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Eric Nelson Plants a Garden of Flavor at Work


Eric Nelson's herb garden at Zachry.

Eric Nelson knows that the freshest herbs you can cook with are the ones you grow yourself.

Eric Nelson

So, the corporate executive chef for Zachry did what he needed to do to make his job easier: He put in a herb garden in an upraised bed just outside the home office on Logwood.

About two dozen herbs in all were planted, including five types of mint, four types of basil, three oreganos, Provençal lavender, onion chives, two varieties of thyme, two parsleys, two sages, lemon grass, a bay leaf tree, aloe vera and mint marigold.

Now, the herbs are a regular feature at the Crossing Cafe at Zachry, where six food stations offer gourmet treats to employees as well as guests.

The herbs are used as “décor on all catering tables, for buffets, in most all dishes served in the café and catering,” says Nelson. “We have a very wide variety that we can use in any shape or form.”

Nelson's Original Baja Fish Taco

Nelson puts his oregano to good use in his Original Baja Fish Tacos, which he demonstrated recently at the Pearl Farmers Market. The dish originated in California, where the chef grew up before heading to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., where he met his wife, Laura.

He found work in restaurants in La Jolla, Calif., Irving, Texas, and Beaver Creek, Colo., before the couple decided to come to Laura’s hometown of San Antonio in 1996. He became the executive sous chef at La Mansión del Rio under Scott Cohen before beginning to work at Zachry.

At the construction firm, Nelson overseas all of the company’s catering needs, whether in-house or at the company’s two off-premise ranches.

Eric and Laura Nelson serve fish tacos at the Pearl Farmers Market.

Nelson offers some advice for home gardeners who want to put in their own herb beds: “Make sure you have the right soil and proper drainage (rock and sand layers). Make sure it is the size you need, a little herbs go a long way.”

His garden at Zachry is “completely organic,” he says. To help keep the plants healthy, “we use mint marigolds to fend off the bugs (bugs do not like their smell) and nematodes, if you get grub worms.”

Planting an herb garden is not new at restaurants. Nelson had one when he worked at La Mansión. But the chef says he had an inspiration that dates back further: “I remember Bruce (Auden) from the old Biga had herbs growing all around the old house that he used in the restaurant. Sometimes when you drove by in the morning, he would be out there drinking his morning coffee, watering all his herbs.”

Now, most mornings you’re likely to find Nelson doing the same as he tends his own garden before the day’s work in the kitchen begins.

(Photographs provided by Eric Nelson.)

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Griffin to Go: Meeting One Goal, Keeping Up With Another


Last summer I made a goal. After seeing the movie “Julie & Julia,” I told myself I was going to cook my way through an entire section of a cookbook. The book I chose was the “Avoca Café Cookbook,” a treasured volume I had picked up in Ireland a few years ago, and the section was on soup. (Click here.)

It took several months and not a lot of discipline on my part, but I’m happy to report that the last new soup has been made and consumed – and it was as good as the best of the lot.

I learned as much about making soup as I learned about one kitchen’s approach to this labor of love. Quite a few of the recipes begin with softening an onion in olive oil, which provides a natural sweetness. A good vegetarian stock is added later and magically, the flavors blend together, changing with each ingredient.

But most of all, the recipes were simple and straightforward, not fussy yet full of flavor. If this is what Ireland treasures, then it shares something wonderful in common with that other “I” country in Europe: Italy. The emphasis is on layering a few fresh ingredients in a manner in which they all complement each other, so you can enjoy the best that nature has to offer.

Recipe: Cauliflower Cheddar Soup

It could be something as comforting as cauliflower and cheddar or something as offbeat as parsnip, rosemary and olives.

Along the way, I revisited some old favorites, such as Courgette and Almond, just to make sure they were as good as I remembered. I also was forced to revisit a few vegetables, such as turnips, that I didn’t care for as a child and have largely avoided as an adult. (I still don’t care for them, but soft baby turnips have a more pleasant flavor than their rock-hard adult cousins.)

Some of the journey was frustrating. I had had a stand of lemongrass in the backyard, but the ugliest of winter freezes took care of that. So I had to buy fresh lemongrass from the market for the Sweet Potato and Lemongrass soup. (I also didn’t have time to visit an Asian market, so I probably paid twice the price for the stalks I needed.)

Recipe: Courgette and Almond Soup

Most of the recipes were vegetarian, a few were even vegan. The lone exception was a Tuscan Bean Soup that required bacon in it. And what an impact that bacon had on the final product! After the first taste of the meat boiled into the broth, I could understand why a few – not all, mind you – of my vegan friends will have the occasional piece of pork. I will remember the richness and depth of flavor it brought to the soup and use that in other ways.

I made the most of these soups during the worst of the winter, when I had a seasonal job. To save money, I would bring a jar of soup each day and pop it in the microwave. The aroma of Potato and Fennel Soup or Aztec Corn would fill the break room and often drew questions from co-workers who wanted to know where I’d bought it.

The last recipe in the section was Mixed Mushroom, which I made with button caps, brown mushrooms and portobellos. Rich and creamy, it was a fine end to a most tasty experiment.

Recipe: Aztec Corn Soup

Another goal I wrote about recently was planting a garden so I could enjoy some freshness from my own backyard.

I’m happy to report that the radishes, lettuces and arugula I planted survived the snow/sleet/slush that fell several days after planting. It’s almost time to thin some of the sprouts, which will make a great addition to a salad.

In the meantime, the potted tomatoes are thriving. I know some friends who have planted theirs in the ground already. I’m not quite ready to do that, but I do have them clustered in near the backdoor so they can get some light.

Recipe: Mixed Mushroom Soup

I also planted a pair of olive trees I picked up at Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard. I planted the arbequina, which should survive our freak freezes and bear fruit in a few years. I would appreciate that. The loquat tree I planted eight years ago is only now ready to bear fruit, and I fear I lost some of this year’s potential harvest to the cold.

But that’s the nature of gardening, isn’t it? We never know what nature has in store for us, no matter the goals we set.

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Griffin to Go: Getting Dirty


When I was growing up, one of the last things I wanted to do was work in the garden.

For decades now, my parents have planted an annual garden, filled with lettuces, radishes, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, onions, garlic, corn, kohlrabi and the like, in addition to the fruit bushes laden with raspberries, red currants, strawberries, figs and more. Since I moved away, they have added apple, nectarine and pear trees, all of which can thrive in the Louisville, Ky., climate.

But the idea of digging up earth to plant seeds or, worse, to weed around the tender young shoots was, as a city kid, my idea of torture. I loved the food, mind you, especially those white icicle radishes with their lively bite and the salads made of oak leaf lettuce; I just never wanted to have to work for it.

I certainly didn’t want to get my hands filthy from all that mud. Who knew was crawling in all that dirt! I was never one to play with earthworms or bugs beyond the lightning bugs that sparkled each summer evening.

Times change, and people change.

Over the past few years, I have been planting more and more herbs in pots. Basil, thyme, sorrel, rosemary, chives, lovage – you name it. Last year, I added peppers and tomatoes to the mix, but everything was largely in pots. Why?

Pots are easy. If a plant dies, you just pull it out of the dirt and start all over.

And many of my plants don’t make it. Friends claim I have a black thumb. I prefer to think of myself as a Darwinian farmer. I’ve taken the time to plant the plant, but if it doesn’t survive on its own, then that the plant’s fault.

Last year, I began to change my mind. I was going figure out ways to make my plants healthier. I gave them compost plus rich soil that worked into the clay. I also learned when to water many of them. Some, like the sorrel, got water sometimes twice a day in the nasty heat; others got water every other day.

The recent deep freezes took a few of the herbs, including the thyme, the basil and mostly likely the lemon grass. But others, including the mint, are already starting to come back.

Yet I want to go further.

This weekend, I dug up a chunk of my backyard and dug in both hands to work through some of the muddy clumps. I rejoiced in the sight of all the worms and crawly things in the rich soil under the layer of grass that died in last year’s scorching heat. Digging up the soil didn’t break my back and I was finished a lot quicker than I thought I would be. Of course, my MP3 player helped.

Planting seeds has changed somewhat since I was a kid. Ferry-Morse seed company now offers something called planting strips. Forgive me if I am as out-of-date on these things as George H.W. Bush was when he first encountered a bar code scanner, but I had no idea you could by seeds already spaced out and placed inside a strip. Simply plant the strip in the soil as deep as the package says and wait. The lettuce strips should sprout within seven to 10 days, the package promises.

But I didn’t stop there.

I had to plant some old-fashioned seeds, which were for arugula and radishes, the latter of which remains a favorite food and one that is better when just picked.

I also picked up some tomato plants, not to plant in the soil but to do something the Bexar County Master Gardener Hotline calls “potting up.”

“Do you believe homegrown tomatoes are superior to store bought?” David Rodriguez, Texas Agrilife Extension service horticulturist for the county, writes in a handout I picked up at the stock show recently. “If so, February is the time for you to ‘pot up’ your spring tomatoes.”

What is this exactly? “Planting tomato transplants into containers to take advantage of growth and still be able to protect them from cold weather,” Rodriguez explains. “Until mid-March or the first of April when the weather stabilizes enough to place the transplants in the vegetable garden or plant them in large containers with a 16- to 20-inch diameter.” (Think of the forecast that it will drop below freezing on Tuesday.)

For more information on potting up or starting your own garden, call the Master Gardener Hotline at (210) 467-6575 or click here. And don’t be as silly as I was all these years. Yes, I now have a speck or two of dirt under my nails, but that will disappear with the help of a nail file. But it’s worth price to get my own fresh vegetables.

Get your kids involved, too. They may not thank you now, but they should eventually.

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Dinner from your garden


Sauted vegetables.

Sauteed vegetables.

This year our garden took on an extra dimension of usefulness. Usually, it is composed of herbs, flowers and xeriscape shrubs, surrounded by grass that is lush or less-than-lush, depending upon the rainfall.

This year we put in vegetables. Maybe it was a reaction to being suddenly underemployed, like many others around the country. Or, maybe it was because we had more time to enjoy  in the garden. I like to think it was the latter.

As for the results, so far, let’s just say we’re still in ramp-up phase (kind of like our fab new Web site).

Saturday night, though, we went outside and picked tomatoes, squash and fresh herbs, which we added to some heirloom tomatoes and more squash a friend donated from her garden. The resulting dish was colorful, very healthful and served magnificently as a side to seared burgers and pasta tossed in olive oil and garlic.

There isn’t a recipe here, as such. Just follow these simple tips for a great vegetable saute – even if the garden is just producing odds and ends at the moment.

  • Vegetables you can slice, dice, and just throw into a sauté pan with olive oil include any kind of tomato (even a green tomato, and especially grape or cherry tomatoes).
  • Garlic. Onions. These may not be growing in the garden but they’re always inexpensive at the store. Keep them handy.
  • Some vegetables might need to be blanched, or even par-boiled before being tossed into the saute pan. Green beans are one example — unless you are one of those who really like crisp, not-too-cooked green beans.  You know who you are.
  • Back to the olive oil. I generally don’t put in just a spoonful or so of olive oil. The flavor is beautiful and a little more fat, even a tablespoon or two, won’t hurt. It’s a good fat.
  • How to season: salt and pepper are always good. Try some fresh or crumbled dry oregano, savory, a small pinch of marjoram and an even smaller pinch of rosemary. With these latter herbs, a subtle hint is far better than an overwhelming dose. Chopped parsley adds a fresh dash of green. Sautééed mushrooms are never a bad thing.

Finally, don’t overcook these ingredients, fresh off the plant. Some things, like cherry or grape tomatoes, need only to be tossed around the pan over a medium-high heat until some of the skins burst. Perfect as a side, perfect as the “sauce” for grilled salmon or pan-fried trout. What could be easier, or speak more eloquently of summer?

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