April is Homegrown Month at Tasting Table.
When scouting a space for his restaurant back in 2012, The Musket Room chef and owner Matt Lambert wasn't necessarily looking for a garden. But he happened upon a particular space in the quaint Nolita area of Downtown NYC with an expanse of concrete out back. "We just had to do something with it," Lambert says.
And when NYC blesses you with outdoor space, that something is gardening. We caught up with the chef to get the dirt on what he grows (and how we can copy him).
The first year (which also happened to be the same year he earned his Michelin star), Lambert started out simple. Fussing with seeds? Not a chance. "I get a lot of stuff sprouted or started from the Union Square Greenmarket."
Lambert's advice? Buy plants that are already sprouted.
And then it was a whole lot of trial and error and minimal amounts of stress, which is how it should be, whether you've got a tiny windowsill box or a bevy of planters like a high-profile restaurant. "Don't overthink it," Lambert says. "It's easy to maintain once you get started."
But you've got to be willing to get creative and tune into your particular garden's whims: Lambert recalls pesky white flies terrorizing his plants, and all of the usual remedies failed. Quartz Reef winemaker Rudi Bauer happened to be visiting and suggested dispersing fennel—the only thing the flies didn't seem to like—in all the planters. Voila, flies gone. When his chervil was struggling, Lambert shifted the position of the planter, and, wouldn't you know it, the chervil thrived.
As for the contents of Lambert's garden, it should surprise no one that it's not just your usual smattering of herbs. In the height of his growing season, you'll find three types of nasturtiums, six mints, five kinds of basil, multiple sorrels, New Zealand spinach, chiles galore and a bed of edible flowers.
Follow his lead and add these nine easy-to-grow, chef-approved greens, veggies and flowers to your garden:
For those whose green thumb is, shall we say, lacking, nasturtiums are a good way to get started. They grow relatively easily and have a bright, peppery flavor. Add them to sandwiches, whir them into a pesto or use them where you'd normally add watercress or arugula. If you're feeling fancy, top a salad with the flower for a more subdued version of that peppery flavor.
② Chocolate Mint
Don't get too excited: This isn't the herb version of Thin Mints. But it is one of Lambert's favorite kinds of mint. It's more subtle than the punchier mints, like peppermint, while maintaining the freshness you're looking for. Sub it in mojitos and juleps, or add it to a creamy ice cream base for a dreamy treat.
③ Lemon Verbena
You can get excited about this one: It does have a strong, zippy lemon flavor. Dry it out to make hot tea or add it to your iced tea blend for summer. If you've got a bumper crop of it by the end of the season, poach some stone fruit and can it with lemon verbena and bourbon.
④ Thai Basil
Basil grows pretty easily anywhere ( in the northeast in particular); Thai basil is no different, though its flavor is quite different. It has a bit of a licorice-y profile and complements anything spicy. Don't just nip the buds; sprinkle them like a seasoning.
⑤ Red Ribbon Sorrel
After renovating his garden boxes, Lambert used the same soil and his many perennial sorrels started growing back. So plant some this year, and you'll reap the benefits for years. Use the leaves anywhere you want to add citrus, to top fish and to give more flavor to a salad.
Red Ribbon Sorrel
Edible flowers can be one of those the precious, cheffy, eye-roll-inducing things (we do it, too). But marigold petals actually add something to a dish, Lambert says, namely, a little bite of citrus and, of course, some color to your mostly green bounty.
⑦ Bush Basil
Remember how we said Lambert grows about five kinds of basil at any given time? Here's another. This is a tiny variety "without the cheesiness of microgreens" that grows only to about half the size of a fingernail. It's got basil's signature pungent flavor and can be used in any tomato dish (like our fancy caprese).
⑧ Piquante ("Peppadew") Chiles
Generally, chiles are another easy grower overall. Toward the end of summer, peppadews grow like crazy, depending on the amount of space you have to grow them. You can pickle them, which is how you'll usually see them on shelves, or follow Lambert's lead and add them to sambal.
Of course, you can dry these leaves and make them into tea right before bedtime. But use the leaves while they're still fresh to top all manner of desserts, like ice cream, berries and panna cotta. Lambert also tops The Musket Room's squab dish with it, so try it on your favorite poultry dish, too.
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