In Good Taste: The Good Earth
Nathalie Dupree digs into spring fare using just-picked plants and herbs from her kitchen garden
The first thing I see each morning is the orange tree outside our bedroom window. Stepping into the courtyard and breathing deep, I’m energized for the day by its aroma. I can also smell thyme, usually abundantly draped in a planter for sniffing or snipping, with tiny basil plants tucked in next to it when the weather permits. Another step down, I pass pansies, then some wild arugula—its multifaceted leaves filling in the legginess of nasturtiums—in planters swinging freely between the white columns of the piazza.
Opening the door to the garden, I can smell the fennel that runs riot, sometimes reaching the height of my garden wall. When entering through the outside gate, it’s nearly impossible to avoid brushing its multispoked flowers holding green seeds and releasing a lovely aroma, as fresh as mild anise. Shoots of wild arugula poke up through the bricks. Just past one of the large marjoram bushes with its snappy scent, I fetch the paper in the driveway. A few short strides more, and I can rub the Meyer lemon or the Kaffir lime leaves and treat myself to a citrus fragrance that lasts through breakfast. Ours may also be the only garden in Charleston with turnips growing in the front yard.
As the heat of summer arrives, the nasturtiums, pansies, coriander, and varieties of lettuce give way to basil, marjoram, and Charleston (or Thai) cilantro. And other summer plants, such as marigolds and borage, wend their way in.
Although not my earliest excursion into growing and using herbs, this attempt is my best. Parsley was the first herb I ever knew. It used to come dry in a small tin can and was recommended for most dishes. Mint was also predominant and canned, often used to accompany lamb (causing me, no doubt, to hate dried mint). My first real introduction to fresh herbs came during cooking school in England. Our principal had an extensive herb garden, and students were encouraged to pick from the abundance, experimenting as we went.
When I lived in Atlanta, my garden existed in giant pots outside my home. They sufficed for tidy herbs, but not meanderers like lemon balm, wild arugula, mint, fennel, coriander, and other favorites. So I stuck to varieties of rosemary, marjoram, thyme, and basil with occasional forays into parsley, coriander, and sage.
But Charleston is ideally situated for raising herbs, especially those that love heat. Herbs and edibles that grow other places in the spring and summer—such as pansies, coriander, lettuces, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and nasturtiums—love our winters, as do Meyer and other lemons, oranges, turnips and their greens, Kaffir limes, lemongrass (a rather pushy, forceful plant that explodes into an unattractive tall clump but yields lemon flavor year-round), and sweet potatoes (as edible as the root, the leaves are delicious mixed with other greens or sautéed).
Having spent time as a chef in Majorca at a restaurant that grew its own herbs, tomatoes, figs, and food products and having grown as much as I could for my former restaurant in rural Georgia, I strove for a completely edible garden when my husband and I started planning for our downtown yard. Hence, all the above named, plus a few camellias (including the tea-producing kind), a bay tree, and two olive trees so tall they can be seen over the garden wall. I couldn’t bring myself to throw away the gardenias and hydrangeas, which aren’t poisonous but don’t taste particularly good, so they are the exceptions in my kitchen garden.
My husband’s goal was to avert the overwhelming upkeep that our previous garden—which was large and over-planted—required. He wanted very little (if any) grass and as small a yard as possible, welcoming an herb bed right outside our front door. The space has become the ideal garden, providing daily salads, frequent vegetables, and herbs to suit any aspiring gourmet. It is my joy, and the lack of grass is his—in addition to the taste those herbs elicit from everyday produce.
Let me make myself clear: I am not the gardener. During my time in Georgia, the heat of August would usually destroy my garden, my enthusiasm wilting with the vegetation. I was not the green thumb I wanted to be in those pre-watering-system days, but by fall, a new crop and a little cool weather would inspire me to clear and replant, and I always found a bit of poke salat in the garden to make a nice mess of greens. The true caretaker of our edible garden is the beautiful young owner of Living Colors landscaping, Jennifer Stringer, who plants and maintains our oasis. I think she likes doing it because she can see that my husband and I eat from it. I do pluck, I do pull dead flowers—occasionally, in the cool of the morning, clad in my nightgown, as I dash to grab the newspaper. And I am sometimes tempted to bend over and pull up a weed. But Jennifer does the hard work; she is the life and soul of the garden.
I do also “plant” things—like pottery and china, which I began doing in the garden of our previous home. One day, when my granddaughter was a babe in arms, she reached out for something in the china closet, causing the shelf to teeter and all the dishes to come crashing down. My daughter was distressed, and the startled baby cried. Observing these two flowers—who are vastly more important to me than the china—I made a decision. I took the broken pieces out and “planted” them conspicuously in the yard. Ever since, shards of china and pottery have dotted my garden like buried architectural treasures. A blue and gold urn lays on its side near the rosemary, cracked in two, perhaps nudged by the cat in years past. And out by the orange tree, there’s a plate that I purchased for a pittance at a small antiques shop in Arkansas and stuck in on its edge to radiate orange and blue. Having dinnerware in our edible garden seems rather appropriate, I think, and alludes to happy meals ahead.
My spring meal of choice is a light luncheon on the piazza or even in the garden. The myriad greens and herbs available in my yard make assembling a fresh salad easy work. For the fig, pear, arugula, and herb salad, I am not very exacting in my ingredients, using whatever leafy greens and lettuces I have on hand. In the past, I’ve also added coriander, sage, and chive flowers, but no matter the mix, I find this dish to be equally delicious each time.
The salad usually comprises a major portion of the meal, but the true crowd-pleaser arrives in the form of a whole red snapper. This preparation may be applied to smaller portions; however, filets and steaks don’t interest me much, perhaps because I love the drama of beautifully presenting an entire fish to a table full of guests.
Vanity impels me to use my own banana leaves for wrapping the snapper rather than purchasing them through the mail or at a specialty grocery. Though buffeted by winds and torn, these leaves are, after all, mine. While the fish bakes in the oven, the leaves puff up with steam and offer a festive feel to the occasion—a celebratory mood that’s only furthered by a light dessert of lemon curd puff pastries. Settled onto the piazza, I savor the flavors coaxed from spring’s bounty picked fresh from my garden.
- 2-3 banana leaves
- 1 3-lb. red snapper, gills removed, scaled, and gutted
- Lemongrass, fennel, and/or other herbs, to taste
- Kaffir lime leaves (optional)
- 3 Tbs. olive oil or butter
- Salt and pepper, to taste
Chef’s note: Banana leaves from your own garden—or store-bought squares of banana leaves, which come frozen in plastic bags that are easily defrosted—may be used to wrap a variety of foods. If the banana leaves are dry, soak them for a half-hour or so in water and shake out. You may also substitute aluminum foil or parchment paper. As for the herbs, this is a laissez-faire recipe, with no strict requirements. Use handfuls of lemongrass, fennel, and other herbs if you have them. If, however, all you have is a small jar of lemongrass, use what you have! The same thing is true of the fragrant Kaffir lime leaves. They can be added or left out entirely.
Preheat oven to 400°F. Spread out banana leaves on baking sheet, overlapping them, removing any thick veins, and pounding them down with your fists or a small mallet to have them lie evenly. Chop lemongrass, fennel, herbs, and Kaffir lime leaves. Mix herbs with butter or oil and spread half on top of banana leaves on baking sheet. Season mixture with salt and pepper, if desired. Oil exterior of fish and lay on top of chopped herb mixture. Stuff some additional herbs into cavity of fish. Top with remaining chopped herb mixture.
Wrap banana leaves up around fish, securing with lemongrass or other ovenproof ties. If using parchment paper or aluminum foil, create a loose packet, crimping or folding top edges to secure. (This may be done up to eight hours in advance. Refrigerate if preparing more than an hour ahead of time.)
Bake for approximately 10 minutes, or until thermometer registers 135°F. Serve unwrapped on a platter.
- 1/4 cup sherry vinegar
- 1 tsp. Dijon mustard
- Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
- 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 4 dried figs, cherries, or cranberries
- 1-2 Bosc pears
- 8 cups wild and/or fresh arugula, baby spinach, Bibb and/or Boston lettuce
- 1 cup lemon balm leaves, mint, thyme, and/or basil
- 1 fennel bulb, sliced
- 1/2 cup toasted pecan pieces (optional)
- 3/4 cup croutons (optional)
- 1/2 cup sliced or roughly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Chef’s note: This salad does not require exact measurements but can be assembled according to your tastes. If you don’t have an ingredient, substitute or leave it out—flexibility is key in this dish. Other optional additions are coriander, sage, and chive flowers.
Whisk vinegar and mustard together; add salt and pepper. Gradually whisk in olive oil until dressing is emulsified. Cut off tough parts of figs and chop into small pieces. Peel and core pears and slice. Add fruit to dressing to soften figs and keep pears from turning color. Toss cleaned and stemmed greens and herbs together and set aside. Just before serving, add dressing to greens gradually, spooning in fruit. Toss until leaves are coated but not soggy. Taste and season with salt and pepper if necessary. Toss well with pecans, croutons, and cheese.
- 3/4-1 cup sugar
- 1/4 lb. (1 stick) unsalted butter
- 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 2 Tbs. all-purpose flour
- 1 Tbs. grated lemon peel (without pith)
- 1/2 cup lemon juice (2-3 lemons)
- 1 12-oz. package puff pastry (varies in quality—bake a test piece to see how it puffs)
- 1 8.8-oz. container mascarpone cheese
- Powdered sugar, for garnish
- Candied orange or lemon zest (optional; may be purchased or homemade, see
- recipe below)
- 4 oranges or lemons
- 2 Tbs. sugar
- 1 Tbs. water
Candied Orange & Lemon Zest
Chef’s note: Sometimes called lemon butter or lemon jam, this lovely sauce keeps in the refrigerator in a tightly closed container. It can be mixed with whipped cream or mascarpone and used as a filling for a tart or baked puff pastry.
Combine all ingredients in a heavy saucepan, starting with 3/4 cup sugar and adding more as needed depending on acidity of lemons (be sure sugar is dissolved if added after curd is cooked). Cook over low heat, stirring continually, until thick; take care not to boil. Remove from heat and let cool. Curd may be strained of egg lumps if overcooked.
Roll the puff pastry out to 1/8-inch thick. Cut into desired shapes—hearts, circles, squares, etc.—about three inches in diameter. (One of the best cutters is a pastry wheel.) Freeze shapes and puff pastry scraps, which may be used for decorations, up to three months ahead. Refrigerate or freeze what is not needed and save for another purpose.
When ready to make, preheat oven to 400°F. Line baking sheet with parchment paper or Silpat. Arrange frozen pastries on baking sheet, adding a few more than the number of people to be served, enough for one or two per person. Bake until golden brown, approximately 15 minutes.
Remove from oven and cool briefly on rack. Meanwhile, mix lemon curd with mascarpone to taste, starting with one or two tablespoons and adding more as desired. When pastries are cool, split and fill with the lemon curd mixture. If pastry is too thin to split, sandwich two together with filling. Sprinkle with powdered sugar, and top with candied orange or lemon zest.
Candied Orange & Lemon Zest
Peel zest from fruit and julienne, being careful not to include bitter white pith. Bring small saucepan of water to a boil. Add zest and boil for five minutes. Drain, refresh under cold running water, and drain again. In small saucepan over low heat, dissolve sugar in one tablespoon of water. Add zest and cook until translucent, about 10 to 15 minutes. Use as garnish.