Spring is a time to start over and try new things, but after 30 years of gardening, there are the tried-and-true that simply must be planted every year—partly because I make dishes from them that last all year in my freezer, and partly because they are just so superior fresh to anything bought, even from my local farmer. This is my list.
1. Basil. Not the fancy kinds (although I do like to plant at least one purple basil because it’s so good and pretty in salads). ‘Genovese’ basil. For pesto. For sauce. For salads. For whatever, whenever, pinched off right before dinner, if possible.
2. Tomatoes. Of course! No gardener worth his or her salt wouldn’t plant them. Here I need an assortment. Paste tomatoes, heirloom yellow and green and of course some big fat red ones. Yum. I put them all in sauce.
3. Savoy cabbage. It’s hard to find good organic savoy cabbage, so I grow a whole bunch of heads and then have cabbage blanching and freezing day because this is the key ingredient in “fooey,” which is a Christmas dish from my father-in-law. Savoy cabbage blanched and sautéed with garlic, topped with fried anchovies and fried dried cayenne peppers. The recipe is on my blog, and it’s so good you won’t believe it. You must use savoy cabbage for this.
4. Cayenne peppers. For the fooey, of course, but also for putting on pasta and in soups. They are so easy to dry, and I need a good supply to last all winter. And the other thing I love about cayenne peppers is they never trick you into thinking they might be a sweet pepper…one look at them and you know they are hot.
5. Shelling peas. Grrrr. This is my nemesis, since I adore them so much and find them so hard to grow well—either because my trellising stinks or the birds and bunnies eat them—and there are never enough, and the kids love them, too, and for me it’s the whole reason to garden, and this year if it’s the last thing I do I’m going to grow peas. Lots of them.
6. Green beans. Like peas, so superior to anything you can buy when you eat them fresh off the plant. Green beans, however, I find very easy to grow. So they are a reliable performer and they freeze well, too (when blanched).
7. Sweet peppers. Here I like green and red ones that really look like sweet peppers so you don’t get fooled into eating a hot pepper by accident (which I don’t mind but the kids do). I like them fresh, roasted, raw, or cooked (with sausage!).
8. Parsley. Flatleaf Italian…for the roasted peppers, for salad, for anything. In the summer, I love to make a mixture of fresh chopped herbs, salt, olive oil, and a bit of fresh chopped garlic to put on top of fish, chicken, or steak. It’s so simple and so deeply satisfying.
9. Garlic. Speaking of garlic, my husband plants this, but it’s just so useful, and we never run out, and as long as you can remember to plant it in the fall, it’s the easiest thing you will ever grow.
10. Wild card. Every year there is something I simply must plant but is not on the annual list—it’s included because of my mood or a meal I ate at a restaurant. Some years, it’s potatoes. Some years, it’s those flat Romano pole beans. It would be beets if anyone else ate them other than me! What will it be this year? I’m thinking it’s a pole-bean year. But I might change my mind. And that’s one of the best things about gardening: For the price of a pack of seeds, I can do whatever I want in my little plot-o-land. And then I can eat it!