The Northeast Georgia Mountains are home to some of Georgia’s leading fresh food producers. Vegetables, fruit, flowers, cheese, wine, nuts, grain, poultry, eggs, fish, pork and cattle are all seasonally available throughout the area. An abundance of fresh water, combined with soil rich in nutrients and a temperate climate offer a recipe for great fresh seasonal foods. Rabun County is particularly known for its cabbage crop. Maybe it’s the soil, but the cabbage grown here just tastes better. As spring moves towards summer we can hardly wait for our first ears of Osage Silver Queen Corn.
With all this local abundance we fret each spring as to what things we should plant in our culinary garden next to the Inn. We’ve been to restaurants where just moments before you are seated for dinner you observe the chef clad in her white coat tip toe into the gardens to snip fresh herbs and edible flowers. You just know you are in for a treat. We want to offer the type of experience where the diner sees and tastes things on their plate they know came out of the garden minutes before. The chef’s culinary garden should provide wonderful products but also needs to be close to the kitchen’s back door so it is as handy as walking into the pantry. And we want the garden to enhance and add to the variety, color and unique flavors for our guests’ dining experience.
Through the years we have honed our culinary garden to our style of cooking. Here is what we have planned for this year. We will plant a hedge of Genovese basil, as well as about 8 other varieties and colors. Other necessities include bay, dill, English thyme, tarragon, lavender, mints, oregano, rosemary, sage, parsley, savory and fennel; a rainbow of toy box tomatoes, lemon verbena, bee balm, heirloom tomatoes, edible flowers to bloom in succession. We also have an established asparagus patch, raspberries, blueberries, two varieties of crabapples, wild cherries (for drying), peaches, plums and a forest of Chanterelles. We can also count on Leckie Stack supplying us with some seasonal fruits from the Stack farm including Asian pears, persimmons and grapes. And Jenny Sanders will share with us wild ingredients in season such as ramps, elderflowers and berries, fiddleheads and a variety of mushrooms.
We would plant an acre of basil if we could. To many gardeners, basil is the king of herbs. Basil can play many roles while basking in the sun. Basil is essential in our kitchen, but it is also highly ornamental in our gardens and on our tables. We add branches to bouquets of flowers. Hot summer days become bearable if I can pluck fresh basil and use it in pestos, herbal vinegars, vegetable dishes and, most heavenly of all, nestle the leaves between slices of fresh bread along with a large slice of a ripe heirloom tomato and some creamy homemade mayo.
Members of the mint family, basils are native to India, Africa and Asia but have a long, rich history of legend and use worldwide. Basil is best used fresh. Small leafed varieties can be grown in a pot on a sunny windowsill during the winter. To preserve summer’s flavor for winter make plenty of pesto and freeze it.
We make sure that each year our garden has several Thai Basil plants. It is characterized by a strong licorice fragrance and flavor. Thai basil has many applications in the Beechwood kitchen due to its flavor appeal. It is the highlight of many Asian cuisines, including Thai, Vietnamese and Indian fare. The inn’s specialty is Thai Basil Rolls with Satay Peanut Sauce.
Another staple that we plant each spring is lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla). It is native to South America and grows well in North Georgia, but it does not survive our winters outdoors. The Spanish brought it to Europe where it was used in perfume. It has been a favorite for garden rooms in North America since its introduction in the 1800’s. It has a clean, sharp lemon scent that makes it the Queen of lemon-scented herbs. In Gone with the Wind, lemon verbena is mentioned as Scarlet O’Hara’s mother’s favorite plant. One whiff of the smell, and I predict you will not want to live without this luscious smelling herb.
The inn’s specialty is lemon verbena ice cream but we use the leaves in a number of recipes. It makes an excellent tea, especially when blended with mint. It can also be used to brighten the taste of fish, poultry, veggie marinades, stuffing, salad dressing, sorbets, pana cotta, jellies, and vinegar. As the leaves are tough, remove them before serving. Finely crumbled dried leaves can be added to the batters of carrot, banana, or zucchini bread. Try adding some to cooked rice just before serving.
A rainbow of toy box tomatoes is essential to our culinary garden each year. They are cherry and grape tomatoes in a variety of wonderful colors and flavors, some heirloom some hybrid. The most important thing to the chef is the palette of colors and unique flavors they offer. Some are sugary and sweet some are puckeringly tart. But oh are they beautiful in tarts, salads, bruschettas and as garnish. Last year we planted about a dozen varieties and I had to resist eating them while I picked them fresh off the vine. We plant them in giant containers and they surround the Beechwood gardens. We will often see guests plucking a sample as they walk by.
Our heirloom tomatoes are good in almost anything but one of our favorite recipes is Black Krim Tomato Marmalade. Our wild cherries and crabapples are very tart, so they are best used in coulis, jams and remoulades. The blueberries and raspberries will find their way fresh to our breakfast table and also baked into muffins, breads and sinfully wonderful desserts.
The gardens also yield a succession of seasonal edible flowers. Today, many restaurant chefs and innovative home cooks garnish their plates with flower blossoms for a touch of elegance. They can be sprinkled on salads or added to your recipe. The secret to success when using edible flowers is to keep the dish simple. Most edible flowers have a very delicate taste, so when using them as a flavor component do not add them to something that already has strong flavors. Today this nearly lost art is enjoying a revival.
Not all flowers are edible, and the edible varieties should be grown without the use of pesticides or other chemicals. Edible flowers should be carefully identified and in some cases there are only parts of the flower that are edible (in some flowers the anthers should be removed). The Beechwood Chefs will often use a flower as the central part of an appetizer or entrée. For instance, we use colorful organic daylilies and fill them with a light stuffing of local goat cheese and fresh herbs.
Writing about our culinary garden and thinking of these recipes makes us long for tomato season once again. Planting our culinary garden each spring renews our spirit and brings us joy. We appreciate the efforts brought to bear by local farmers and ranchers, but most of all we thank God for the variety and abundance of fresh products we bring to our table.