Logic of edible gardens on display at Powell Gardens

09/11/2013 10:27 AM

09/11/2013 10:27 AM

Gardens represent simultaneous elements of fascination and frustration for me.

The process of turning the earth, planting seeds, pulling weeds, watering, nurturing and successfully harvesting vegetables and fruits is intriguing.

When chefs forage for ingredients and spin them into inventive dishes — like culinary maestro Chef Jonathon Justus at

Justus Drugstore

, a restaurant in Smithville, does to the rhythm of the seasons — emotions mingle with my taste buds.

I’m transported to another gastronomic dimension.

It’s a beautiful thing, searching in fields and forests for the unsung edible wild plants that, when added to a salad or soup or a pork rib chop, make food utterly sublime.

Strolling the aisles of farmers markets in

Overland Park, Merriam and the City Market in Kansas City or at the largest producer-only market in the U.S., the Dane County Farmers Market

in Madison, Wis., I am humbled and inspired.

But, I must confess, garden logic has always escaped me.

Epic personal failures of attempting to plant and coax vegetables from a small suburban plot — and even growing herbs in simple containers — sully my pursuit of backyard gardening.

Calculus and algebraic genes aren’t part of my DNA and long ago I concluded a green thumb is missing from that package too. So I depend on earth whisperers to provide bounty for my table and produce for my market tote bags.

Kansas City is fortunate to have many diligent farmers, gardeners, food artisans and chefs who have our backs and lend an unmistakably imaginative and distinctive Midwest voice to cuisine heard ‘round the country.

One of the places where the soil is verdant and prolific:

Powell Gardens

and its celebrated 12-acre Heartland Harvest Garden.

Dubbed as the nation’s largest edible landscape, Heartland Harvest elevates not just farm to table dining in Kansas City, but also the notion of seed to plate.

A constantly evolving canvas of apples, pears, melons, tomatoes, herbs and edible plants like borage, among others, Heartland Harvest weaves a story of nature and its lyrical seasons and cycles.

Powell Gardens, in addition to hosting festivals and events, offers a robust calendar of culinary adventures featuring some of the city’s high-profile chefs and restaurateurs.

At one of its recent Missouri Barn Dinner Series, staged underneath the majestic open-air barn in the heart of the Heartland Harvest Garden, Chef Linda Duerr of The River Club shared with 40 diners her inspiration for the evening’s menu.

“Tonight you’ll eat ingredients picked from the very garden surrounding us in addition to something special I brought back home from my roots,” said Duerr as servers passed fresh Johnny Cake and sweet butter.

“I grew up in Rhode Island and then lived in Boston for 12 years. There are certain foods that speak to me of home, especially things like succotash or Indian pudding made with flint corn.”

Duerr remembers going to the Narragansett Indian pow wows as a child and visiting Kenyon’s Grist Mill in Usquepaugh, R.I., established in the 1600s. The operation still uses granite millstones to grind corn kernels into meal or flour, an old-fashioned technique that preserves the grain’s nutrition.

“When I was home a few weeks ago I stopped in at the mill and they were grinding white flint corn,” said Duerr. “I bought a bag and used it to make the cornmeal for these Johnny Cakes. There is still a strong sense in New England of a kind of cobblestone traditionalism — I get very nostalgic when I visit or think of home.”

And Duerr, whose talents have graced iconic kitchens around the country and in Kansas City, delighted in scavenging the Heartland Harvest Garden for this night’s late August menu.

She plucked mint, squash blossoms, apples, eggplants, tomatoes, arugula, elderberries, sumac, pears, lavender and more for the superlative five-course dinner.

There were tempura squash blossoms and spoons of fig, apple and ricotta salada; a bowl of snow-white apple vichyssoise, perfectly chilled and dolloped with cider ice and walnut crumb, and a brilliant stacked salad of grilled eggplant, tomato and fresh mozzarella with baby arugula and elderberry balsamic reduction.

The table scape was dotted with vases of vibrant sunflowers interspersed with large glass compotes brimming with Duerr’s exotically spiced green tomato and apple chutney.

Intended as an accompaniment to the entrée of veal breast roast msickquatash stuffed with sumac, herbs and game sausage and served with succotash, I preferred the chutney as a side dish. To me, it spoke the language of the garden that was a stone’s throw from my chair at this homegrown feast.

In between courses I strolled the Heartland Harvest Garden, deeply inhaling the soil’s rich smell, listening to birds, welcoming a sultry early evening breeze.

Pausing next to an apple tree laden with ripe fruit, I peeked through the leaves, spying another one of Powell Gardens’ barns in the distance. I snapped a picture of the sun-kissed fruit dangling from the branches, the red barn as a backdrop — a visual with a permanent place of honor in the part of my memory reserved for experiences that connect life’s many dots.

Garden logic came full circle for me that night as I stood alone in the expanse of the Heartland Harvest Gardens, waiting for the dessert course to be served under the Missouri barn’s eaves.

Maybe, just maybe, I thought, slipping back into my seat in time for roasted pears with blackberries and a lavender-fresh ricotta, it’s time once again to try my hand at collaborating with the earth.

For more information on The Heartland Harvest Garden at Powell Gardens and culinary events and demonstrations, visit powellgardens.org.

Enamored with the sweet and spicy tang of Chef Linda Duerr’s Green Tomato and Apple Chutney served as an accompaniment to the veal breast roast msickquatash at a Powell Garden Missouri Barn Dinner Series, I asked if she would consider sharing the recipe.

“This chutney is great for all of the late summer produce available from a garden or farmers’ markets around town,” said Duerr. “Serve it with veal, pork, grilled fish or fowl.”

I recommend the chutney as a condiment, too. But it’s equally as lovely spooned from a dish, completely on its own.

GREEN TOMATO APPLE CHUTNEY 2 medium yellow onions, 1/2-inch diced 2 teaspoon minced garlic 3 tablespoons chopped fresh ginger, or 1/4-inch diced 3 tablespoons butter 3 tablespoons olive oil blend 2 pounds green tomatoes, 1/2-inch diced 2 pounds crisp apples, 3/4-inch diced 1 lemon, cut in half lengthwise, sliced and seeded (You may only want to use only half) 1/4 head green cabbage, cored and sliced 1 cinnamon stick 1 tablespoon mustard seed 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg 1/4 teaspoon chili pepper flakes 1 cup apple cider vinegar 1-1/2 cups light brown sugar Salt and pepper to taste

In a large Dutch oven, lightly sauté the onions, garlic and ginger in the butter and olive oil combined. Sseason a bit here with salt. A little caramelization/color is okay; so don't cook too slowly because you don't want mush.

When the mixture is starting to soften, add tomatoes, apples, lemon slices and spices. Cook until just softening.

Add vinegar and sugar and let cook down over low heat until thickened — individual ingredients maintain some integrity — about 25 minutes.

Turn out into large pan, like a hotel pan or roaster, with a large area so it will cool without cooking too much more. The chutney will thicken up still more when cooled.

Kimberly Winter Stern — also known as Kim Dishes — is an award-winning freelance writer and national blogger from Overland Park and co-host with Chef Jasper Mirabile on LIVE! From Jasper’s Kitchen each Saturday on KCMO 710/103.7FM. She is inspired by the passion, creativity and innovation of chefs, restaurateurs and food artisans who make Kansas City a vibrant center of locavore cuisine. LOCATION OF POWELL GARDENS