Food for Body and Soul

Deborah Madison explains how growing her own ingredients makes mealtime truly nourishing.

By Deborah Madison


O, The Possibilities
Just think what you can do for dessert. Decorate a cake with candied rose petals, make a violet custard, or serve an ice cream infused with lavender. These are not silly, pretentious ideas when you can go outside and look at what's there. The so-called "exotic" ingredient that lies at the end of your clippers is there because you made a place for it, noticed it, and finally used it: You charted your own course through leaves and beds to come up with treasures that chefs want and can't get, unless they know a farmer and are close enough to catch, before they fade, the fleeting moments of plant life.

When you grow your own, you can see the possibilities your garden offers, and not only when things are at the stage—the only stage—that the supermarket shopper knows, but in all of their growing stages and, most important, the moment of their greatest flavor. An heirloom tomato grown in Belgium and sold in Texas simply can't rival even the most mundane variety grown (organically) by you. Kale punctured in a summer hailstorm can still be cooked; it need not be thrown away because of some visual standard created by a market.

There should be a warning: Cooking out of the garden will ruin you forever for anything less.

It's not surprising that the garden is the ultimate inspiration for those who go inside at the end of the day to cook dinner. And what you make from what you grow becomes part of who you are, so that over time, without effort, you begin to catalog your tastes; remember what was exciting from years before, be it a platter of vibrant 'Green Zebra' tomatoes glistening under a scattering of sky blue blossoms or a gorgeous 'Triamble' squash. Recipes rush to suggest themselves from your harvest, flavors sparkle, vegetables shine, and fruit is truly sweet the way it can be only when picked ripe. Even when things are a struggle, it's still utterly rewarding to grow your own.

Good, gorgeous food is not about privileged shopping, but about surrounding yourself with plants and all the possibilities they offer. Seedling by seedling, leaf by leaf, you navigate through each year's garden, and in that way, you grow your life. You're no longer a spectator standing in the aisle reading about what's for dinner, but the one whose hands, tangled up with weeds and leaves, dirt and dust, end up with a squash that positively gleams.

Deborah Madison, the founding chef of San Francisco's pioneering Greens Restaurant, is the author of many food books, including Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America's Farmers' Markets. She gardens and cooks at her home in New Mexico.