kale

kale
The overwintered kale is sprouting!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Lebanese Kitchen Garden!

My hubby was born in a mountain village just outside Beirut and because of his heritage, I've been introduced to the wonder of Lebanese food. The cuisine of Lebanon is connected to the earth. Fresh vegetables, herbs, fruits, legumes, nuts, cereals and olive oil take centre stage and are used in dishes that are both simple to prepare and full of flavor.

Lebanese cuisine focuses on freshness and foods that are in season, often those grown just outside the door. With one-third of Lebanon covered in mountains, often the only areas for gardens are in terraces that are constructed on the steep slopes that surround the many villages nestled in the rocky peaks. These terraces help prevent soil erosion and water runoff, making gardening possible in a very challenging location.

Fortunately, most of us don't need to create our own edible Eden in such extreme conditions and capturing the essence of a Lebanese kitchen garden is as simple as growing a selection of vegetables and herbs commonly used in its cuisine. Cultivate varieties of tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, lettuce, Swiss chard, green beans, parsley, cilantro, mint, garlic, fava beans and chickpeas for use in authentic dishes.

Veggies for a Lebanese Kitchen Garden

Tomatoes

For truly authentic flavor, try ‘Omar’s Lebanese’, an heirloom beefsteak tomato that matures in about 80 days. Although the history is a bit vague, it is said to originate from a mountain village in Lebanon where local farmers have been growing it for many years. It was brought to America by a Lebanese college student and has since become a favourite in kitchen gardens across North America.

The indeterminate vines of ‘Omar’s Lebanese’ are both high yielding and disease resistant. The pinkish-red fruits typically weigh one to two pounds, but can reach sizes over four pounds with proper care, good weather and a little luck. The meaty tomatoes are also deeply lobed and boast a rich, sweet flavor that has pushed this heirloom to the top of many taste tests.

Lebanese Zucchini (50 days)

Lebanese zucchini, also known as kusah, kusa, koosa or cousa is an essential element in both the Lebanese garden and kitchen. It is used in a variety of dishes from the simple (slices brushed with olive oil and garlic and then grilled) to the more elaborate. Kusah mahshi, a recipe where the marrows are stuffed with a variety of herbs, spices, vegetables and meats and then cooked until tender is a popular element in traditional Lebanese mezza, where dozens of appetizer-sized portions of food are shared with family and friends.

Easy to grow and very prolific, Lebanese zucchini bear light green oblong fruits that are usually harvested when they are between four and six-inches long. Try ‘Lebanese White Bush Marrow’, a flavorful heirloom with a bush habit that is ideal for small gardens or 'Kousa'. Neither takes up too much space, yet they both offer a heavy yield of creamy tender fruits.

Armenian Cucumbers (70 to 75 days)

Although often sold as a cucumber, this Lebanese favourite is botanically a melon. It goes by a variety of names including snake melon, metki and yard-long cucumber and is an ancient plant, said to have been introduced into Italy from Armenia in the 15th century. The fruits are soft green, heavily ribbed and although they will grow up to three-feet long, they are best picked when about 12-inches in length. The skin is very thin and need not be peeled, while the flesh is crisp, juicy and free from any bitterness.

The vining plants will produce long, straight fruits when trained up a trellis, but if left to sprawl on the ground, the fruits will curl and twist into unique snake-like shapes. Either way, select a very sunny part of the garden with well-drained soil that has been enriched with compost or rotted manure. In cold climates, start the seeds indoors about six weeks before transplanting outside. Also try Striped Armenian, commonly called Painted Serpent.

Lebanese-type Cucumber (60 days)

Considered gourmet fare in most supermarkets, Lebanese-type cucumbers are remarkably easy to grow. They differ from regular slicing cucumbers by their thinner skin and often sweeter flesh. They are also harvested before maturity, usually when they are only four to six-inches in length. ‘Beit Alpha’ is an open pollinated Lebanese-type cucumber that is both prolific and delicious. The vines are resistant to cucumber mosaic virus and may be trained up a support or grown along the ground. The crunchy fruits are smooth-skinned, bitter free and do not require peeling. 'Sultan', a hybrid is very similar, but slightly more vigorous in my garden.

Herbs:

Parsley

Considered by many to be the national dish of Lebanon, tabbouli (or tabbuli or tabbouleh) is a prime example of Lebanese cuisine – simple, delicious and made with garden fresh ingredients. This popular salad is a vibrant combination of finely chopped parsley, mint, tomato, burghul, onions, olive oil, lemon and salt.

Flat leaf parsley is the most common type of parsley used in Lebanese cooking and may be planted directly in the garden in early spring or enjoyed throughout the winter when grown on a sunny windowsill. My favourite is the heirloom ‘Italian Flat Leaf’, which boasts deep green glossy leaves and a concentrated parsley flavor.

Lebanese Mint

Aromatic and flavorful, mint is a delight to all the senses. As it has a tendency to be invasive, this hardy perennial is usually given its own special place in the garden where it can happily grow without choking out its neighbors - we tuck ours in a slightly shaded spot to the side of the veggie garden. Mint is an herb that is treasured by the Lebanese people and often shared among families. When children leave to establish their own homes they are given a clump of mint to take with them to plant at their new residence.

Happy Gardening

1 comment:

  1. We used to have "snake" cucumbers when I was a kid,but the seeds aren't readily available anymore.As I recall,they were not so big around but would curl around 360 degrees sometimes,and I think they were very tasty,but hard to peel because of the curves.We always grew "snakes", and I wonder if they are the same as you describe since I thought perhaps they could have been chinese cukes.

    ReplyDelete

Please feel free to leave comments. I welcome your tips, questions, thoughts and ideas (and suggestions for new veggies to grow!)