Grow, Grill, and Eat Italian!

It's Alfresco Time 

Now we’re coming into the season when the literal meaning of “alfresco” reminds us of how delightful being out in the fresh air truly is.  Clear skies, fresh breezes, mild temperatures, and few bugs.

It’s a great time to be gardening—and grilling. Especially Italian garden goodies.
My Italian garden tour starts with the Heartland, travels to Italy, and then comes back in a surprising way.

Last year, I wrote a story about Cody Hogan, chef de cuisine at Lidia’s in Kansas City, who “tests” heirloom vegetable, fruit, and herb varieties so the restaurant can have farmers grow them for the kitchen. Growing your own plants is the best way to source unusual ingredients like wild fennel or Fennel Sympatico, which is grown for its ferny fronds and seeds, and does not bulb.

Wild Fennel or Fennel Sympatico

Lidia’s, of course, is the restaurant founded by Lidia Bastianich who also has a PBS program. You can find program details, cookbooks, Italian products, videos, restaurant locations, and recipes at her site

To see how Lidia’s favorite plants would fare in the Heartland terroir, Hogan ordered his heirloom seeds from a 229-year-old Italian seed company that now has a “branch” in the Heartland.  In 1783 (think George Washington), Giovanni Franchi started selling seeds from a cart in the market square of Parma, Italy. Today, the Franchi Sementi  ( Franchi “seeds” in Italian) is still family-owned by Giampero Franchi.

Their American outpost "Seeds from Italy" is now located near Lawrence, Kansas, and headed by Dan Nagengast, former director of the Kansas Rural Center and a longtime market gardener.
You can order seeds or a catalog at

Now, let’s visit Cody Hogan’s fabulous garden—and then we’ll eat!

A Tour of Lidia’s “Test Garden” in the Heartland

When he’s not at the restaurant, Cody Hogan grows heirloom Italian herbs, vegetables, and fruits in the backyard of his 1922 bungalow. “It’s sort of a test garden to see how they do in our climate before we ask local farmers to produce them for the restaurant,” he says.

 “It really captures that whole Italian thing: Eating foods that are fresh and being outside,” says Hogan, who has traveled often to Italy with Lidia Bastianich. “In Italy, you see all these gardens in little plots. Everyone grows stuff. It’s inspiring.”

Hogan and partner Peter Crump, created their own Midwestern garden that captures that alfresco spirit.

The garden is laid out in four central beds around a tall obelisk.

In the main beds, dark red Santa Rosa and yellow Shiro plums produce so much “that we have to support the tree until the squirrels arrive to clean house,” says Hogan.  From the fresh plums, Hogan likes to make jams and chutneys flavored with fresh ginger, or simply freeze plum puree to use later on.

Espaliered apple trees—Granny Smith, the antique Esopus Spitzenburg (one of Thomas Jefferson’s favorites), and Mutzu—create an edible border.

In the main four beds, Italian heirloom greens and herbs such as wild fennel, a sweet red radicchio, blood sorrel, and Herba Stella find their way into Hogan’s salads and risottos. “Italians have so many salad greens and herbs that most Americans have never heard of,” he says.

Under a shady pergola along the back wall, an Asian antique farm table provides the perfect setting for alfresco dining. A deep trough pond with water lilies, lotus, and brilliantly colored gold fish add more timeless pleasure.

Along the right side of the garden, Hogan and Crump have built terraced beds for serious vegetable growing:  Romanesco broccoli, heirloom zucchini, Zucca Rugosa (an heirloom butternut squash), Lacinato kale, turnips, beets, peas, and San Marzano Redorta tomatoes “that have the best flavor,” says Hogan. “I love the greens from beets as much as the beets,” he adds. A new asparagus bed sends up ferny shoots. The blue-green foliage of Brussels sprouts and cabbage adds yet another sculptural form to the garden.  Hogan waits to pick sprouts until after the first frost—“Plants produce more sugar when it gets cold, as sort of a natural anti-freeze,” he says.

During the growing months, all of this bounty translates into “instant meals,” he says, but the garden goes year ‘round. During the winter, Hogan and Crump start the seeds in their basement under grow lights.  Hogan might also cook in the living room fireplace (with its poured concrete surround by Crump), using garden goods he has preserved for a taste of “la dolce vita,” even on the coldest day. 

Now that we’ve gardened, it’s time to grill from our new book The Gardener and the Grill.

Italian Garden Recipes
Grilled Summer Slaw with Gorgonzola Vinaigrette
Adapted from The Gardener and the Grill by Karen Adler and Judith Fertig.
Grilled coleslaw? You bet! Grilled cabbage wedges acquire terrific flavor while retaining their crunchiness. Dress the coleslaw right before serving, as the dressing makes the cabbage wilt.
Place the onions perpendicular to the grill grates so they don’t fall through.
Serves 8 to 10

8 green onions, tops trimmed
1 medium head red cabbage, tough outer leaves removed, cut into 4 wedges
1 head Napa cabbage, tough outer leaves removed, cut into 4 wedges
Vegetable oil
8 ounces Gorgonzola blue cheese, crumbled & divided
2 garlic cloves, minced
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup cider vinegar
1 teaspoon celery seeds
1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
1. Prepare a hot fire in your grill.
2. Brush the green onions and cut sides of cabbage with oil. Grill the green onions on one side for 2 to 3 minutes and remove to a platter. Grill the wedges of cabbage for about 4 or 5 minutes on each cut-side, turning once (a total of 8 to 10 minutes) until they have good grill marks on both sides.
3. Finely chop the grilled cabbage and coarsely chop the green onions. Combine them in a large bowl. Let cool, then stir in half of the Gorgonzola. In another bowl, whisk together the garlic, vegetable oil, vinegar, celery seeds, salt, pepper and mustard. Add the remaining Gorgonzola and stir to blend. Pour the dressing over the cabbage mixture and toss to coat. Serve at once.

Grilled Pepper Boat “Sandwiches”
Adapted from The Gardener and the Grill by Karen Adler and Judith Fertig.
These open-faced, boat-shaped sandwiches—with a grilled bell pepper as “bread”—are a fresh, low carb take on the concept.
Serves 4

Herbed Cream Cheese:
8 ounces cream or vegan cream cheese, at room temperature
1 garlic clove, minced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
1 tablespoon snipped fresh chives

2 large yellow, orange, or red bell peppers, stemmed, seeded and quartered
Olive oil, for brushing and drizzling
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh yellow, orange, or red tomato
1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley
1. Prepare a medium-hot fire in your grill.
2. Place a well oiled perforated grill rack over direct heat.
3. Brush the skin side of each pepper with olive oil. Dollop a spoonful of Herbed Cream Cheese in each pepper boat. Transfer the boats to the perforated grill grate, cover, and grill until the bottoms are scorched and the cheese has melted, 4 to 5 minutes. Serve sprinkled with tomato and parsley and a drizzle of olive oil. Serve hot with a knife and fork.

Stir-Grilled Nectarines & Plums with Sweet Wine Drizzle
Adapted from The Gardener and the Grill by Karen Adler and Judith Fertig.
The colors in this dish are just gorgeous. If you like, serve this in stemmed wine glasses with a dollop of honeyed Greek yogurt.
Serves 4

2 nectarines, halved, seeded, and sliced
4 to 6 plums, halved, seeded, and sliced
Sweet Wine Drizzle
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup sweet wine, red or white
1. Prepare a hot fire in your grill.
2. Place the fruit in a perforated grill wok and set aside.
3. Heat the honey and stir in the wine. Keep warm.
4. Place the grill wok directly over the fire and toss the fruit with wooden paddles or grill spatulas until they are heated through and a bit charred about 6 to 8 minutes.
To serve, spoon fruit into 4 bowls and drizzle with the warm honey-wine mixture.

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