Culinary Gardener Kathryn Agresto Shares Four Chef’s Vegetable Gardens

Uncategorized By May 01, 2012

I’m not a jealous person. But when I saw Chef Zov Karamardian’s home vegetable garden, I was overcome with envy. Just steps from her kitchen, cucumbers, tomatoes and herbs flourished, alongside a spectrum of lettuces and greens. Espalier fruit trees snuggled walls. Fully-bloomed artichokes showed off their stunning buds. (Photo above shows Zov sitting in her home vegetable garden.)

Zov and I have been friends for decades, so when I confessed my garden jealousy, she gave me one of her signature matter-of-fact solutions.

“You can do this too,” she said in an emphatic tone. “Call Kathryn Agresto, that’s what I did. I know you don’t have much room. But make it happen.”

And so I did.

Good-bye palm trees, impatiens and geraniums. Hello edible landscaping.

Kathryn Agresto is a culinary gardener who specializes in chef’s gardens. I met her a few years ago when I wrote a story about Park Ave, the acclaimed restaurant in Stanton that has 4,000 square feet of vegetable gardens and fruit trees. Agresto masterminded the gardens, establishing the restaurant’s 14 raised beds and 2,000 square feet of in-ground garden.

It’s a working garden; everything produced is used in the restaurant.

But it’s so beautiful and popular with guests that executive chef-managing partner David Slay opened “Il Garage,” a bistro housed in the spacious garage outside the restaurant. A space that overlooks the bountiful raised beds.

It’s not just her green thumb and tireless work ethic that makes Agresto so successful. She combines an artistic eye with her astute palate.  She has the ability to create “eye candy” beauty while selecting the most delectable produce. Fruits and vegetables tailored to a chef’s menu preferences.

The gardens she created at Studio, the seaside restaurant at Montage Laguna, echo Executive Chef Craig Strong’s love of modern French cuisine and garden-fresh ingredients. Fruit trees, berry bushes and strawberries showoff next to lavender, basil, and fingerling potatoes.

Because the chef has solid working relationships with local growers who provide most of the restaurant’s produce, much of Agresto’s plantings mirror those crops.

Strong, an avid home gardener, says that guests get giddy over the garden, especially when attending one of his five-course Chef’s Table Dinners in which every dish showcases produce from the garden.

“Adults act like joyful little kids when I send them out to the garden to pick produce for their dinner,” Strong says about his Chef’s Table events. “So many of us have lost touch with where food comes from.  The garden has an incredible aroma, too. With fresh-picked basil or sage, the scent affects the taste.

“And watching things grow makes you appreciate farmers.”

Yes, I appreciate farmers. But on a more personal level, I appreciate how “my farmer” Agresto brought a farm-of-sorts to my Huntington Beach land-challenged home. (Photo shows photographer Nick Koon shooting Kathryn in my garden.)

Freckles romaine, sweet green lettuce dotted with splashes of burgundy, cuddle next to Bloomsdale spinach, a variety that combines bold spinach flavor with a high degree of sweetness.  African Blue basil grows next to strawberries, watermelon radishes next to chard. A guava tree sends its branches out over a bed of magenta mustard.

It’s as beautiful as it is delicious.  Want more? Kathryn’s Website is

Chef David Slay loves to leave the roots attached to lettuces. It gives the greens an appealing, just-picked appearance, but requires devotion to proper washing. In this dish he uses roots-on mache, a dark green lettuce that clusters in small loose heads. Bright green and tender, the delicate leaves have pronounced sweetness and subtle nuttiness. Sometimes it is labeled “lamb’s lettuce,” a name acquired due to the leaf’s resemblance to the shape of a lamb’s tongue. It is sold in cellophane bags at Trader Joe’s.

Park Ave’s Whole Baby Mache with Spring Chicken, Black Strap Molasses Marinade
Yield: 4 servings
1 broiler-fryer chicken, about 2 1/2 pounds, quartered (or preferred cut)
1/4 cup black strap molasses, unsulphured
1 clove garlic, chopped
1/2 bunch cilantro leaves
Juice of 1 lemon and minced zest of 1/2 lemon
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Cracked pepper to taste
8 small heads mache lettuce with roots, about 8 cups
1 pound assorted small heirloom tomatoes
Extra-virgin olive oil, enough to lightly coat tomatoes
Sea salt to taste
1. In a large, nonreactive bowl or large zipper-style plastic bag, combine molasses, garlic, cilantro, lemon juice and zest, soy sauce, mustard and pepper; stir. Add chicken. Cover (or seal) and refrigerate two hours. Remove chicken from marinade and broil or grill until thoroughly cooked.
2. While meat is cooking, roast tomatoes. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place a large sheet of aluminum foil on baking sheet, with sides of foil extending over the sides of the sheet. Place tomatoes on foil and sprinkle with enough olive oil to lightly coat and sea salt to taste; fold foil to enclose tomatoes. Roast tomatoes about 5 to 7 minutes or skin shrivels and blisters a little
3.  Place the chicken at the center of 4 plates. Place mache over the chicken with the roots at 7:00 o’clock. Cautiously open foil (opening away from you for steam to escape) and pour tomatoes and oil over the mache.

Nutrition information (per serving): 360 calories, 38 percent of calories from fat, 15 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 40 mg cholesterol, 40 g carbohydrates, 16 g protein, 552 mg sodium, 3g fiber Source: David Slay, executive chef and managing partner at Park Ave and Il Garage, Stanton

Chef Craig Strong uses African Basil in the mixture he rubs on lamb racks before roasting. He says the basil tastes like a combination of basil and mint, a delicious addition to lamb.

Studio’s African Basil Crusted Lamb Rack with Studio Garden Vegetables
Yield: 4 servings
2 racks of lamb
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 cloves roasted garlic
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/4 cup African basil leaves
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1 cup brioche bread crumbs
Baby Carrots with Cumin:
2 tablespoons butter
24 baby carrots, peeled
1 pinch cumin seeds
Sea salt to taste
1/4 cup water
Fingerling potatoes:
2 tablespoons butter
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 garlic clove
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Garnish: 12 sprigs African Basil flowers
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large ovenproof skillet heat oil and butter on medium-high heat. Season lamb with salt and pepper. Brown lamb on all sides for about 3 to 5 minutes. Set aside.  Puree garlic and mustard; brush on lamb. In a food processor, mince basil and parsley; add breadcrumbs and pulse to minced. Pass through a sieve. Generously coat lamb with bread crumb mixture. Place lamb in preheated oven for 20 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes before carving.
2. Meanwhile, prepare vegetables. In a medium-large deep ovenproof skillet melt 2 tablespoons butter; cook over medium-low heat, swirling pan occasionally, until butter is browned and fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add carrots, cumin and sea salt. Place in 350 degree oven until just fork tender; shaking handle occasionally to redistribute carrots (careful, remember the skillet handle is hot). In food processor, puree 8 of the carrots.
3. Prepare potatoes. In a medium, deep ovenproof skillet heat 2 tablespoons butter; cook over medium-low heat, swirling pan occasionally, until butter is browned and fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add potatoes, sea salt, pepper, thyme, bay leaves and garlic clove; toss. Place in a 350-degree oven and roast until fork tender. Remove garlic, bay leaves, and the twiggy portion of the thyme sprigs.
4. Spread about 1 tablespoon of carrot puree on each plate. Arrange 4 carrots and 4 potatoes on top of puree. Carve meat, cutting between bones and divide between plates. Garnish top of vegetables with 3 sprigs of basil flowers.
Nutrition information (per serving): 660 calories, 45 percent of calories from fat, 32 g fat, 8 g saturated fat, 65 mg cholesterol, 30 g carbohydrates, 63 g protein, 640 mg sodium, 2 g fiber  Source: Craig Strong, executive chef of Studio, Montage Laguna, Laguna Beach

I am enchanted with the freckles romaine lettuces in my garden. They taste a little sweet and have tender textures. But probably more than anything, I love the way they look, apple-green leaves dotted with burgundy splotches. Hearts of romaine, cut in half lengthwise and arranged cut-side up, are a good substitute. As for the dressing, it is my late mother’s blue cheese vinaigrette recipe. That dressing is one of the first things I learned to “cook” (I was so small I had to stand on a stool to reach the butcher block). Here I augment the dressing with kumquat slices from my espalier tree in my yard.

Cathy’s Freckles Romaine Salad with Kumquats and Mom’s Blue Cheese Vinaigrette
Yield: 4 servings
Harriett’s Blue Cheese Vinaigrette:
1 cup safflower oil or extra-virgin olive oil
4 ounces crumbled blue cheese
1/3 to 1/2 cup cider vinegar (depending on how tart you like dressing)
1 teaspoon garlic salt
Freshly ground black pepper
6 kumquats, sliced, seeds removed
1 to 2 heads freckle romaine or 1 or 2 hearts of romaine cut in half lengthwise
4 to 6 leaves of Bloomsdale spinach or common spinach
1 ripe pear, cored, sliced into wedges
Optional: 2 slices bacon, cooked crisp, drained, crumbled
Garnish: 2 sprigs fresh basil, preferably with blooms
Cook’s notes: If desired, just before serving, remove the amount of dressing you think you’ll be using and add 1 tablespoon of minced fresh tarragon or basil. If you add the herbs to the entire mixture and then store, the herbs lose their fresh taste.
1, Combine oil and blue cheese in small bowl or a glass measuring cup with a handle. Using a fork, mash about 1/2 of the blue cheese into the oil, pressing fork against side of bowl or measuring cup (the oil will be bluish when you finish). Stir in the vinegar, garlic salt and ground black pepper. Add kumquat slices; set aside. This recipe will make more than you will use. Dressing can be stored for one week in the refrigerator, well-sealed in a non-reactive container.
2. Make a shallow trim on the root end of the lettuce, deep enough so that the larger leaves disconnect but the smaller, interior leaves stay attached together. Arrange on large plate or platter and surround with spinach leaves. Place pear wedges at base of lettuce. Stir dressing. Spoon on just enough dressing to lightly coat the lettuce leaves, capturing as many kumquat slices with the spoon as possible. If using, scatter crumbled bacon on top. Garnish with basil.
3. Bring salad to table and show it off. Using a serrated knife, cut lettuce and spinach crosswise into bite-size pieces and serve.
Nutrition information (per serving using a total of 1/4 of dressing for the salad, no bacon): 300 calories, 49 percent of calories from fat, 16 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 38 mg cholesterol, 3` g carbohydrates, 7 g protein, 420 mg sodium, 3.5 g fiber

Zov’s Sautéed Chard with Lemon and Pine Nuts
Yield: 6 servings
2 bunches rainbow chard, about 1 1/2 pounds, washed in cold water
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons minced shallots
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
1/2 lemon
1/2 cup toasted pine nuts
1. Trim ends of chard stems. Cut the center vein and remaining stem for the green leaves. Coarsely chop leaves and cut stems in slices, keeping leaves and stems in separate piles.
2. Heat oil in deep, 12-inch skillet over medium heat. Add shallots and garlic; cook just until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add chard stem slices and cook until they are tender-crisp, stirring often, about 8 minutes. Stir in salt, black pepper and dried red pepper flakes. Add half of chard leaves and toss to coat. As chard cooks and begins to wilt, add remaining chard leaves. Continue cooking until chard wilts but still has a vibrant green color, about 3 minutes. Make sure you do not overcook the chard. Drain any excess liquid, if necessary.
3. Transfer chard to serving platter and squeeze lemon over the chard. Sprinkle with pine nuts.
Nutrition information (per serving): 280 calories, 47 percent of calories from fat, 14.6 g fat, 3g saturated fat, 28 mg cholesterol, 35 g carbohydrates, 2 g protein, 320 mg sodium, 5 g fiber
Source: “Simply Zov” ($39) by Zov Karamardian, executive chef-owner Zov’s Bistro and Bakery in Tustin, Zov’s Cafes in Irvine, Newport Coast and John Wayne Airport.

(Thank you to Cindy Yamanaka and Nick Koon for the beautiful photographs.)

Mustard from my garden. Eye candy, right? And it’s perky delicious.

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