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Flavor your spring

by Sheridan Lane, director, culinary program and operations, Lincoln Land Community College

Here is a shout-out to all of my garden-to-kitchen rummagers! Have you already gotten the itch to get going on your garden? Good for you if your answer is, “Yes!”, and even better for you if you have already created a plan and started the seedlings. Thankfully a colleague of mine was kind enough to pass along this public service announcement as the start of spring just flew right by this year.  

While “garden-to-kitchen rummagers” just doesn’t have the same panache as the colloquial “farm-to-table” phrase leading us to great kitchens full of local food, the notion should be just as celebrated. Likewise, the planning can be just as thoughtful. 

Thoughtfulness starts like any good plan does — evaluating what went well and what could be tweaked or improved. For me, that is considering the precious time that went into drying, canning and freezing last year’s bounty against what ingredients are still on the shelves or in the freezer. The last thing I want to do is spend time planting, caring for and watering my garden, and then spend even more time preserving the literal fruit of my labor, if my family is not going to use it up!  

Last summer I took it easy on myself as I knew that caring for the garden I wanted to plan was not going to be possible (babies and weddings take all of the free time). But this year I am super excited about reviving one of my favorite garden-to-dining-room-table practices — flavor bases. Sure, I love to cook down tomatoes to be used in many ways from homemade bolognaise to bloody mary bases, but my absolute, most used garden-to-kitchen creations are the spice blend cups that, for me, go straight from the freezer to the pot.  

I apply the concept of using sofrito as a base for soups, braises, marinades, etc., and apply it to a host of other flavor combinations. Sofrito is a puree of garlic, peppers, onions, tomatoes and spices, and is commonly used as the starter for all sorts of dishes from the Mediterranean to Latin America. 

If you remove the cilantro/culantro from sofrito and add oregano, basil, rosemary and thyme, then you have a great base for many Italian inspired dishes from lasagna to risotto. Make pesto minus the nuts, and you have garlicy basil puree, which is great to use in a simple vinaigrette for pasta salad. Take out the Italian spices and add spicy peppers, ground lemongrass and fresh ginger, and it becomes a delicious starter for a stir-fry or to be stirred into rice. 

After making a host of these purees, I pour them into two-ounce portion cups with lids and freeze them. Better than disposable portion cups would be to freeze them in ice cube trays, and once frozen, pop them out into labeled plastic freezer bags so that they can be used by the cube.  

Here is a list of my tips for making the most usable and quickly enjoyable flavor bases:

  1. Cook down the fruits and/or vegetables first, and then run them through a food mill to remove pithy, bitter skins and seeds. Tomatoes and peppers of all kinds should be treated this way.  
  2. Now that you have the pureed parts, add your fresh herbs, fresh garlic cloves and olive oil, and puree again. Then distribute the purees into your freezing method of choice. Make sure you label!
  3. When using these spice blends straight from the freezer, don’t forget to start them on medium to low heat as they melt/sauté in the pan and you do not want to burn the fresh garlic that may be in them.
  4. The final step is probably the most important! Make a plan to grow all of the ingredients you want to use in those flavor bases, and get going! Cold weather seeds can go in the ground, and there is still a little time to start plants from seeds. If seeds are for the birds, many local greenhouses are likely opening up this week so happy gardening-to-kitchen planning.  

Happy spring gardening everyone!


Lincoln Land Community College offers credit programs in Culinary Arts, Hospitality Management and Baking/Pastry, and non-credit cooking and food classes through LLCC Community Education.

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