It’s a simple truth: Vegetable gardeners need great cookbooks. If you’re adventuresome in your planting, the most valuable thing in the world is a cookbook that can help you turn that into adventure on the plate. My favorites are the Indian cookbooks written by the Indian-born writer and actress Madhur Jaffrey. Many of Jaffrey’s dishes are delicious stews, yet the vegetables somehow remain brightly flavored within even highly spiced curries.
The taste of Jaffrey’s food is miraculously rich and garden-fresh at the same time. I spoke with Jaffrey in April and learned that for her, too, cooking and gardening are completely intertwined.
Why are your cookbooks so rewarding for gardeners?
India is a nation of great vegetables, totally seasonal, really local, with so much variety. So Indians eat a lot of vegetables. Meat is only a small part of the meal. And don’t forget, one-third of the country is vegetarian. It’s so much a part of our history. India has the best vegetarian food in the world.
Your latest cookbook, At Home with Madhur Jaffrey, includes photos of a lovely country garden.
What you see in the book—down to the plates, cups and saucers—is actually my house in upstate New York.
When I started working on the garden, it was nothing. A house in field. I began with flowers. But as I’ve gotten older, I have developed the same passion for the vegetable garden as my father had—my father grew all our vegetables.
The vegetable garden began with a fenced 20-by-20 plot. It was too small, so I turned it into a berry patch. Then I made an enclosed garden just for vegetables, 30 by 30. That was not big enough, either, because I wanted to grow corn. But not sweet corn, instead the maize that we used to roast on a fire in India.
Nobody grows it, or they grow it for putting up at Halloween, and it was difficult to find the seeds. So Alice Waters sent me maize seeds. It was so delicious that I ate all the maize, such stupidity, and didn’t save the seeds. And I didn’t have the guts to ask Alice to send them again! Eventually, I built another plot just for maize.
I usually find your recipes pretty efficient. I can make a single meat and vegetable dish in 45 minutes, which makes your cookbooks well suited to weeknight cooking. But your latest cookbook speeds up the process even more. It seems to be an answer to people who say they don’t have time to cook, yet it’s all fresh. It steers clear of that hideous Sandra Lee “semi-homemade” factory food territory.
People say Indian food takes time to make. Well, every county has dishes that take two days to cook. But people also cook simpler dishes, and that it is the way I cook for everyday life.
Over time, I have also worked out techniques to simplify recipes. For example, with a curry, I used to brown everything in order on the stove, the onions, the spices, the meat, and it took time. Now, I just put all the spices and seasonings on the meat, let it marinate, and then bake it in the oven, so it all browns together. It takes less time for the same results.
Do you plant any specifically Indian varieties of vegetables?
They don’t always do well in my climate. I planted winged beans last year, but I’ve given up—they were such stubby little things.
Don’t tell Customs, but I do bring back seeds when I travel. For example, I have planted an Indian cucumber that is pencil-sized and slightly curly. I brought back seeds from Barbados for a chili that is like a habanero without the heat. It has a delicious aroma.
One of the things I like about your cookbooks is the suggested accompaniments at the top of the recipes. The surprising thing is that you’ll often recommend mixing traditional American fare with Indian dishes.
I cook everything and I grow what I love. It all goes with everything else. Anything people say should not be done—probably should be.
Michele Owens, a primary blogger at Garden Rant, is the author of the book Grow the Good Life: Why a Vegetable Garden Will Make You Happy, Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise, published by Rodale in February 2011. Her articles about gardening have appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine, Garden Design and Organic Gardening. She is a former political speechwriter and a joyful vegetable gardener of almost 20 years.