Come, springtime. Come, squash. Turn your backyard garden into a farm-to-table showpiece with the help of gentleman grower Bob McClendon and two of the Valley’s top chefs.
Springtime gardening isn’t just a great excuse to get outside and dirty your hands – it’s also an opportunity to set yourself up for some truly terrific grilling and home cooking come summer.
To that end, we recruited Bob McClendon, Phoenix’s premier organic farmer, to school us in the art of growing beautiful, plump vegetables in your garden and harvesting them at peak pickability. Then we enlisted two of the Valley’s most veggie-centric superstar chefs – FnB’s Charleen Badman and Okra’s Cullen Campbell – to create recipes using your home garden windfall: dishes like tomato salad with buttermilk green goddess dressing, grilled escarole and arugula pesto.
Listen to us because we listened to them. You’ll be a farm-to-table maestro before you know it.
1. Start with good soil with high levels of what experienced farmers call “rough, organic matter,” coarse enough so that water will easily drain through it. To jump-start the organic matter a couple weeks before planting, McClendon suggests all-natural composted chicken manure pellets from Hickman’s Egg Ranch called The Farms Choice. It’s bagged for the home gardener, so check a local, independent nursery like Harper’s Landscape & Gardening Centre. Normally you might aim for a ratio of 40 percent compost to 60 percent soil in your garden, but when using The Farms Choice, owner Jeff Harper suggests tapping down the compost to 20 or 30 percent. For your garden, you’ll need a soil that’s about a foot deep.
2. Consult a local nursery. They’ll tell you which plant varieties work best in the desert if you feel like branching out from our suggestions, show you how to deal with pests, and supply you with the necessary tools. Most have the seeds to start, or even have starter plants for transplanting when starting from seeds seems advanced. All plants can be started from seed indoors for added security and an earlier start in cold weather, then transplanted when leaves have grown on the seedlings.
3. Success will slip through your fingers if you aren’t reaching your hands deep into the soil and checking moisture often. Trust your senses. Every plant requires healthy, moist soil – neither bone-dry nor soaking wet. “The plants will talk to you,” McClendon says. Water early in the morning and around sunset as necessary.
Best Time to Plant: March 1-15
Recommended varieties: Zucchini, crookneck squash
Planting: Start with seed. Plant approximately two feet apart.
Harvest: Around the 8-week mark
Care-taking: Even with so-called predictable Valley weather, and warmer nights starting in March, be ready to cover the squash at nighttime for at least the first couple of weeks, since temperatures can still dip below freezing. Don’t use a plastic sheet; pick up a frost cloth from your local nursery.
Cooking: Yellow and green zucchini, pattypan, straight neck – squash comes in all sorts of varieties, shapes and sizes, and does just as well on the grill as in the oven. Chef Campbell leaves it raw, slicing it thin, layering it between crêpes with ricotta cheese, and topping with a creamy béchamel sauce; essentially, a summer squash lasagna fit for breakfast.
SUMMER SQUASH CREPE LASAGNA
Step 1: Crêpes
1 ½cup flour
2 cups milk
½1 tsp. salt
Pour flour into mixing bowl. Crack eggs into flour then add salt and milk. Whisk until smooth. Using a crêpe pan or a non-stick pan, turn burner on to medium heat. Add a little canola oil to pan.
Once hot, ladle the crêpe batter into the pan – just enough to cover the bottom. Brown one side (30 seconds to a minute) and then turn crêpe over to make sure it has been cooked through.
Step 2: Béchamel
2 tbsp. butter
2 tbsp. flour
2 cups milk
1 bay leaf
Pinch of nutmeg
Whisk flour into melted butter on medium-high heat until golden brown. This is your roux. In a separate pot, heat milk and bay leaf almost to a boil, then add milk to the roux pan while whisking constantly. Season with salt, pepper and a pinch of nutmeg.
Step 3: Filling
2 cups ricotta
1 oz. basil, chopped
1 oz. parsley, chopped
1 oz. thyme, chopped
2 lbs. summer squash, sliced thinly
1 cup sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
Put ricotta, 2 eggs, basil, parsley and thyme in mixing bowl and whisk together.
Step 4: Cheese layers
1 cup grated parmesan
1 cup grated fontina
Oil a springform pan or pizza pan and lay one crêpe down. Scoop a generous amount of filling on the crêpe and spread evenly over from side to side. Top that with a layer of béchamel, then a layer of sliced squash and tomatoes. Sprinkle with a little cheese mixture.
Repeat the process, creating a second crêpe/squash layer; finally, top with one more crêpe, spread béchamel on the surface and sprinkle cheese mixture on top.
Place in a 350 degree oven for 35 minutes, or until the top is golden brown. Pull out of the oven, let cool for 30 minutes and slice just like a pie.
Best Time to Plant: March 1-15
Recommended Varieties: Japanese eggplant, Black Beauty
Planting: Use a starter plant from nursery. Plant two feet apart.
Harvest: Around the 12-week mark, or 90 days.
Care-taking: Because eggplants have extremely tiny, temperamental seeds that can become bird food, McClendon highly recommends using a starter plant instead of seeds. Post-sprout, it’s a hardy vegetable than can hold its own against the elements. If insects become a problem, McClendon suggests bagging up a sample to take to your local nursery for inspection and advice. Once they’re grown you can go right back into planting another round for a fall harvest.
Cooking: Roast them and keep them whole, slice them and stew into a ratatouille, or blitz them into a baba ghanoush purée – it’s entirely up to you. But if it’s up to Chef Badman, you’ll enter uncharted territory by blackening the eggplant along with tomatoes, and chopping the pulp up for a Middle Eastern-influenced, heavily-spiced relish served over tangy yogurt and rice.
CHARRED EGGPLANT AND TOMATO RELISH
2 lbs. eggplant
8 plum tomatoes
2 tsp. sea salt
4 garlic cloves, chopped
2 jalapeños, chopped
1 ½tsp. shallots, peeled and finely chopped
2 tsp. mint, finely chopped
2 tsp. cilantro, finely chopped
2 tbsp. parsley, finely chopped
3 tsp. lemon juice
¼1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 pinch nigella seeds
Preheat the grill or a charcoal fire. An oven broiler will work, too. Prick eggplants all over with a fork. Prick the tomatoes in a few places, too. Lightly brush with oil. Grill eggplant and tomatoes; turn to char both sides evenly. Remove when interiors are soft.
Place eggplant and tomatoes in separate bowls. When the eggplant is cool, peel and remove the pulp. Chop the pulp coarsely. Chop charred tomatoes finely and add to the bowl. Add salt, pepper, garlic, jalapeños, shallots, herbs, lemon juice and olive oil. Mix. Adjust seasoning and acid to taste. Serve with yogurt and rice, and garnish with herbs of your liking and nigella seeds, which can be found at Indian grocers around the Valley.
Best Time to Plant: Mid-February
Recommended varieties: Celebrity, Early Girl, Sun Gold
Planting: Transplant seedlings or starter plants two feet apart.
Harvest: It depends on the variety, but around the 12-week mark
Care-taking: Tomatoes can be tricky. If starting from seed, they’ll need to be kept inside and transferred later on, so McClendon recommends beginning with a starter plant from your local nursery to get straight into the garden. Once there, the tomatoes will need to be grown under a shade, since their skins can burn in direct sunlight. You’ll also need wooden stakes to support the plants as they grow vertically, due to the weight of the fruit, and a fence to support them horizontally. Picking the correct variety is crucial, too; name-brand varieties like Beefsteaks won’t do well in our dry climate, while the Early Girl (which gets it name from characteristically early maturation) or the cherry-type Sungold will both thrive. See what your nursery has on hand and what they recommend, based on the size of tomatoes you’re looking for.
Cooking: What can’t you do with tomatoes? Sauces, jams, cut raw for a salad – it’s your prerogative. But summer tomatoes only come once a year, so you’ll want to do as little as possible to really let your harvest sing at peak ripeness. Campbell shares this sentiment with a raw, simple salad of tomato and avocado, seasoned with salt and good olive oil, and a buttermilk green goddess dressing that sends farmed herbs soaring to new heights.
TOMATO SALAD WITH AVOCADO AND BUTTERMILK GREEN GODDESS DRESSING
2 lbs. heirloom tomatoes
1 tsp. sea salt
2 tbsp. olive oil
Slice tomatoes and layer on a platter. Slice avocados and spread over the tomatoes. Season with sea salt and olive oil. Drizzle with Campbell's green goddess dressing.
BUTTERMILK GREEN GODDESS DRESSING
1/4 cup chives, minced
1/2 cup parsley, minced
1 tbsp. tarragon, minced
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup quark
1 cup aioli
1 tbsp. lemon juice
2 tbsp. black pepper
1/2 cup buttermilk powder
1/2 tbsp. garlic, minced
salt, to taste
Combine all ingredients in large mixing bowl and whisk.
Best Time To Plant: Anytime; year-round crop
Recommended Varieties: Cultivated arugula
Planting: 10-12 inches apart. Start from seed.
Harvest: Four to six weeks from planting
Care-taking: Hearty and unfussy, arugula’s main peril is over-watering, and it will turn yellow when it receives too much moisture. Since it grows all year, the timing of your planting is only an issue if you want to match your harvest up with other vegetables. Interestingly, arugula, being a pepper plant, will change with the seasons: mild in the winter, but fairly spicy when grown in the dead of summer. And the best part about keeping arugula in your garden? There’s no need to harvest the plant out of the ground. Just pick the leaves as needed and the plant will keep on growing.
Cooking: Like lettuce, most arugula ends up tossed in salads or thrown on sandwiches and burgers, but its relative spiciness can inspire other preparations. Badman turns the leafy green into a naturally peppery, spicy pesto, which can be tossed into a cool pasta salad, spread on sandwich bread, or used in virtually any dish in which a typical pesto would be found.
2 cups of arugula, lightly packed, washed and dried well
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1 tsp. sea salt
2/3 cup pecan pieces, toasted
1½ cup pecorino
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
In a food processor, add garlic cloves and sea salt. Pulse cloves for 15-20 seconds or until you have a coarse chop. Scrape the sides of the bowl and add arugula, pecans and cheese. With the motor still running, carefully add extra virgin olive oil in a steady stream (if your food processor has a top opening; if not, add olive oil incrementally between pulses, stopping the machine before you lift the lid to add oil). Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed. Yields one cup of pesto.
Best Time to Plant: Late February to mid-March
Recommended Varieties: Romaine, escarole
Planting: About a foot apart. Start from seed.
Harvest: Around the 6- to 8-week mark
Care-Taking: According to McClendon, lettuce will become too bitter – “yes, bad bitter” – if harvested too late into May, so you’ll want to get lettuce in the ground as soon as possible, and no later than mid-March. Luckily, once lettuce gets an early start, you can coast on good, moist soil, as it holds up well to both frost and direct sunlight.
Cooking: Typically, “cooking” isn’t the operative word for lettuce; much more often it’s “shredding,” “chopping,” or “tossing,” but as of late chefs are getting playful by keeping entire half or quarter heads of lettuce, or its cousins such as escarole and endive, together and throwing them on a screaming hot grill for a short amount of time – enough to get some color and smokiness. Chef Campbell gets mileage out of the backyard grill by throwing garden-fresh escarole over the coals, and tops it with a straightforward Caesar dressing and Southern-minded cornbread croutons.
GRILLED ESCAROLE SALAD WITH CAESAR VINAIGRETTE, PECANS AND CORNBREAD CROUTONS
Step 1: The Salad
3 heads escarole
3 tbsp. olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup pecans, chopped
1/2 cup parmesan, finely grated
Quarter the heads of escarole, wash well and dry with a paper towel. Toss the lettuce in olive oil, salt and pepper. Place on a very hot grill, preferably a wood-fired one, and grill each side for 60 to 90 seconds. Place grilled quarter-heads of lettuce in a serving bowl and garnish with pecans and parmesan.
Step 2: CornBread Croutons
2 tbsp. bacon fat
3 cups cornmeal
1 ¼ tsp. baking powder
1 ¼ tsp. baking soda
2 ½ tsp. salt
3 cups buttermilk
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a baking pan with the bacon fat. In a mixing bowl, whisk together dry ingredients. Add eggs and buttermilk and mix until combined. Pour mixture into baking pan. Bake the cornbread until it’s golden brown and cooked through (20-25 minutes). Let cool in the pan, then remove and cut into squares. Let sit out and dry for a day. Cut into 1-inch cubes and toss with olive oil. Bake on a baking tray until crispy and browned.
1 cup artichoke hearts, chopped
2 tbsp. garlic
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 pint grana cheese
1/2 tbsp. Dijon mustard
3/4 cup olive oil
1 lemon, zested and juiced
salt and pepper to taste
Add all ingredients into a blender and blend until smooth.
Best Time to Plant: Late February to early March, and again in the fall
Recommended Varieties: Sweet corns like “gold” corn and Peaches & Cream corn
Planting: Start with seed. Plant 12 inches apart in short rows.
Harvest: Eight to 12 weeks, depending on variety, but mostly depending on temperature
Care-taking: Most varieties found in supermarkets are the Midwestern or U.S. Eastern varieties, which don’t take to Arizona very well, according to McClendon. There are some bi-colored and yellow sweet corn varieties that will, and it’s likely your local nurseries will carry these desert-suitable breeds. Harper generally recommends sweet corn. This vegetable will be the most difficult to grow, due to space and low yield. They need plenty of vertical room to grow – at least six feet – and need to be planted 12 inches apart in short rows. They thrive with sun exposure and high heat. “The hotter the heat,” McClendon says, “the quicker it grows.”
Cooking: Grilled corn on the cob is pure Americana and therefore quintessential barbecue fare, so a picnic table wouldn’t be complete without it. Chef Badman plays to summer sensibilities by removing the grilled kernels from the cob and tossing them with diced peaches and some of that arugula you grew nearby in the garden. Savory, sweet and herbaceous – it’s all there.
SWEET CORN, PEACH AND ALMOND SALAD
Step 1: Vinaigrette
1 large shallot, minced
1 tsp. sea salt
2 tsp. white wine vinegar
1 tsp. lemon juice
pepper to taste
3 spoonfuls extra virgin olive oil
Mix together shallots, salt and lemon juice. Let sit for a few minutes and whisk in pepper and olive oil. Taste for seasoning and acid. Adjust as needed.
Step 2: Salad
8 ears of sweet corn, grilled
2 large ripe peaches, cut in small dice
½1 cup toasted almonds, roughly chopped and toasted
8 basil leaves, chiffonade-cut
2 handfuls of arugula
After grilling, slice the corn kernels from the cob with a paring knife and mix with remaining salad ingredients in a bowl. Toss with vinaigrette. Arrange on a plate. Garnish with additional basil.
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