How to serve garden fresh foods from small pickings

Over half of American households are now raising at least some of their own vegetables, and it's easy to see why. A garden is a great money-saver and everything tastes really fresh.

You never have to put up with woody carrots, tough green beans, or unripe tomatoes, and anyone who has ever tasted freshly picked broccoli knows how good it is. It's hard to believe it's the same vegetable they're peddling at the local supermarket.

It's exciting to pick and eat your own prime produce, but there are drawbacks. One is the size of the picking, particularly at the beginning and end of the season. The right amount of zucchini for your family, or the exact amount of frozen vegetables, are not always available as at the supermarket. What do you do when there are almost, but not quite, enough peas for dinner, or when you're faced with a day's harvest of three small carrots, a handful of broccoli, and two scallions?

It's challenge that can result in new recipes like the combination of peas and carrots, surely the creation of a gardening cook.

Familiar dishes for a mixture of vegetables include serving them with dips, salads, in aspic or in the popular Spanish soup, gazpacho. Small amounts of vegetables also mix well with French omelets, Italian frittata, or Chinese egg foo yung.

Stir-frying is an ideal solution for coping with a lopsided harvest, and it's possible to stir-fry a succession of vegetables throughout the season without ever repeating a dish. Cut the vegetables on the diagonal for faster cooking, and remember to add tomato and greens (beet greens are marvelous) at the very end of cooking. Add a can of water chestnuts, mushroom pieces,or bamboo shoots, or a generous handful of bean sprouts, still surprisingly cheap at the supermarket.

Sometimes I fix what we call an Italian stir-fry. Parboil vegetables for 5 minutes, then saute gently in olive oil and garnish with fresh basil or oregano and grated Parmesan cheese. This is especially delicious when you have young, tiny green beans or new peas. Freshly picked vegetables cook much faster than others, so beware of overcooking.

If you've never made crepes, now's the time to experiment. They're as easy as flapjacks and freeze beautifully, filled or unfilled. Any combination of vegetables, suitably sauced, becomes gourmet fare when wrapped in a crepe.

Egg roll wrappers are equally versatile. Anything deep-fried in these delicate wrappers tastes wonderful. You can make your own skins, but the frozen ones are reasonable and invaluable time-savers.

Cabbage, bok choy, spinach, finely chopped green beans, broccoli, zucchini, and chard are all ideal vegetable candidates. Add a small amount of meat, shrimp, or chicken if you like.

Potato pancakes and zucchini pancakes, too, have become deservedly popular. Next time why not dub them vegetable pancakes and try your hand at combining whatever vegetables are handy? Carrots, zucchini, cabbage and onions should be grated and broccoli and green beans finely chopped.

Perhaps my best secret weapon has been to cut any and all available vegetables into bite-sized pieces, dip into batter and deep-fry until golden brown. The Italians call this fritto misto, literally mixed fry, and the Japanese version is the famous tempura.Green vegetables are elegant and ideal for a buffet since they must be prepared a day ahead. The vegetables are cooked separately until barely done (they'll soften further in the marinade) in a strongly seasoned marinade of chicken broth, olive oil, and lemon juice, and vinegar. Attractively arranged on a platter, they are liberally doused with the marinade, covered with foil, and left overnight in the refrigerator to fully develop their flavor.

When vegetables are supplied from the garden, there is a daily challenge for inventiveness and creativity. After all, nobody wants to eat buttered carrots more than once a week and there's absolutely no needs to do so. A bountiful garden inevitably produces a bountiful table that is equally regarding to the gardener, the cook, and the diner.

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