Plant Locally, Grow Globally: Local chefs offer tips for multicultural horticulture

For many home chefs, the love of preparing good food often goes hand in hand with a joy of cultivating favorite ingredients in one’s own garden. Nothing compares to freshly harvested herbs and vegetables transformed into a delicious meal. And beyond their functional value, these plants add great beauty to the landscape.

It’s fairly easy to figure out what to plant in mainstream culinary gardens. If you enjoy Italian food, plant tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, basil, parsley and oregano. If you like to cook in the French style, plant tarragon, thyme, “petit pois” (baby peas), leeks and endive. But for the home chef-gardener who wants to explore more exotic fare, three local chefs shared their suggestions along with tasty recipes that feature the bounty of the garden.

At Café Natasha’s Kabob International in the South Grand neighborhood, proprietors Behshid and Hamish Bahrami serve primarily Persian cuisine along with a selection of classic Middle Eastern fare. “There are too many wonderful dishes from the region – we can’t possibly offer them all,” said Behshid Bahrami. “We’ve chosen to showcase a few highlights such as falafel (originally an Egyptian dish), baba gahnoush and gyros.”

The menu features many vegetarian dishes using easy-to-grow vegetables, such as:

• romaine lettuce
• radishes
• cucumbers
• red onion
• eggplant
• zucchini
• tomatoes

Behshid Bahrami is an ardent advocate for the health benefits of herbs. “People should eat more herbs – get used to eating them raw in salads or other dishes. Don’t just use them as a garnish,” he said. A particular favorite of his is sorrel – “It has a wonderful, tart taste that adds a delicious kick to many foods.”

He also recommended:

• parsley (“use flat leaf for taste, curly for beauty”)
• cilantro
• mint
• sweet basil

The fare at Mirasol in The Loop is described as “nuevo Latino.” Chef Kristopher Janik incorporates elements from the cuisines of Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Colombia and Cuba. Not surprisingly, a culinary garden for these types of dishes would feature a variety of peppers (or “ajis,” as they’re called in Spanish).

Janick said he favors:

• Scotch bonnet
• Thai bird
• poblano (and its dried version, ancho)
• jalapeño (and its dried/smoked version, chipotle)
• aji mirasol
• aji mario
• habanero
• red Fresno
• red and yellow sweet peppers

Among the vegetables Janick suggested for a Latino culinary garden were:

• tomatoes (green zebra [an heirloom variety], Russian burgundy, yellow giant [“lots of flavor, low acidity”], Roma)
• eggplant
• boniato (“a white sweet potato that’s a little sweeter than the golden ones … but it oxidizes fast and may turn yellow during cooking”)
• scallions

Truly dedicated home chef-gardeners may want to locate a source for “guascas” – an herb native to Colombia that’s used to prepare their national soup, a type of chicken chowder called “ajiaco.” “Another unusual herb that’s used quite a bit in Mexico is ‘epazote,’” said Janick. “It’s cooked with beans to add flavor and aid in digestion. But it’s very pungent, so use sparingly,” he cautioned.

His other herb garden recommendations included:

• cilantro
• flat-leaf parsley
• chives
• basil
• sage
• rosemary
• oregano
• mint
• tarragon
• French thyme

At Zoë Pan-Asian Café in the Central West End, chef Ny Vongsaly prepares dishes from many southeast Asian cultures, including Chinese, Japanese, Laotian, Thai and Vietnamese. Each cuisine has its own unique flavors, but they share many ingredients in common.

Vongsaly suggested the home chef-gardener interested in preparing these regional dishes cultivate any or all of the following vegetables:

• zucchini, pumpkin or other squash (“Great for soups.”)
• Chinese eggplant
• Napa cabbage
• daikon root
• bok choy
• arugula (“Don’t pick as baby leaves; let them grow to larger size.”)
• chile peppers

Vongsaly uses the herbs and spices listed below. Some are tropical, but they can be grown outside as annuals or planted in pots and overwintered indoors:

• ginger
• lemongrass
• lime leaves (“Yes, the leaves from lime trees; they add excellent flavor to many dishes.”)
• garlic
• cilantro
• Thai basil (“It has a smaller leaf than other basils.”)
• purple basil
• mint

Interestingly, all three chefs said “mint” usually means “peppermint,” but they encourage home cooks to experiment with the wide variety of fresh mint plants available at local garden centers. Try lemon mint, orange mint, pineapple mint or chocolate mint.

Planting your garden

Once you have decided the type of garden you want to plan, the next step is choosing a site. For best productivity, locate your culinary garden where it will get at least six hours of full sun a day. Avoid planting on low ground as it may not drain sufficiently and a cold microclimate could exist. If the sunniest part of your garden is on low ground, consider building a raised bed.

Next, make sure your soil composition is optimal and amend as needed. If you’re not sure about this step, get a good how-to book (libraries are full of excellent gardening references) or consult with your neighborhood garden center.

Do you want a classic knot garden design or would you prefer traditional geometric rows? Before you begin planting, plan your design on paper. Be sure to allow enough space for plants to reach their mature size; crowded gardens generate poor yields.

Need more information before you get started?

The Missouri Botanical Garden is a fantastic resource for planning your culinary garden. Online at, you can access their botanical databases, read more than 300 articles written especially for the St. Louis climate, view monthly gardening tips categorized by plant groups and link to other online gardening resources.

This year the William T. Kemper Center for Home Gardening features a “Vegetables of the World” garden with complete plant biographies on the Web site. Also at the Kemper Center, you can browse an extensive reference library of gardening and landscaping books and peruse an appealing assortment of seed and plant catalogs for herbs, vegetables and fruits you can grow in your home garden.

Mark your calendar for April 29 through May 1, when the St. Louis Herb Society will hold its third annual herb weekend at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Herb Society members will be on hand to answer questions and talk about growing and using herbs. They will also offer for sale a wide variety of herb plants and the society’s popular cookbook.