Since cooking is my profession, following the seasons is more than a simple guideline. Fresh ingredients are the very tools to my kitchen and vegetables are the tangible instruments of my work. A weekly visit to the farmers market is my moment for inspiration. Those who are capable of farming and cultivating food are fascinating to me because of their connection to the earth. Although I know what vegetables to buy when and where and why, I know much more about how to cook. Learning how to design and plan a garden patch is high on my priority list. And for this reason, between cooking, thinking about cooking, and writing about food, I read avidly about garden to table projects.
In order to gain the knowledge and the confidence to dig my own hands into the ground, I make it a habit to visit farms and gardening projects during my travels. This summer I had the opportunity to visit the Edible Schoolyard Project at the Martin Luther King Middle School in Berkeley, California. This illustrative garden created by Alice Waters, chef and owner of the restaurant Chez Panisse, is built around a public school, in a small paradise east of San Francisco. The garden is cultivated by the students and their teachers. They not only design and plan and their own garden, they cook their harvest from the inspiring kitchen bordering on their edible schoolyard as well. Thanks to the dedicated efforts of Alice Waters this piece of land has become exemplary of innovative food education in the United States.
My summer tour of the gardening and cooking environment at the Edible Schoolyard, combined with my longstanding “learn how to garden to do list” led me to ask for an introduction to the “Stichting de Nieuwe Akker” in Haarlem, the Netherlands upon my return from Berkeley. “De Nieuwe Akker” means “New Fields” and is a local community supported agricultural project. I soon met co-founder Marlies Pierrot to learn more about the fascinating story of growing food. As we sat on a wooden picnic table on the edge of the vegetable fields one rainy afternoon, she explained how her dream had become reality. She spoke of her personal experience with the growing of plants. Marlies and I compared our passion for vegetables from a gardeners’ and from a cooks’ point of view.
Like the Edible Schoolyard, the “Nieuwe Akker” is a cooperative effort that brings home-grown food from the vegetable patch directly to the kitchen. As the afternoon passed, more and more people walked through the garden fields to dig up their own cooking ingredients for the week. Children skipped happily between rows of purple kale and chubby orange pumpkins lying on the ground as adults gathered the vegetables available for harvest, written like a grocery list on a black chalkboard in the shelter of the shed.
Inspired by the vibrant rows of rainbow chard and palm-like leaves of the “cavolo nero” at yet another lovely example of farm to table efforts, I went home to make a simple Italian supper with the vegetables I admired at “The New Fields” in Haarlem with a southern Italian twist of red peppers and garlic.
- 250 grams of cavolo nero
- 250 grams of rainbow chard
- 1 fresh red pepper
- 2 cloves of fresh garlic
- 15 grams of anchovy filets
- 50 grams of extra virgin olive oil
Peel the garlic cloves and cut them into a very fine dice. Wash the red peppers and remove the seeds and the white pith. Cut the peppers very fine, just like the garlic. Drain the anchovies and chop them coarsely.
Wash the cavolo nero and tear the dark green leaves lengthwise along the tough stem. Cut the leaves into ribbons and steam them three to five minutes. Set the cavolo nero aside for the moment. Wash the rainbow chard. Cut the colorful stems very fine and separate them from the leaves. Tear the leaves coarsely and set aside. Toast four thick slices of fresh spelt bread (or replace the bread with thick slices of sweet potato).
Drizzle the olive oil into a skillet and stir fry the garlic, peppers and anchovies at medium heat very briefly. Add the rainbow chard stems and let them soak up the flavors while stirring occasionally. Add the steamed cavolo nero followed by the chard leaves and allow the leaves to wilt and melt into the other ingredients. Turn off the heat. Taste the result of your efforts and add a bit of olive oil if needed, some sea salt and freshly ground pepper — and even a squeeze of lemon if you like.
Serve these beautiful autumn vegetables on roasted spelt bread or grilled sweet potatoes.
The combination of rainbow chard and cavolo nero makes for a citrus-like yet earthy flavor mix. Double the recipe and eat it as a salad or toss it through a fresh and easy pasta with lemon. It makes for a perfect cold open sandwich as well.
“De Nieuwe Akker” has 350 participants in its current project. Next year the Foundation will start a new project cultivating vegetables in one of the city of Haarlem’s empty greenhouses. Special thanks to Marlies for the interview. I will be visiting you again soon.
This article was first published in Dutch at jamiemagazine.nl on September 26th 2014.