La Casita de Buen Sabor
By Lucinda Hutson
Photography by John Pozdro

“As is the gardener, so is the garden,” say the old-timers.

What would they think of my gardens? I live in a bright-purple bungalow surrounded by “garden rooms”—each with its own theme, a setting for every type of mood and all kinds of entertainment.

My small lot includes an old-fashioned cottage garden, a tropical, mermaid fish-pond grotto, a Mexican courtyard with bathtub shrine and south-of-the-border treasures, a kitchen garden full of aromatic herbs, a deck for fiestas and salsa dancing, and even a tequila cantina with an outside shower (for unruly guests?). Brightly colored walls, mosaics and folk art highlight each area; herbs and edibles, annuals and perennials, exotic flowers, towering vines, window boxes and containers vie to outshine each other.

If I let it, my garden would overtake the neighborhood. Sometimes I envy gardeners with plenty of space, who meticulously tend their plants in tidy rows.

I imagine they’re orderly cooks, too. Unlike me, they probably measure exactly, clean up as they work, follow recipes verbatim and organize ingredients in little bowls before assembling the recipe, as seen on television food channels.

As is the kitchen, so is the cook! I’m of the chaotic culinary school, conjuring up recipes on the spot. I grab what’s on hand from my eclectic collection of vinegars, oils and condiments, throw handfuls of dried spices and chiles into my spice grinder, or make a quick jaunt to the garden for fresh herbs to mince. And yes, I make a mess! My kitchen looks like an untended garden, with tools and tangled hoses and spilled sacks of soil—but the flavor from this madness? Yum! I embrace versatility, improvisation and curiosity in the kitchen and garden, and encourage you to do the same.

But flavor encompasses more than seasoning and taste. Flavor is lifestyle! Flavor is personality! Flavor is a fiesta for the mouth. It may be as complex as Thai curry, redolent of garlic, chiles, ginger and coriander, perfumed with lemongrass and Kaffir lime—or as simple as pan-seared halibut topped with chopped heirloom tomatoes and a chiffonade of “Bright Lights” chard.

Flavor also defines my personal taste. Some call my home a veritable folk art museum, a treasure trove filled with decades of memorabilia acquired from travels, family and friends. I’ve combined elements from my collections the same way I mix exotic ingredients in a recipe. The ultimate presentation is as colorful and festive as an exquisitely garnished platter. This visual feast includes mermaids and saints, art and antiques, textiles and carvings, pottery made lovingly by friends, and my grandmother’s purple dishes. Like the distinct settings in my garden, each room of my home expresses an aspect of my personality.

My kitchen pays homage to Mexico, its ripe-mango-colored walls adorned with strands of dried red chiles and garlic. Displayed in haphazard harmony on open shelves are my vast array of cookbooks and condiments, gaily painted Oaxacan clay figurines, cactus-stemmed margarita glasses, festive talavera platters, and an antique tortilla press and metate.

Now you know my taste. What is yours? Your ideal kitchen might be a minimalist space with earthy tones and no clutter. To each his own flavor. In columns to come, I’ll share insights and information about flavor—in the kitchen and in the garden—with hints to incorporate new taste into your life throughout the seasons. I should tell you that I often shop without a list, wandering through grocery aisles, farmers’ markets, and ethnic stores, selecting what’s seasonal, beautiful and enticing—and only then deciding what to prepare.

I do the same in my garden, picking what’s on hand and then creating a recipe. This is especially rewarding in autumn—the time to preserve the harvest by making herb vinegars, butters, pestos and dried herb-and-spice blends. (Many of these recipes can be found in my book The Herb Garden Cookbook.)

May you share with others your own distinctive flavor! After all, flavor is what makes a recipe unique, it’s a loving collaboration of heart and mind and memory, a gift to delight and one with which to nurture yourself and others.

 

MEXICAN MINT MARIGOLD (YERBANÍS)This herb is sometimes called “Texas tarragon,” but it has a much more pronounced anise flavor than French tarragon. Its leaves are more versatile, able to flavor both sweet and savory dishes, from wild game to apple pie. This hardy perennial produces small, vivid, golden marigold-like flowers in the fall, perfect for garnishing salads, salsas and pasta.

One of my most memorable Thanksgiving meals occurred in Capula, Michoacán, a humble Mexican village renowned for glazed pottery bean pots and Day of the Dead skeletal figurines. A bright-yellow bouquet of mint marigold flowers filled a clay bean pot adorning the table’s red-patterned oilcloth. Villagers stood in line for an ear of corn boiled for hours over an open fire, flavored only with a handful of yerbanís. We passed around a bowl of salt and a bottle of fiery red salsa for extra seasoning. Corn and camaraderie, laughter and lusty ranchera music blaring in the background delighted us until dark...

CORN WITH MEXICAN MINT MARIGOLD BUTTER