Have you ever considered using a vegetable as your main course for dinner? Bring fresh produce to the table for a delicious meal. Some of the best produce can be grown on your own. Chef Joseph Rose of the Lockwood Restaurant in Chicago agrees, and he encourages everyone to grow their own garden and make vegetables the focus using techniques he uses daily in his restaurant and home garden.
"When people think of a meal, I think they think of the protein first and the vegetable as a side," he explains. "There is a huge trend to make vegetables more of a focal point, and I think people need to look more towards vegetables being a center-of-the-plate item."
At the Lockwood, Rose and his team understand the importance of serving the best quality food. That's why they grow their own vegetables for the restaurant right on top of their roof. Making a garden roof isn't easy when you have to consider weight distribution, but he made it happen through a series of strategically placed planter boxes and the promise of a delicious harvest.
Rose's interest in gardening started years ago in a small plot his father rented from a community garden every year. Now it has grown into practically a full-time occupation. In addition to the restaurant's rooftop garden, he and his wife tend a large garden at home.
Starting your own garden begins with finding a protected spot with the right amount of sun and good soil. Many backyard gardens fail due to inadequate soil, which is why Rose suggests digging into your garden and surveying your soil quality.
"You've got to dig it up a little bit and add some top soil to it," he says. "I use an organic fertilizer top soil mix and then add a little sand to help with drainage."
Rose says calcium also can be a problem with soil in newly developed neighborhoods. You can find calcium supplements to add to your soil, but he tills in extra egg shells from the restaurant -- it works wonders. Getting the calcium level up is important to protect your garden from issues such as blossom-end rot, which is common in tomatoes.
Once the spot is chosen and the soil is healthy, you can plant. There are several combinations of vegetables you can choose. Rose likes to select a few vegetables and use different varieties of each.
"Planting at home is kind of the same thing as work: What am I going to utilize, what do I like to eat, what do I know is going to grow well. Then I usually pick one or two things that are different," Rose says.
Remember to plant only as much as you and your family can consume. Consider your family size and talk to the garden supply store about how much each plant or seed will produce. Rose found this out the hard way, when he planted four zucchini and could hardly eat his harvest. Also, remember not to plant things too close together. This is especially important when planting large varieties, such as watermelon, cucumbers, squash, and zucchini.
Once your plants are in the ground, consistent care is crucial. Watch for problems with pests and weeds and get on top of them before they get out of control.
"It's important to decide early on how much you can handle because people don't realize that they need to be tended," Rose explains. "Every morning my wife and I will go out and pull some weeds, water a bit, and figure out what else it needs. It is a lot of work, but once all the produce starts coming in, it's totally worth it."
And worth it, it will be. Harvesting is most gardeners' favorite time because you finally get to taste the fruits of your labor. If you find you bit off more than you can chew, can and store your vegetables so you can enjoy them through the winter months.
"Once we get the first frost, I'll go grab all the green tomatoes I can and pickle them. Last year I breaded them and froze them, so we had fried green tomatoes throughout the year," Rose says.
According to Rose, finding ways like this to use your excess harvest is all about being creative. With greens, such as lettuce and spinach, he will cook them down and stew them with vinegar and bacon before freezing them to create a quick vegetable fix. If you're looking for something sweeter, try zucchini bread, which can easily be frozen as well. Herbs are easy to store, too. Lemon basil, basil, thyme, and mint—along with many other herbs—are easy to dry and store for long periods of time.
Adding more vegetables to your plate is easy when you start to think outside of the box, and when you use creative storing ideas like this, you can have great tasting vegetables all year long. Getting a healthy dinner is no further than your backyard, so grab a shovel and dig in.