a cook's garden

In the vegetable patch, a snack for all seasons

By Barbara Damrosch
Thursday, December 9, 2010

A garden offers the cook a grand culinary adventure and a steady supply of fast food. Much nibbling and grazing goes on right in our garden's rows, and whatever makes its way indoors is often the salvation of a busy host.

We don't do much of what you'd call "entertaining," but somehow the house is always full of people whom we are happy to feed. And because we are known to grow our own food, any vegetable that is set on the table has a specialness about it. Ordinarily a bowl of carrot sticks wouldn't have much cachet, but baby carrots in December, just plucked from the near-frozen soil that sweetens them, do honor to a guest.

Our friend Dan Barber, at his restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Upstate New York, understands the appeal of perfect, fresh, raw vegetables, all by themselves. He welcomes diners with a "vegetable fence," where they're mounted on a row of little spikes in a block of wood. It's as though you'd never attended to their particular flavors before.

On a more mundane level, veggie snacks stave off hunger without spoiling the appetite for a meal. And they're instant, for times when you're too busy to whip up a spread or a dip.

The outdoor snack bar is always open. For my sister Anne, raw munching begins in spring with small, tender asparagus spears. I wait for the first French breakfast radishes, with their elegant red tips. Spring carrots are not far behind. Pods of the first green peas are placed in a bowl for guests to shell and pop into their mouths, a big treat for those new to the idea. Crunchy sugar snaps soon follow.

Summer brings cherry tomatoes, ready on the table for whomever walks by. A collection of colors is appealing, but even just the red ones, set in a bright green or blue bowl, is as gorgeous as food gets. Fresh cucumber slices, fanned out on a plate with salt and a sprinkle of dill, are a savory start to a summer dinner. So are strips of bright red or yellow peppers. And melon cubes, waving little flags of lemon balm, watercress or mint.

In fall, cherry tomatoes give way to tiny, white turnips of the same size, crisp, mild and sweet. Thin slices of kohlrabi are surprisingly tasty, next to wedges of fresh apple or Asian pear.

In winter, the most surprising raw treat is a Chioggia beet, peeled and sliced paper thin. With its red-and-white bull's-eye pattern it is dramatic on a plate and way more sugary than other beets we grow. Best of all, a cold frame will still yield those candy-like carrots.

A woman once told me a story about buying these gems, which we sold at a local store. "This time of year my husband used to do nothing but watch football, drink beer and eat corn chips. Now he watches football, drinks beer and eats your carrots."

One small stem for mankind.

localliving@washpost.com Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of "The Garden Primer."

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6Read more about growing your own food at washingtonpost.com/vegetablegardens .

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