Garden Guru: Ellen Ecker Ogden
Ellen Ecker Ogden says her new cookbook, From the Cook's Garden, is for "cooks who like to garden, gardeners who like to cook, and everyone who wishes they had a garden." She knows her audience. For 20 years Ellen has worn the hats of cook, test kitchen director, herb gardener, farm stand manager, catalog manager, and co-owner of The Cook's Garden. This organic, mail-order seed company specializes in choice - and often unusual - varieties of vegetables and herbs, and flowers of particular culinary merit.
Gardeners have always found new temptations in the catalog: 'Caspian Pink' tomatoes, 'Carouby de Maussane' snow peas, and even varieties of purslane and dandelions that have larger leaves, more nutrients, and more flavor (and less aggressiveness) than their backyard cousins. Gardeners also have picked up new ideas for cooking the harvest from Ellen's recipes sprinkled throughout the pages of seed descriptions. Ellen has a flair for combining fresh, simple ingredients into delicious, feel-good meals. It began when she was sixteen.
"I was not an easy teenager," recalls Ellen. "It was Sunday afternoon, and I was listening to music. My mother called me to the kitchen and told me she was going to teach me how to cook. She had a bread cookbook opened to a recipe for anadama bread, and all the ingredients on the counter. She said, 'Make this, call me if you need help,' and disappeared into the living room." Ellen grudgingly began measuring the ingredients but her mood soon changed. Kneading the dough was fun, and by the time the bread came out of the oven and her family began raving about it, she was really enjoying herself.
"The satisfaction of pleasing people with food was something I hadn't experienced before, and it triggered my love of cooking," says Ellen.
In 1980, when Ellen and her former husband, Shepherd, started growing vegetables for sale on their farm near Londonderry, Vermont, she had the pleasure of taking to the kitchen to experiment with colorful salad greens, purple-striped 'Triomphe de Farcy' beans, and other vegetables from around the world. They had to import seeds for European varieties in large quantities, and eventually the seeds took over their living space. The Cook's Garden catalog was born.
Ellen believed that if their catalog was going to carry a food that was unfamiliar to customers, she'd better help them learn how to use it. She traveled to a cooking school in Italy where she learned how to cook with obscure chicories and fell in love with the fresh markets, where vegetables reign supreme. She spent a week at a cooking school on an organic farm in Ireland, where every morning began with a trip to the hen house for fresh eggs and to the garden for herbs and veggies. "It was an ideal place to learn about cooking," says Ellen. "It makes so much more sense to use locally grown food than to cook with food that comes off the back of a truck."
Ellen has been teaching people how to make the most of a garden's harvest ever since. She favors herbs and features them in unique ways in her cookbook, such as in Blueberry and Cinnamon Basil Custard, and Spearmint Granita. Her children have caught her enthusiasm. Her son, Sam, who actually asked to be her recipe tester when he was 13, now loves baking bread. Her daughter Molly's specialty is desserts, especially cookies.
Although her company was sold to Park Seed a number of years ago, Ellen still works on the catalog and contributes recipes to spark an interest in cooking with the vegetables and herbs the company offers. She'll be helping with discussion groups focused on cooking and gardening planned for The Cook's Garden Web site. She's also excited about reviving the annual August tasting event that used to be an integral part of the catalog, where customers taste and critique many varieties.
One might expect that a cookbook author and test kitchen director would have a professional stove, an extra oven and sink, and miles of gleaming, stainless steel counters. But most of the recipes are tested in Ellen's tiny, efficient, farm kitchen with a wood stove for heat and no extras. "I thought about a big fancy oven, but America cooks on a basic stove like mine," says Ellen. "I like basic, simple stuff. You don't have to eat fancy to eat well."
To learn more about Ellen Ecker Ogden's cookbook, go to www.vermontculinarycapers.com.