One of my personal luxuries –and one that I urge everyone to try– is to plant a small herb garden. Not much space is needed; a windowsill, a few pots in a sunny corner or a small patch just outside the kitchen door is enough to put fresh herbs in your hands whenever you need them. Planting and growing them is very easy to do –and incredibly satisfying.
In Palm Beach, I have planted a small patch on the east side of the house with basil, sage, parsley, chives, oregano, rosemary and mint. Pomegranate, citruses and banana trees shade the herb patch and yield a delicious bounty of fresh fruit. I have planted artichokes, eggplants and Brussels sprouts with little success, but the rosemary bush is thriving, the basil plant has now become a small tree and the lavender is yielding beautiful long stalks.
In Southampton, the herb patch is enhanced with tomatoes, zucchini and string beans. It seems very bucolic and rural, but it is the core of many of my recipes and how I love to cook. On weekends there, I like to scour nurseries for hard-to-find herbs and vegetables like cinnamon-scented basil, lemon verbena and bay leaf. I make these herbs part of our meals and store the overabundance in the freezer to share with my friends when they visit.
Serving lunch in the herb garden is a great way to show off my accomplishments as an amateur gardener! The menu is always based on the profusion of herbs and fruits I’ve grown myself, but it would be just as delicious if I procured them from the nearest farm stand.
I like to set the table simply when eating outside; it allows the greenery to become the focal point. I need nothing more than a green tablecloth, white plates and simple rattan accessories to set my garden table. My centerpiece is right in front of me—in the herb garden. I cut a generous bunch of mixed herbs and place them in a vase.
I typically invite friends to arrive for lunch at 1 o’clock; we usually don’t sit to eat for a good fifteen minutes, though. This allows for a relaxed meal but also shows that you respect your guests’ busy lives—everyone has appointments and errands to attend to; and however much I would like to linger at the table, I believe that lunches should be speedier than dinners. Because the herb garden is in a semi-sunny area, I place sun hats on the backs of chairs for my friends. I don’t want to have to get up and move to another spot and spoil the conversation.
Gratin of Eggplant & Zucchini
This incredibly flavorful gratin is easily assembled in the morning or even the day before and cooked just before serving. (Allow more time to cook if the dish goes into the oven cold). I love it for lunch as is served with warm crusty bread and Manchego cheese, but it is also delicious to accompany meats and fish.
1 large or 2 medium eggplants, cut into 1/4 inch slices
4 medium zucchini, cut into 1/4 inch slices
1 large Spanish onion, cut into 1/4 inch slices
3 large tomatoes cut into 1/4 inch slices
1 cup parsley, chopped
1 cup basil leaves, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
¼ cup olive oil
¼ cup Parmesan cheese, grated
Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the vegetables on one layer on separate cookie sheets (or do it in batches) and sprinkle lightly with olive oil and salt. Bake in the oven for about ten minutes until barely tender. Lower the temperature of the oven to 350 degrees. In the mean time, place the parsley, basil, garlic, a pinch of salt and olive oil in a blender and combine until smooth. In an oven dish, place the eggplant overlapping in one layer, add the zucchini the same way and top with the parsley basil sauce. Add the tomatoes and top with the onions. Sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese and bake in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes until the juices are bubbly and the Parmesan golden. Serve hot. ■