GARDEN - VARIETY CHEFS Kitchen kings season restaurant dishes with home-grown herbs


In the heat, the scents of basil, rosemary and sage -- musky, sharp and green -- perfume the heavy air. Though it's early in the day, the sun is beating down on the herbs and tomatoes in this small garden. Guy Reinbold leans over and brushes his hand across a plant.

"The basil looks good right now," he says. "It was incredible how much we took out of there. . . . The rosemary's coming back. . . . Rosemary takes a long time, it's like pine. . . . This is sage. . . . This is oregano -- it needs to be taken down, see, it's beginning to bud -- this is another sage. . . . and basil. I just love basil, as a spice and as a seasoning."

A few feet away, behind a glass wall, bathers splash in a swimming pool.

"We water in the morning and at night," Mr. Reinbold says, "so we don't get any of them sunburned. It gets awful hot up here. The good news is, the birds and the bugs haven't discovered us yet!" He laughs, and a helicopter flying just overhead drowns out the sound.

For Mr. Reinbold is no ordinary gardener, and this is no ordinary garden he presides over: He is executive chef at the Stouffer Hotel in the Inner Harbor, and his "garden" is part of a planted area on the hotel's seventh floor.

But he is not unusual in his quest for fresh and readily available herbs and produce. Chefs across the country, driven by ecological concerns as well as culinary ones, are seeking out the freshest and best ingredients for their seasonal, regional dishes.

Mr. Reinbold calls it "a commitment to excellence" for chefs to grow their own herbs, but it is also a way of connecting food to the source from which it comes. It is the same force that drives chefs such as Alice Waters of California's Chez Panisse to find her own produce growers and Jasper White of Boston's Jasper's to seek out his own fishermen.

At Stouffer's, herbs from the garden go into salads and marinades, and into flavored oils used on cooking. "In this city," says Mr. Reinbold, "if you put crab meat, tomatoes and basil together, you're in pretty good shape."

Mr. Reinbold, who says he doesn't garden at home, has plans to expand the rooftop garden next year. He wants to continue planting around the hedges that surround equipment and glass above the atrium of the building. "I'd like to do peppers and pole beans," he says.

Around the Milton Inn

But his plans are not as big as those of Mark Henry -- executive chef at the Milton Inn -- who cultivates 5 rural acres around the rustic and romantic restaurant on York Road in Sparks. He's had some sort of garden each summer since he started with the inn 5 1/2 years ago.

"Every year we learn a little bit more," he says, walking around the herb and flower patch atop a small knoll just behind the restaurant. "The first year we had it, we had corn in the garden, which was a big mistake. The deer came down and trampled everything to get to the corn."

Now the garden brims with herbs (basil, oregano, three kinds of thyme, chives, borage, fennel, rosemary, several kinds of sage, mint, lemon balm) as well as flowers (lavender, zinnias, bachelor's buttons and cleome, which "smells like skunk," Mr. Henry notes).

"Every year it gets a little bit closer to what we're actually using," says Mr. Henry. "I think everything in here we use either for garnish or in an actual preparation. . . . The sage, the chives, the tarragon, the rosemary, the thyme and the basil are all used in actual cooking. We'll garnish with basil tops, chive flowers, fresh tarragon."

He gestures up the hill. "We've just cleared a spot up top that's probably about eight times this size, and we hope we can get some things planted. . . . We'll probably do more vegetables and so forth."

Mr. Henry hopes to plant some red, yellow and black raspberries around the perimeter of the herb patch. There's a small piece of land beside the restaurant patio where he wants to plant rosemary, and on the slope of the hill to the herb patch he envisions a whole garden of mint.

Having the garden gives Mr. Henry the luxury of fresh flavors in season. "I use very little dried basil. As a result, we don't do many dishes all year with basil. We'll wait until June, and we'll start getting in some cut basil from Jersey, and by the end of June our basil is coming up strong enough we can start cutting it -- at that point, we use it all the way through to first frost."

Like his colleagues, Mr. Henry doesn't use pesticides or spray of any kind. "If we lose our herbs because of bugs, we lose 'em," he says.

Harbor Court's seventh floor

Back downtown, and back in the sky, Michael Rork leans over a plant and examines its leaves. "Look at that -- something's eating the sage!" he says.

His garden is the smallest of the chefs': It grows in 11 large containers next to the tennis court that's part of the seventh-floor Harbor Court hotel and condominium health club.

He has myrtle, rosemary, chives, oregano and sage -- and, until now, no bugs. But, unlike Mr. Reinbold and Mr. Henry, who parcel out weeding and watering and picking duties among their staffs, he has the assistance of a full-time horticulturist who oversees all the plantings at the complex.

The garden is about 3 years old. Like Mr. Henry, Mr. Rork gardens at home. "I started it because I thought it would be interesting -- I have an herb garden at home -- and since there was a space upstairs, I thought it would be a nice addition, as well as being pretty." And, he says, "I do go through a lot of herbs. . . . I use a lot of myrtle, and a lot of oregano and rosemary."

He includes them in pestos and in the oils and vinegars that go into reduction sauces. "I use fresh herbs as garnishes on all the plates at Hampton's," the hotel's four-star restaurant. "I love putting herbs in salads."

The sage is important because "we have sage fritters on the menu this week -- we're serving them with lamb."

And, he says, "I make all the flavored oils and vinegars" used in hotel dishes.

Having the herbs at hand makes life a little easier for the chefs, though, Mr. Rork notes, "I still buy a lot of herbs." But they all mentioned that a trip to the garden is a nice break from the sometimes-frantic pace of a commercial kitchen.

"I come up in the morning and there'll be people sitting around," Mr. Reinbold says, "and they say, 'How're things going?' You really get to talk to the guests; it's fun to do."

It does take time. "It's hard enough putting in the hours for a restaurant," Mr. Henry says. "To maintain the garden is pretty much a full-time job." But, as he stands looking out over his plantings, any hardship fades. "I think we're really fortunate just to be in a situation where we can do this."

Here's a salad from Stouffer's restaurant chef, Jay Swift, that uses the rooftop garden's fresh basil. The recipe serves four people as a light lunch or appetizer.

Crab salad with basil and tomatoes

Serves 4

1 egg yolk

1/2 teaspoon red wine vinegar

1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1/4 cup olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil leaves

1 pound jumbo lump crab meat

4 ripe tomatoes

whole fresh basil leaves, for garnish

To make the dressing: In a mixing bowl or bowl of electric mixer, combine egg yolk, vinegar and mustard. Whisk vigorously by hand or whip if using mixer until mixture becomes frothy. Continuing to mix vigorously, gradually add oils. As you add the oils, the mixture will emulsify, or take on the consistency of mayonnaise. If it becomes too thick, add a couple of drops of water. Add salt and pepper to taste and basil. Set aside in refrigerator while preparing crab and tomatoes.

Pick crab meat clean of shells and debris. Gently fold dressing into crab meat, taking care not to break up the lumps.

To serve, slice tomatoes and arrange slices in a circle on each of four plates. Spoon crab salad into middle of plate; garnish with whole fresh basil leaves.

Mark Henry likes to use "dead-ripe" tomatoes from the garden with fresh basil in this cold soup, which could be an appetizer, light lunch or light entree in these final days of summer. Once the ingredients are assembled, it's simple to make.

Chilled tomato basil soup

Serves 6

6 very ripe tomatoes (about 2 pounds)

1 cucumber, peeled and seeded

1/2 medium onion (about 2-inch diameter)

1 clove garlic

10 fresh basil leaves

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

2 ounces red wine vinegar

1 1/2 cups French bread crumbs (crust removed)

1 cup ice

Place all ingredients in blender and puree until smooth. Serve with sliced French bread, rubbed with olive oil and garlic and toasted.

Michael Rork uses herb-flavored oils and vinegars to add zip to sauces, vinaigrettes and marinades. Favorite combinations are basil, sage, scallions or chives in oil and rosemary or thyme in vinegar. "They make nice gifts, too," he says. "Plus, it's an excellent way to use up your herbs at the end of the year."

The infusions are simple to make. Here is Mr. Rork's procedure, which works for either oils (he prefers California olive oil) or vinegars.

Use the tips, flowers and broken or lightly crushed pieces of leaves and stems of the chosen herb. Place a small handful in a saucepan with the oil or vinegar. Over low heat, heat mixture to about 100 degrees (about the temperature of an adult's bath; you should be able to put your finger in it and have it feel warm, but not uncomfortably so). Let it sit on the heat, maintaining temperature, for about 45 minutes. Then return to bottle and cork. Let bottles sit at cool room temperature for about a week before using.

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