Jeanne Kelley is well known for inventing easy recipes that frequently appear in magazines like Bon Appétit and Cooking Light. So it was a bit of a surprise when her first cookbook, Blue Eggs and Yellow Tomatoes: Recipes From a Modern Kitchen Garden (Running Press, 2008), turned out to be largely about the pleasures of gardening and cooking with homegrown ingredients.
The focus becomes even more surprising when you learn that Kelley lives in Los Angeles, where steep granite hills hold big houses on little lots — not the sort of place where people typically plant vegetable gardens. Regardless of location or sweat equity, though, gardens have always been a staple of Kelley’s life: Her landscape-designer husband, in fact, once took a jackhammer to granite to make room for a fruit tree in their backyard.
Having a garden, however, doesn’t have to be that difficult, Kelley explains. “I always hear from people who think: ‘It’s going to take a lot of time to garden; I don’t have any time, it’s impossible.’” To the contrary, she says, there’s really only a day or two that takes a lot of time, and that’s when you first set up your plot, removing sections of lawn, building containers, preparing the soil and so on.
“If you give yourself a place to plant with raised beds and good soil,” she adds, “you’ll find that, once the garden gets established, all it takes is a little bit of maintenance and watering.”
Plus, the willingness to shift some priorities. “People obsess over the Internet, watch TV they don’t even enjoy, do all sorts of things they don’t even want to be doing,” Kelley says. “If you just shoved a few of those things out of your life and brought in nature instead, wouldn’t that be better?” It would, indeed.
During my interview with Kelley, I mention that I’ve always had a tiny flower and herb garden, but that I had lost track of it the year I seemed to do nothing but nurse a colicky baby. The next year, I was surprised to find that my toddler delighted in nothing more than playing with the hose to help water — and this year, I’m thinking of using that to my advantage and putting some pots of lettuce on my front walk.
“That’s how it starts,” she says, laughing. “First you think you don’t have any time and can’t do much, so you start with just a few herbs. Then you see how easy that is, so you think you might like tomatoes. The next year, you put in some lettuces, and when those are done, maybe some greens like kale. Then you find what you’re getting from your garden is so flavorful that it needs less preparation than store-bought vegetables — suddenly your cooking is easier and more delicious. You go to the market less, and that makes you feel good because you’re spending less money. Suddenly you’re a gardener!”
Even the smallest garden offers a multitude of benefits. In fact, just being in the vicinity of a garden can do good things for you. “Sometimes, I’ll just go down to my community garden where I have this beautiful arugula growing, and I just look at it and feel so happy,” Kelley says.
“Gardening is a healthy thing you can add to your life: It’s mild exercise; it gets you outside. Even if you have only a single pot that’s 10 inches in diameter and you plant lettuce in it, you’ll get a couple of salads out of it. Other times, when you’re just making a sandwich and you need only a single leaf of lettuce, you’ll get it from your garden. All of your cooking starts to taste lighter and, I think, a little nicer. Even a simple pot of basil can make such a difference.”
To prove this, Kelley points to her Fresh Pesto Drizzle. It’s a loose pesto of basil, pine nuts, garlic and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese that you can drizzle on tomatoes, goat cheese, burrata (a super-fresh cream-stuffed mozzarella), fried eggs or pasta.
Gardening, Kelley says, has “absolutely” changed the way she cooks. “It totally changes your appreciation for vegetables, partly because they taste better because they’re so fresh, but also because you become so involved with them, watching them grow.”
Twenty years ago, Kelley’s husband rarely installed a vegetable garden for his clients. Now it’s a common request, as more and more people want them for the relaxation and healthful eating they bring to their lives. Maybe gardening is a trend — like yoga and antioxidants — whose time has finally come.
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a celebrated food and wine critic. Nominated seven times for James Beard Foundation Awards — the Oscars of the food world — she has received four awards for her restaurant and wine columns. Since 2001, her work has been regularly featured in the Best Food Writing anthologies.