Day 80: From Garden to Table: A Harvest Party!
I'm all for cooking with fresh ingredients. But last weekend, I did something for the first time: I made a meal with produce that I helped pick out of the ground just hours before dinner. And even more amazing, it was produce grown by my brother!
I was out in Los Angeles visiting my brother Davis, who runs an organic garden for the community of Beit T'Shuvah. The garden, which grows on a narrow strip of earth between the sidewalk and a residential street in Culver City, is an exciting project that Davis spearheaded last fall. Over the past six months, he – along with his gardening partner Alison, and the help of several residents – has grown a wide variety of organic heirloom vegetables ranging from snap peas to radishes to romanesco, several varieties of cabbage, kale, and Swiss chard, and a slew of baby greens like arugula and mizuna. This past weekend was their third and largest harvest, and we gathered boxfuls of greens, cabbages, baby lettuces, and other vegetables. It's amazing to see the bounty that can grow in such a small space. (Unlike me, Davis has always had a green thumb – he used to work on an organic farm in Nashville, and has grown his own vegetables for years.)
The timing of this project is particularly interesting given that L.A. just recently lifted their ban on parkway gardening. Formerly, growing vegetables on the strip of land between the sidewalk and the street was illegal. Guerilla gardener Ron Finley (one of my brother's heroes) defiantly planted a parkway vegetable garden in front of his house in South Central L.A. in 2011. He was given a citation, but stood firm and spoke out about the importance of urban gardening and bringing fresh foods to low-income neighborhoods. Rather than being arrested, Finley helped get the law overturned last August – just in time for the Beit T'Shuvah garden project to begin.
Davis had the idea that, rather than merely harvesting the vegetables, it would be fun to prepare a big dinner and invite everyone – from residents to community leaders – who had been a part of the garden from its inception to take part. Since I was going to be out visiting, he asked if I'd like to be the head "chef" of the evening, and lead an informal cooking class to show how to prepare the garden produce. I said yes immediately and started planning a menu.
Of course it's always a little crazy trying to throw a dinner party in an unfamiliar kitchen, let alone an unfamiliar city. I arrived into L.A. on a Friday afternoon and needed to start shopping for ingredients immediately – not only because the dinner was the next evening, but because we needed to buy kosher meat for some of the guests. In case you didn't know, kosher stores close at sundown (i.e. 4 p.m.) on Fridays to observe the Jewish sabbath. We made it to a kosher grocery at 3:45 p.m. and raced through the aisles, throwing in ingredients like we were on a reality cooking TV show. I was planning to make lamb tagine as the main course, but all of the lamb was gone. Luckily we managed to find some kosher chicken thighs, so I decided to make two tagines: one kosher chicken and one non-kosher lamb one. (The key to cooking for large events: stay flexible!)
The dinner on Saturday was such a labor of love, and it was amazing to see the community pull together to create such a beautiful event. We had volunteers to help harvest the vegetables, wash them, set the tables, help prep and cook the food, and then to do dishes afterwards. And beyond the vegetables and some of the other groceries, almost everything was donated: the space (at someone's home), dishes, glasses, and silverware from a thrift store, beautiful wildflower arrangements from a fellow community gardener, desserts from a local bakery, and homemade Irish soda bread and homemade marmalade from a lovely Irish actress friend of Davis's.
I cannot tell you just what a heart-warming sight it was to see big bowls of just-picked greens, cabbages and kale being chopped and tossed into slaw or sautéed for the pizzas. It was so fun to see people harvesting together, cooking together, and eating together. And it was amazing to watch connections form between people that might otherwise have been unlikely outside the garden or the kitchen. Good food has a way of breaking down barriers, and this night confirmed my vision again for the vital importance of spending quality time in the kitchen and around the table.
It was such a privilege to collaborate with my brother on this first (annual!) harvest dinner, and to watch his vision come to life. I'm so proud of all he's doing, and I have high hopes that there will be many more collaborative garden-to-table dinner parties in our future.
-Kosher Chicken Tagine (with Chickpeas, Apricots, and Figs)
-Couscous with Pine Nuts
-Baby Lettuces w/ Watermelon Radishes, Fennel, & Blood Orange + Cotija Cheese
*A special thanks to the Beit T'Shuvah community for making this evening possible - you all are amazing!! Also, thanks to Justin Rosenberg for sharing your wonderful photos.