It's the crack of dawn, and pajama-clad Jesse Z. Cool is out tending her babies - baby carrots, that is, along with beans,eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, and other thriving youngsters. As chef and owner of the Flea St. Cafe and JZcool Eatery & Catering in Menlo Park, California, she's developed her garden as a laboratory for fresh, seasonal cooking - and it's become one of her greatest joys. "The garden is therapy," Cool says. "It connects me to nature and brings out my creativity in the kitchen."
When she began her backyard adventure a year ago, Cool knew little about gardening or growing edibles. But she learned fast, thanks to a team of experts who brought the project to fruition. Master Gardener Drew Harwell taught Cool many important concepts, including how to nurture the soil and space plants. She also discovered that a garden constantly goes through stages, so her kitchen philosophy adapts with them. "I'm out there almost every day taking stock of what's available," she says. "My cooking style changes with every stage of harvest."
Cool uses an unorthodox ("I call it old-fashioned") definition of "fresh." "People think the term 'fresh' means a vegetable or fruit that's just been picked off of the plant," she says. "But I think of it as produce that's harvested at its prime and prepared immediately, whether eaten fresh, pickled, roasted, or dried. It doesn't apply to a vegetable flown in from another country."
Given her passion for her new endeavor, Cool now invites local elementary school kids to plant, harvest, and cook with her in her outdoor kitchen. "I want kids to learn the connection," she says, "and understand where food comes from."
DESIGN: Doniach Design and Landscaping, Palo Alto, CA (650/218-8024); Bogie's Landscaping, Palo Alto (650/533-5835)
A chef's garden tips
• Compost unused food. "It turns from kitchen scraps into rich soil and then comes back into the kitchen when you harvest the vegetables," Jesse Z. Cool explains. To avoid unpleasant odors, she alternates fresh green material (plant and kitchen waste) with layers of straw, then turns the pile regularly for air circulation.
• Don't be afraid to thin. When seedlings are too close together, a crop won't develop properly. "I discovered I could pickle the thinnings in rice vinegar and herbs from the garden," Cool says. She also uses just-thinned beets, carrots, onions, and radishes whole in salads or steamed in pasta, sautés, and stir-fries.
• Learn when to harvest. One secret to cooking from the garden is knowing when produce is ready to eat. Inhale their aromas, Cool suggests. Hold a piece of fruit to feel if it is heavy and full of natural juices. Taste at different stages to discover how flavors change as vegetables and fruits mature.
• Start planting. Cool's favorite varieties, below, are all available as organic seeds from Seeds of Change (888/762-7333).
Beans: 'Kentucky Wonder', 'Romano'.
Beets: 'Bull's Blood', 'Chioggia'.
Carrots: 'Red Core Chantenay', 'Scarlet Nantes'.
Cucumbers: 'Armenian', 'Lemon'.
Peppers: 'Aji Amarillo', 'Bolivian Rainbow', 'Fresno', 'Pimento', 'Serrano'.
Tomatoes: 'Marvel Stripe', 'Orange Queen', 'Zapotec Pleated'.
• Use spring shoots. Start cooking with garlic, leeks, and onions right when they pop out of the ground. Use the whole plant to flavor any dish that calls for it; in general, you can use a bit more when you're cooking with a whole young plant than you can when you're cooking with the mature bulb alone.
• Draw out the flavor. Sometimes a fruit or vegetable is perfect raw - but not always. Use balsamic vinegar, herbs, salt, pepper, or sugar to enhance flavors, Jesse Z. Cool says. Or try cooking it. If a particular tomato variety isn't as sweet as you expected, for instance, stew, boil, or roast it to bring out the flavor.
• Cook with all stages of fresh vegetables. Toss raw baby beans or squash into hot pasta - they just need to be warmed, Cool says. Add mature vegetables, finely diced, to a pan of roasting chicken for the last 20 minutes or so. "They're not as tender, so you need to bring out the flavor by cooking them longer."
• Preserve the season. For the taste of fresh produce out of season, freeze fully ripe berries, figs, and sliced stone fruit. Preserve oranges, limes, and lemons.
Pickle zucchini, eggplant, and green tomatoes.