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Northeast Gardening: My Organic Kitchen Garden

Brought to you by Lowe's Creative Ideas

Lowe's Northeast regional gardening expert Irene Virag shares the joy of cooking from her organic kitchen garden - and a recipe for homegrown ratatouille.

A cook's garden looks good and tastes even better.
Bring the garden's bounty into the kitchen.

As a kid I thought peas and carrots came out of a can. So did beets and beans and corn. And everybody knew Popeye ate spinach straight from the tin. I would have thought I was in a horror movie if I'd seen asparagus tips poking out of the ground. I didn't know kale or Swiss chard existed. And if we ever grew a tomato in our yard, I don't remember it.

But then I became a gardener, and the world changed. Now I think of homegrown tomatoes as iconic. And I owe it all to my garden, which is a stewpot and a salad bowl as well as a bouquet. I toss, bake, steam, roast, puree and sauté vegetables. From pesto to ratatouille and soup to sauce, I eat fresh vegetables I never heard of when I was a child. In fact I don't think I've met a vegetable I didn't like.

And the real kick is that almost all of them come from my own garden.

I never considered myself much of a cook till I became a gardener, and an organic gardener at that. When you get into eating from your garden, you can't help but think about how your food is grown. So why use chemicals?

The essential ingredient in my kitchen garden is compost, which I make out of raw vegetable scraps, untreated grass clippings and garden debris and then work into the soil in spring and fall. I rotate my crops to thwart disease, interrupt insect cycles and keep the soil chock-full of nutrients. I don't grow the same plant, or its relatives, in the same place for at least three consecutive years.

It's easy because I designed my vegetable garden with beds, not rows, so I keep track by moving entire families from bed to bed. The cabbage clan - broccoli, radishes, bok choy - travel together. So do the squash cousins: cucumbers, melons, zucchini. And I wouldn't dream of separating the nightshade sisters - eggplants, peppers and tomatoes.

I don't pretend to be Julia Child but I'm happy in the kitchen as well as the garden. I make a mean butternut squash soup (it's become a Thanksgiving tradition) as well as a tasty vegetable lasagna and a robust ratatouille. My husband and my stepson say nice things about my vegetable stew, and they gobble salad. And I can always spice things up by running out to the herb garden for parsley, basil or oregano.

Of course I've gotten a lot of help from the friends I've made as a garden writer, most of whom are excellent cooks. Like Carmela, who taught me how to can tomatoes; and Ed, who taught me about freezing beans and peas so I could still taste the garden in winter. And Sal, who gave me his mother's recipe for a stew that does justice to cucuzza.

Writing this is making me hungry. But before I boil over, I thought I'd give you my recipe for baked ratatouille. Because gardeners don't just share seeds and cuttings and advice - we swap recipes too.

Ratatouille tastes delicious with homegrown vegetables.

Baked Ratatouille
1 pound tomatoes, cored and cut into 6 wedges
1 pound eggplant, cut into ¾-inch cubes
½ pound zucchini and/or yellow squash, cut into ¾-inch cubes
1 each red and green bell pepper, seeds and ribs removed, cut into ¾-inch squares
1 onion, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon chopped garlic (optional)
2 teaspoons chopped oregano
2 teaspoons chopped thyme
1½ teaspoons salt
¼ cup olive oil
¼ cup parsley, chopped
Red wine vinegar to taste (optional)
2 tablespoons capers, chopped (optional)
24 black olives, pitted (optional)

Preheat oven to 375°F.

In a large bowl combine vegetables, spices, salt and olive oil; toss to mix.

Transfer to a covered baking dish; bake 1 hour. Uncover and bake 1 more hour, stirring occasionally. Remove from oven; let cool to room temperature.

Before serving stir in parsley and vinegar. Add capers and olives, if desired.

What's your favorite garden-to-table recipe?

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