PHOTOGRAPHY BY Valerie Rice and Evan Janke
California native and popular blogger Valerie Rice recently shared her many passions with Peachy. She finds joy in a simple formula: eat, drink, garden—and have fun while you’re at it. In our conversation with her and on her blog, eat-drink-garden, Valerie divulges her best tips, recipes and recommendations gathered from her own table, including her love for outdoor dining and entertaining. She also reveals her passion for Santa Barbara and its abundance of produce, flowers and other wonderful offerings at local stores and farmers’ markets.
When and how did you decide to start your blog?
I’ve been an enthusiastic home chef since I was kid. Enthusiasm turned to passion (in more ways than one!) when I met my husband who is a wine enthusiast. That was when I truly learned about selecting the right ingredients—how to edit and allow the natural flavors to shine. You never want to overpower the wine and you always want to showcase the beautiful, seasonal flavors of the garden. In our first home I planted a garden, got serious in the kitchen and suddenly everything fell into place on the plate. We entertain often; it’s my favorite hobby! Friends wanted information about about my recipes, where I found that cheese, the trick to getting my kids to eat broccoli and radishes or how I pulled the table together (the garden informs not only what we eat but how I decorate the table, too). I launched eat-drink-garden in late summer 2009. What started as a way for me to share information with friends about what to do with all that zucchini you harvest and what wine to pair with spicy food has blossomed into a blog community that reaches way beyond Santa Barbara.
Is there someone who has influenced your cooking and gardening?
My mother is Belgian, so as a child I was lucky enough to travel and eat my way through Europe in the summers with my family. My grandmother was a wonderful inspiration. She had an abundant vegetable garden behind her house in her tiny village. I remember pulling carrots, picking bush beans and turning the most delicious red currants into jam for our breakfast toast. For an Orange County girl who had only gotten vegetables from the local Ralphs, this was a total culture shock and the start of my garden love affair. Remembering summers with my grandmother, I was inspired to plant a garden in our backyard. The garden changed the way we ate as a family and my approach to cooking and entertaining. We are lucky to live in a climate where we can grow a year-round garden. Santa Barbara is an embarrassment of riches; we’re lucky to have an abundance of wonderful offerings at our local stores and farmers’ markets. My favorite way to spend a Saturday morning is to stroll through the market with my kids. I glean a ton of information about how to grow and prepare from our local farmers. They’re an inspiration and a great resource. Also, I have a wonderful garden consultant, Pat Omweg, who offers a wealth of information for my roses and veggies. We talk for hours considering all the different ways we can improve the quality and production of the garden. It’s nice to have such a knowledgeable sounding board.
You said that when you moved into your house you put the dining room table on the loggia. Do you entertain there frequently?
Santa Barbara allows us the luxury of enjoying our outdoor spaces nearly year-round. In our old house we had a formal dining room that never got used. The chairs were huge and the table was big—the experience felt formal and stuffy, not really my style. When we saw the loggia of the new house we thought, it’s a perfect place for our old dining room table, why not? We traded out for some wicker chairs that felt more modern and fun. Now, it’s our favorite place to eat whether it’s a family meal, friends over for brunch or Thanksgiving dinner. Our dinner parties are never elaborate or fussy; it’s all about putting quality ingredients together in a simple, casual way that still feels special. I love hosting outside! There’s something about the candlelight and fresh air that gives a little magic to the night.
If your produce doesn’t come out of your yard, where are your favorite places to shop?
We are lucky to have so many wonderful spots in town to buy beautiful produce. The Saturday farmers’ market downtown is such a treat and I’m a perpetual over buyer—I can’t resist! Tri County Produce and Mesa Produce have a lot of quality and special garden produce, and of course Whole Foods.
We saw many chicken coops in Santa Barbara. What are your favorites?
I’m obsessed with chicken coops! I’m always on Pinterest finding new designs to add to my garden board. Right now, my favorite is mine! It was a labor of love. It’s crazy how much I love those chickens. They took the place of that third baby.
What is your favorite place to buy seedlings?
Island Seed and Feed is a great local resource. The staff is knowledgeable, plus they start just about any seedling for you. I don’t have a greenhouse, so I usually pick organic seeds and have them start them for me. I get all of my chicken feed there, too.
If you aren’t cooking, where do you like to go for food and wine?
I love to have little nibbles and a glass of Champagne with my husband at Les Marchands—great wine list and fun atmosphere in the Funk Zone. Paradise Cafe for salmon and fries hits the spot on the weekend with the kids. If we are staying close to home in Montecito: sushi at Sakana, and pasta at Trattoria Mollie.
What is your favorite fruit or vegetable in your garden?
It’s usually whatever is just ready to be harvested. The beauty of having a garden is watching the beautiful plants morph from flower into fruit. It’s a bit like a relationship—investing time, admiration, giving it attention…once the fruit is edible you’ve already made a commitment and then you get to ravage it. Currently, we’re harvesting mulberries, lemon cucumbers, tomatoes of all sorts, corn, peppers, peaches, blueberries, raspberries and eggplant.
Where do you see your blog going in the future?
I never could have imagined all that has happened thus far, but I’m excited to keep going. It keeps me trying new things and to hear back from readers how much they loved a recipe, sharing about their own gardens or how it pushed them to try something new is incredible.
Do you have any beauty tips for gardeners?
A garden requires patience and careful planning—and honestly, those traits don’t come naturally. I tend to design my garden spaces around colors that I love and sun exposure. In order to make plants thrive, they need great soil, proper sun exposure and the help of good mulch. Mulch is a multitasker: it works to keep the soil moist (needed in our current drought condition), discourages weeds and gives the garden a fresh and tidy look. It’s like a slipping on a new designer shoe with an old navy dress—it elevates the whole look. My favorite areas of the garden are those that are planted in large groupings. A lone tree circled by French lavender or a birdbath hidden in the softness of abundant salvia. I tend to plant in large groupings for maximum effect. Just pick one flower or plant you love, in one color (step away from those multi-packs!) and go for it. The end result is bold, bright and beautiful.
What is something people don’t know about you?
I played on the boys’ golf team in high school so I had to hit from the blue tees with the boys. For being a little shorty (5’1″), I can hit that golf ball a country mile.
Tell us about the baby shower garden party that you pulled together recently.
I was excited to put this shower together for Sarah, a dear friend since college. For inspiration, I asked about her nursery colors and let those, and the season, be my guide for the food and flowers for a garden lunch. I think a baby shower is about showing your support and love for that friend and future little one. It’s a chance to make the mom feel celebrated, supported and special. It doesn’t need to be an overly elaborate, theme-drenched, game-playing event. Some thoughtful, pretty touches are all it takes to create a beautiful day.
Two simple and seasonal appetizers were served for our 12 guests—a simple crudités platter with green goddess dressing and one passed appetizer of gluten free crackers with Bellwether ricotta, grilled peaches, fresh mint and a dusting of za’atar.[schema type=”recipe” name=”CRUDITÉS WITH GREEN GODDESS DRESSING” image=”http://peachythemagazine.com/peachy/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/shower04.jpg” instructions=”Making your platter pretty: Prep your veggies by cleaning them well with cool water (I use a scrub brush). After cleaning, dry well and slice with a sharp knife into bite-sized pieces. I like to keep about two inches of stem intact on my carrots, turnips and radishes for easy dipping—think of it as a little handle. If you’re dealing with larger produce, slice it in half but still keep that stem on for dipping. Once the veggies are prepped, my favorite method is to mound each vegetable up on a platter all together in blocks of colors like a color wheel. For example, to make a pretty mound of carrots I hold a bunch of carrots in my hand, all going in the same direction, then literally drop them onto the dish, allowing them to land naturally—if they get too scattered squish them together to create a heap on the plate. I’ll repeat the same method for the other vegetables in the wheel. This creates symmetry, but also gives the platter a little personality and an organic feel. You don’t want them to be too perfect, you want it to feel like a fresh from-the-garden bounty.” ] [schema type=”recipe” name=”GREEN GODDESS DRESSING” ingrt_1=”2 cups basil” ingrt_2=”1 cup flat leaf parsley ” ingrt_3=”1 cup cilantro” ingrt_4=”1 cup peppermint” ingrt_5=”4 white anchovy filets” ingrt_6=”1/4 cup Greek yogurt” ingrt_7=”1/4 cup mayo” ingrt_8=”1/2 Meyer lemon, juiced (regular lemon is fine)” ingrt_9=”1/4 cup white wine vinegar” ingrt_10=”1 teaspoon cracked pepper” ingrt_11=”2 teaspoons kosher salt” ingrt_12=”1/2 to 3/4 cup olive oil” instructions=”This bright beauty is zesty, herbaceous and such a treat. Rarely do I see it on menus in restaurants, but I make it often at home, especially when my basil is flourishing in the garden. It’s forgiving; it won’t be spoiled by substitutions (but please don’t skip the anchovies!). It works well as a dip for veggies, dressing on crispy greens or in place of mayo on a sandwich. However you add it to your culinary repertoire, sit back and watch your guests light up when they sample your latest garden creation with zeal. Throw everything except the olive oil in a blender and mix until totally incorporated. Slowly add oil until you get your desired consistency. For dip, I like it a little thicker than dressing. It can be made up to a day in advance. ” ]
Find Valerie’s blog at Eat Drink Garden with Valerie Rice.