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Think about your menu before you start planting

It’s easy to imagine the garden as a horn of plenty, bursting with every vegetable we could grow. But unless we’ve unlimited time and space we must settle on our favorites, the ones our families enjoy. If it’s still hard to choose, it helps to start with a recipe or two.

I recently met recently Charlene McGrady from Chester County, Pennsylvania, who has a modest-sized garden with raised beds. “Last year,” she said, “I chose my plantings based on two staples of our summer meals.” She grew a ratatouille garden and a tabouleh garden, because that’s what she liked to cook in summer when the garden was at its peak.

If you like ratatouille — that French vegetable stew based on tomatoes, eggplants, summer squash, basil and garlic — you make it when all those things come into season together. That’s how the recipe originated. All you need to do is add some good olive oil.

Tabouleh, also spelled tabouli, is less familiar to American cooks, but it has the advantage of being served cold — a blessing on a hot day when opening the fridge seems more enticing that turning on the stove.

A staple in the Arab world, especially Lebanon, tabouleh is based on bulgur, a form of wheat that is parboiled, then dried, so that it cooks instantly when boiling water is applied. After the water is absorbed, olive oil, lemon juice and pulverized garlic are added and the mixture chilled. Half an hour before serving you stir in a combination of chopped tomatoes, chopped cucumbers, minced scallions and fresh herbs. It’s a light, refreshing dish for the summer table.

Charlene had whetted my appetite for tabouleh, and because I had exactly the same seasonings she’d grown for her dish — parsley, oregano and mint — I dug out Mollie Katzen’s Moosewood Cookbook (oh, hippie days) and made a big bowl of it.

As the book suggests, I spun the herbs and scallions together in a food processor to make them “feathery.” I wish I’d had the cherry tomatoes Charlene used in her version, but chopped beefsteak tomatoes worked fine. It was quite tart though; next time I'll cut Katzen’s 1/4 cup of lemon juice in half.

Tabouleh will be a stretch for some people’s kids, so you might conjure up some child-friendly recipes that you could grow or, better yet, that they could grow in a garden all on their own. Draw a big circle, plant a few tomato plants in the center, surround them with basil and oregano, and call it a pizza garden. At harvest time, make pizza dough if you’re ambitious, or just buy a box of English muffins, which make excellent small, easy-to-eat pizzas.

I recall a game my husband once played with some teenagers he was teaching in Vermont. To connect food to gardening he bought a package of dried minestrone soup mix that contained hulless barley, garbanzos, lentils, white beans and other odd items they were curious to try. They separated them into piles, planted them in rows and, to their delight, all the seeds grew. Whatever they ultimately made from their bean soup mix must have taught them a wonderful lesson about the garden: Plant a recipe that serves four and you might reap one that serves 40.

Damrosch is author of “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook”; her website is ww.fourseasonfarm.com.

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