I had my first tomato right out of the garden when I was six years old. My Mom picked it from her garden, cut off a thick slice and topped it with a sprinkle of salt and a light spread of mayonnaise. She handed it to me, and to this day, I remember the taste of that tomato. I’ve been a tomato lover ever since. There’s nothing better than a ripe tomato, right off the vine, especially if it’s from your own garden.
What you eat and where it comes from matters. I’m a big proponent of supporting local farms. As a chef, I source as many ingredients as possible from within the Hudson Valley. I’ve been to most of the farms that the food we serve at Terrapin comes from; I’ve seen the fields, I’ve shaken hands with the people that grow it. We’re lucky to have farms and markets that we can visit and get to know here in the Hudson Valley. But when it comes to cooking in my own kitchen at home, there’s one place that’s always my favorite place to source vegetables from: my backyard.
I just finished planting this year’s garden over the weekend. I’m growing ten varieties of tomatoes, hot and sweet chilies, kale, mustard greens, chard and broccoli, and already looking forward to harvest. Gardening is a great way to be in touch with what you’re eating. And if you want to know where your food comes from, there’s no better way to know than to watch it grow. Gardening does take some planning and work, but I find the effort to be well worth it and encourage every chef (professional or not) in the Hudson Valley to give it a try.
Before you get your hands in the dirt, you’ll want to take some time to plan your garden. There’s no sense in planting a ton of vegetables if you won’t be able to use them fast enough when they ripen. For most vegetables that we grow in the Hudson Valley you’ll have a harvest time of about four to six weeks, and you’ll find that when they do come in, they come fast. But if you’re ready, you can enjoy your harvest all winter long. I plant so many tomatoes in my garden because I take one day during the peak of harvest season to can fresh tomatoes for use throughout the year. Kirby cucumbers are also great for preserving; pickling at home is a fun project, especially if you have kids around to help out. On the other hand, I tend to grow only as many greens as my family will be able to eat. While you can braise greens and freeze them for use during the winter, I prefer to source fresh greens from local indoor growers like Continental Organics during the colder months.
Once you have your plan in place, you’re ready to grow. If you’re ambitious and want to start your garden from seed, you’ll need to start your plants mid-March indoors with a grow light. The Hudson Valley Seed Library is a small, farm-based seed company celebrating heirloom and open-pollinated garden seeds based in Accord, NY. They have an amazing variety of seeds and offer great tips for starting your garden from seed on their website. I’ve started from seed in the past, but in recent years I’ve come to prefer purchasing seedlings. I shop for seedlings at Northern Dutchess Botanical Gardens in Rhinebeck, where they have an entire greenhouse dedicated to organically grown vegetables and herbs. They offer more than 30 varieties of heirloom and 25 varieties of regular tomatoes, 30 varieties of peppers and over 60 vegetables including eggplant, basil and more. Seedling started in a greenhouse are hardier than seeds started with a home grow light, and in my experience they result in a more fruitful garden with less effort on the gardener’s behalf.
Once your garden is in the ground, it’s all about nurturing your plants. A fence is a must in the Hudson Valley if you don’t want the groundhogs and deer getting to your plants before you do. To keep your garden healthy and organic, use compost which makes a great fertilizer and reduces the amount of waste sent to landfills. Planting basil and marigolds alongside your vegetables can help control pests. I once had an older Italian man tell me that I should always plant basil between my tomatoes: the plants will share nutrients enhancing the flavor of the tomatoes and the aroma from the basil will diffuse insects. It’s advice I’ve always followed and I always end up with delicious tomatoes. So from one Hudson Valley cook to another, I offer you this advice, one of my favorite tomato recipes and wishes for a successful and plentiful harvest this summer.
Heirloom Tomato Gazpacho:
5 pounds Heirloom Tomatoes, cored, seeded & chopped
1/2 cup Red Bell Pepper, chopped
1/2 cup Poblano Chile, chopped
2 tablespoons Italian parsley, chopped
10 cloves Roasted Garlic
1 tablespoon Sherry vinegar
1/2 cup Extra virgin olive oil
To Taste: Salt, pepper, honey
Diced, peeled tomatoes
Diced yellow peppers
In a blender combine all ingredients except oil, salt, pepper and honey. You will need to do this in batches, depending on the size of your blender. Fill the blender no more than 2/3 full. Add the oil to the blender while it is running to create an emulsification. Combine batches in a large pot or plastic container. In the container, season the soup to taste. Depending on the sweetness of the tomatoes and your personal taste, you may choose to add a little honey or leave it out completely.
For the garnish, you are looking to add a little texture to the dish. Add one or two tablespoons of chopped vegetables to each bowl and a dollop of crème fraîche. Serve with a piece of crusty French bread.