Miriam's Garden: Paying a visit to Michelle Obama's garden


This week, as I watch more tomatoes finally turn from green to red and new sprouts of radishes and turnips spring up in my garden, I am reporting on the state of another garden: First lady Michelle Obama's Kitchen Garden, planted on the South Lawn of the White House. The first White House vegetable garden since Eleanor Roosevelt's Victory Garden (except for a pot or two of tomatoes and a plot of herbs), it's a living, breathing, bee-supporting, vegetable-producing garden.

And don't tell anyone, but it's also got fruit. There's even a papaya tree -- small, but it bore fruit -- and an everbearing Tri-Star strawberry patch, with nothing much ripe as I peaked under the leaves, and nearby, some fabulous raspberry bushes. I snagged a handful of berries as our group, the Association of Food Journalists, got a private tour of the garden earlier this month.

In the garden, I did not meet Mrs. Obama nor get a sniff from the first dog, Bo, but we did have two gracious hosts: White House executive chef Cristeta Comerford, who joined us in comfy jeans and sneakers, and executive pastry chef Bill Yosses, in a sparkling white chef's jacket.

It was amazing. And I nearly didn't get in. I was pulled out of the group and held back for rechecking, re-clearing and further screening. Did they know I was after the berries?

The garden is a pristine showplace, but also a real, working, down-and-dirty piece of land. Because it's a learning place, many plants are first started in a greenhouse, and put into plots once they have some size, to avoid empty beds and keep it tidy. Plants are pollinated by the bees from an adjacent hive. The 175 pounds of honey just harvested this year was used to brew three types of beer: honey porter, honey blond and honey ale.

What's grown in the garden guides what is cooked in the White House kitchens, driving the menus, reminding chefs what's in season. The garden is not merely symbolic. "We use it!" we were told repeatedly. "We let nature dictate what should be cooked," said Chef Yosses.

The first family eats from the garden (just not the beets). They also eat leftovers. And one-third of the garden's harvest is donated to Miriam's Kitchen, an organization feeding D.C.'s hungry and homeless.

Most often, kids are the lucky ones hanging in the White House garden, creating "wonderful, jubilant chaos." It's garden as classroom. Kids plant, harvest and sometimes they cook, while learning about the power of vegetables and how they grow.

When I noticed in one bed some overgrown cucumbers, which I did not attempt to pick, Chef Comerford explained they were being left so school kids could see what pickles looked like on the vine. She had to leave early to fetch her daughter, a gymnast, from a sports event, but many of us were thrilled to have a picture taken with her, the first woman and first minority to hold the job of executive White House chef.

As we entered the garden, across from the tall, stacked beehive, we saw first a screen of Hyacinth bean vines, sprays of violet flowers reaching upwards. Nearby was an artichoke that had been in full bloom a couple weeks back. There were fat, striped watermelons and neon orange pumpkins that had ripened early in the summer heat and rolled out of their beds onto the lush, green lawn. Soft breezes, blue skies and a stark-white White House, looking like a movie set.

The garden is planted in raised beds, separated by paths. There were healthy, mature plantings of basil and lemon verbena, Chef Yosses' favorite herb. He grinds their leaves in a food processor with lemon juice and sugar to make a lemony sort of pesto, for a dessert sauce.

On the we-were-allowed-to-pick list were Sungold cherry tomatoes -- the vines encased in deer netting. Squinting in the blazing sun, I reached up and grabbed a few. These were perfect, sweet and tart. They were the only tomatoes in the garden because, as Chef Yosses explained, they have a problem with blight. I guess they leave it to others to grow tomatoes.

A portion of the garden is devoted to plants grown in Thomas Jefferson's garden at Monticello. Jefferson had plans for a White House garden, but never completed the project. The seeds for many heritage vegetables come from his gardens.

A revolving team of White House staffers volunteer to dig and weed each Tuesday. It's a popular gig.

A couple of us offered to sign up, but I guess you have to work at the White House. Besides, I have plenty of weeds at my house to deal with.

The book on the White House garden

Mrs. Obama's garden is chronicled in her new book, "American Grown: The Story of The White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America." The book contains plans for the four-season garden, along with gorgeous garden pictures and shots of kids helping to plant. There are chef's recipes, stories from growers and profiles of community and schoolyard gardens. The emphasis of the White House garden is to teach children where food comes from, and to inspire them to eat healthfully. This dovetails with the first lady's "Let's Move!" exercise program to combat childhood obesity.

Soon after the Obamas moved into the White House, Mrs. Obama informed her team that she wanted healthy food -- and told them that next week, we're building a garden. She wanted the garden to "begin a conversation about the food we eat, the lives we lead, and how all of that affects our children."

The first garden workers, "The Littlest Gardeners," were fifth-graders from Bancroft Elementary School in Washington, D.C. They helped plant the first seedlings on April 9, 2009.

The book is so inspirational you may wish to don your own pair of green gardening gloves (a gift to the first lady from the President) and get out in the dirt.

As Mrs. Obama writes: "Gardening isn't about perfection ... with a little ingenuity and imagination -- and a whole lot of effort -- you can achieve something you never thought possible."

Green Beans with Almonds

PG tested

Chef Comerford suggests using any almonds you have on hand for this dish. Beans were not a success in my garden this year, so I "borrowed" some from my neighbor Frank. He had to plant them three times, because hungry rabbits kept mowing them down. The rabbits finally moved on to someone else's garden, so he and I picked a bunch one evening.

  • 1 1/2 pounds fresh green beans, washed and trimmed
  • 1 cup slivered almonds
  • 1 teaspoon melted butter
  • 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
  • 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 2 shallots (or a small red onion or regular onion), minced, about 1/4 cup
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf (or curly) parsley
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Bring a large, covered pot of salted water to boil. Cook beans for about 5 minutes, until tender. Drain and place in large bowl of ice water to cool quickly. Drain again.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. On rimmed baking sheet lined with foil, toss almonds with melted butter and paprika. Spread in single layer. Bake 7 minutes, until fragrant and lightly browned but not burned. Remove from oven.

In large skillet, warm olive oil and butter over medium heat. Add shallots and cook 2 to 3 minutes, until tender. Add beans and cook, tossing, until heated. Remove from heat; add parsley and salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to serving dish; garnish with almonds.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

-- Adapted from "American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America" by Michelle Obama (Crown, 2012, $30).

Buttermilk Blueberry Bundt Cake

PG tested

Pastry Chef Bill Yosses writes: "The blueberries make purple spots throughout the cake and the acidity of the buttermilk contributes to the fine texture of the crumb. If the birds eat all of your blueberries too, you can make this cake with other summer fruits like raspberries, blackberries or peaches."

  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing pan
  • 22/3 cups all-purpose flour, spooned into cups and leveled off
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine table salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
  • 4 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 2 pints (4 cups) blueberries, washed and dried (I used 3 cups blueberries and 1 cup raspberries, frozen and un-thawed)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 5-quart Bundt pan; dust pan with flour, tapping out excess.

Sift flour, baking powder, salt and baking soda into medium bowl. With standing mixer fitted with paddle, beat butter and sugar until fluffy and soft. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each. Add vanilla; beat to combine. On low speed, add flour mixture and buttermilk alternately to butter. Scrape sides between additions.

By hand, gently fold in berries. Scrape batter into prepared pan.

Bake 55 minutes, or until toothpick inserted near center of cake comes out clean. Cool cake in pan at least 20 minutes. Turn out onto rack to cool completely.

Makes 10 to 12 servings.

-- Adapted from "American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America" by Michelle Obama

Miriam Rubin: mmmrubin@gmail.com. First Published September 20, 2012 4:00 AM


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