taste one, but they're never as good as they look. Now I start thinking about them again."

Guests at the sculpture garden and at Rats can stroll through the garden and breath in the fragrance of fresh herbs and warm earth. And while he welcomes guests pinching a leaf or two to rub between their fingers, taking whole plants, which he's seen happen, is discouraged.

"Between the herbs, lavender and climbing rosebush on one of the wrought iron gates, it's very aromatic out there," said Nowakoski. "It smells like summer." *

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