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Growing your own produce, herbs gives the freshest taste on the table


No matter how many gourmet vegetables pop up in the grocery store, no matter how fresh the produce is at the summer farmers' markets, the best food still comes from the garden.

What a luxury it is to walk out the back door and snip a rosette of basil leaves or grab a warm-from-the-sun tomato or pick corn sugary sweet.

"Without a doubt," says David Hirsch, author of "The Moosewood Restaurant Kitchen Garden" (Fireside Books, paperback, $15), "the best reason to garden is the taste. When you buy things that have been shipped, they're not going to be as good as they are at the peak of harvest.

"Take corn, for instance," he says, "The sugars in corn taken to market quickly convert to starch. There's just no comparison with the taste if you grow it yourself."

If taste alone doesn't convince you, there are still more reasons on the side of homegrown produce. It can be more nutritious because vitamin content decreases with storage. You can grow enough food to freeze or can or somehow preserve for the winter.

And being a gardener, Mr. Hirsch adds, expands your repertoire in the kitchen. "People who have never grown leeks before become curious about them, then they end up growing them and making soup with the leeks. Or they try some shallots and put them in their salads.

"But also there's the pleasure of the experience. I like getting my hands in the dirt. It's very satisfying."

Those who have little space to garden in can grow in containers. Food writer Judith Barrett, author of "From an Italian Garden," lives in a house in downtown Cambridge, Mass., where she can't have a garden, but she grows herbs in pots.

"The fresh herbs to me are very special. When you go to buy fresh herbs in the market, you have to buy a quantity. And chances are, with the exception of basil and parsley, you don't really need that much of them. And then they go bad."

The herb Ms. Barrett finds most useful in her cooking is marjoram: "I think if people are going to grow an herb for Italian cooking, they'd be wise to grow marjoram. It's milder than oregano, and it gives so many Italian dishes their particular special quality."

She is also fond of basil, and last year she grew three varieties to compare the tastes.

Ms. Barrett uses many of her fresh herbs as greens in salads. "There is an Italian salad with different lettuces and greens -- and I like to make my own version using fresh herbs. I use radicchio and fresh basil leaves, fresh parsley leaves and chives. I use oregano and marjoram."

Sage, an herb used in many northern Italian dishes, is another of Ms. Barrett's favorites. "It's used in pasta dishes that have a butter sauce. You flavor the butter with sage in the way that you flavor butter or oil with garlic and then take the garlic out. If you do the same thing with sage, it leaves a very nice flavor. Or you can just use shredded sage leaves for a garnish on fresh pasta with Parmesan cheese. That's a way to make a very ordinary dish special."

You can create new flavors by mixing the herbs, she adds. "There's one recipe in my book for pasta with fresh herbs. Just by changing the herbs around, putting in more basil one time or more sage another, you'll have a different pasta."

When you grow your own vegetables, you can get things that are still not available in the markets, Mr. Hirsch says. "You can grow things like fennel, different colored peppers like the chocolate-colored peppers, arugula, radicchio, mache, a lot of the Asian greens, and shallots. Shallots are very expensive in the markets, but not if you grow your own.

"I just got a catalog from Idaho of different exotic potatoes. The descriptions in the catalogs sound wonderful. One has a very buttery taste. Another holds its shape in salads. Not only can you get unusual things if you garden, but you can have things when you want them."

Zucchini might not seem like a rare vegetable, but its blossoms are. You can grow them but can't get them in the markets. The flavor is similar to the squash itself, but very mild. You pull out the stamen and pistil and use the petals in cooking.

"It's called fiori di zucca in Italy. You can shred it and cook it in risotto. Or you can cook it in pasta." Ms. Barrett says. "In restaurants in Italy they're batter-dipped and deep-fried."

Some of the newest seed companies have started up within the past decade or so in response to the demands of gardening cooks for the best-tasting vegetables. The Cook's Garden (P.O. Box 65, Londonderry, Vt. 05148, catalog $1) began by offering a large selection of lettuces; while it continues to add more vegetables and herbs, it is still the best source for interesting salad greens.

Shepherd's Garden Seeds (6116 Highway 9, Felton, Calif. 95018, catalog $1) was started by gardener Renee Shepherd after she discovered that while many varieties of vegetables in Europe had wonderful flavors, their seeds were not available in this country. She now buys seeds for her catalog from small seed producers in France, Italy, Holland, Japan, China, England and here in the United States.

Ronniger's Seed Potatoes (Star Route, Moyie Springs, Idaho 83845, catalog $1) and Wilton's Organic Certified Potatoes (P.O. Box 28, Aspen, Colo. 81612, price list free) are sources for unusual potato varieties, including purple and yellow potatoes. The Tomato Seed Co. Inc. (P.O. Box 323, Metuchen, N.J. 08840, catalog free) specializes in tomatoes.

Johnny's Selected Seeds (299 Foss Hill Road, Albion, Maine 04910, catalog free) and the Vermont Bean Seed Co. (Garden Lane, Fair Haven, Vt. 05743) are other seed companies whose emphasis is on flavor.

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