Gesprekken en gerechten, Smoked cod for Jeff Minnich

This is the first in my new series of interviews and recipes. I start my sequel with Jeff Minnich from Arlington, USA. I happened to meet him through the blog of American writer Frances Mayes. We are both ardent readers of her books and blog. I invited him to join my series of “gesprekken en gerechten” Jeff is a garden designer and a poetical blogwriter. He has many talents. But, who am I to tell his story?  Thus, I sent him through mail some questions, which he gladly answered. Ofcourse my part of the deal is creating a recipe. As Jeff is living in the Mid Atlantic, I suggest a smoked cod, Dutch stirfried vegetables and a sauce hollandaise. The fun of this recipe is that it can be made at home or as in Jeffs case “al fresco”. My wine suggestion is a crisp white chardonnay wine from Burgundy, Mâcon region.

 foto: Jeff Minnich

Who is Jeff Minnich? Tell me some more.
I am landscape designer, horticulturist, gardener, reader, writer, cook, veterans advocate, partnered. I dabble in interior design; I don’t have any formal interior design training, but I love experimenting and learning. One thing I’ve come to know is that design is design—in other words, the principles are the same, no matter what kind of art you do.
I have a Bachelor of Science degree in Horticulture from Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA, here in the U.S. I specialized in landscape design and nursery management. I have minors in English and business, also. I use every bit of what I’ve learned, and I’m still learning, every day. I have my own landscape design/build business in Arlington, VA, which is in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area. Most of my work is in the immediate Washington area, though I do some work outside the area from time to time.
My partner, Steve, is a fireman in Wilmington, North Carolina, which is on the Atlantic coast in the far, southeast corner of North Carolina, almost to the South Carolina border. It’s very mild there. Palm trees and Live Oaks, draped in Spanish moss, grow all over there. The Live Oak is a beautiful, evergreen Oak that grows twice as wide as tall—very majestic. Spanish moss is an epiphyte—it lives on its own, yet uses the oak (and other trees) for support. It is gray and hangs off the trees in long strands–very mysterious and beautiful. The warmer climate allows me to grow lots of subtropical plants I can’t grow in Arlington which is fun for both of us. One of the many things Steve and I have in common is our love of gardening, which we do together, often. We have a special place in our hearts for military veterans, also, and especially for those who were injured in combat physically and/or mentally. We try to help where we can.
In Arlington, I live in a little cottage (which is called Woodland Cottage) built on a hillside, surrounded by old trees. It’s magical. My garden is a place for good, hard, physical work, beauty, relaxation and spiritual uplifting. I love to share it with all who want to visit.
I write a fair amount—mostly newspaper and magazine articles. I have a blog, also, and I try to write in it once a week or so. It’s been fun and I’ve met many new friends. As I get older, and the physical work becomes more difficult (it isn’t so much yet), I’d like to do more and more writing and less of the landscape design/installation work. This Winter and throughout the coming year, for instance, I’ve agreed to write several articles for a newspaper and magazine here in Wilmington. It’s good Winter work and keeps my mind nice and sharp.
Steve and I love Savannah, Georgia, and travel there several times a year. The climate is wonderful. We’ve thought we might want to retire down that way sometime in the not-too-distant future, buy a bit of land and start a little Palm nursery, grow our own vegetables, get back to the land. I think we’d be very content with that set-up.
When did your attraction to gardening start?
I’ve wanted to garden for as long as I can remember. I grew up in Alexandria, Virginia (right outside Washington, DC, also). We had an elderly neighbor who was an old family friend—in fact, our families go back together many years. They are really like family. Anyway, this neighbor, Marguerite, was a wonderful gardener and decided to help me plant my first, little garden on the back of our property. I grew vegetables, mainly, and a few flowers. Gradually, I took over the maintenance of the entire yard at our house (about ¾ of an acre), though I did share the grass cutting with my younger brother. Additionally, my maternal grandparents and my paternal grandfather were great gardeners, and I worked and learned from them, as well. They were “old school” gardeners and gardened by wisdom passed down through the generations—using few chemicals, planting/harvesting by the moon, keen observance of the seasons. Actually, all of this “old school” gardening is coming back into fashion now, as we all look for ways to preserve our environment.
I’ve had many other wonderful teachers throughout my life and I’ve learned much from them.
Currently you are a garden designer and owner of a garden design company. When did you start these activities?
I started my company, Jeff Minnich Garden Design, Inc., in 1997. Here’s a link to the website:www.minnichgardendesign.com It’s been an incredible amount of work, yet extremely rewarding. I absolutely love making order out of chaos, and that’s my job. I try to get inside my clients’ heads and figure out the best type of garden for each of them. It’s so interesting to see how many people evolve through the process. At the beginning, they say what they think they want in a garden…many times, after careful consideration, they find out what they actually want is much different. Fascinating, this metamorphosis. Many become wonderful gardeners, when previously they were not gardeners, and I think they are more surprised that I am.
Prior to 1997, I worked for 15 years as a landscape designer at a large landscape company/nursery/garden center in Northern Virginia. I’ve worked in florists, greenhouses (both retail and wholesale), nurseries…come to think of it, I’ve worked my tail off most of my working life! And loved almost every minute of it. Working with plants is the only work I’ve ever had, and I’ve been doing it since I was 5 years old, and professionally for over 30 years now.
What is your favorite type of garden?
My favorite type of garden is an eclectic one–evergreen (mostly broadleaf), textured, layered, very green, very dense; simple from a distance and more complex close-up. I love a garden that is private. A garden that appeals to all the senses. I would say a woodland, shady garden is my favorite—they are much more subtle, softer, with an emphasis on the textures and colors of the foliage versus the flowers.
Which plant do you like the most and which one do you dislike?
I love Palms, specifically the hardier species. When I look at them, I feel warm, even if the air is cold (as you may have discerned, I am not a lover of cold weather!!).
I really do love all plants, so it is hard for me to pick one I dislike. I would have to say I am not a big fan of Barberries (Berberis is the genus), specifically the deciduous types. While they have many wonderful attributes, particularly for Northern climates, I find them difficult to work around because of the monstrous amount of thorns.
You’ve travelled a lot to see gardens in the U.S. and worldwide—tell me about your favorite garden.
I find it hard to choose one, but since I must, I’d say Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC. It was designed by Beatrix Farrand, a niece of the writer Edith Wharton, and the first woman in the world to become a landscape architect. Dumbarton’s garden is a series of very different garden rooms and each provokes a different mood. I particularly love to sit on a beautiful bench in a very, very simple garden “room” surrounded by clipped Yews. It’s quiet and peaceful.
I’ve admired many, many other gardens around the world, but these stand out without thinking about it too much: the Oak allee at Oak Alley in Louisiana; a magnificent, Bougainvillea-covered, modern arbor in a park along the river in Brisbane, Australia (it seemed to go on forever); the botanical garden in the same city which had a tree called a Sausage Tree—maybe the most bizarre plant I’ve ever seen; and Hayman Island in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia was incredibly beautiful, too. Come to think of it, at the Sydney, Australia, botanical garden, the Ficus trees were huge, but the amazing part was the flying foxes which roosted in the trees and ate the fruit at night. Those bats are giant!! And Muir Woods in California—those giant Redwoods—awe-inspiring.
I’ve loved so many gardens around the world, for so many different reasons.
Are there differences between American and other gardens?
Oh, absolutely. Our diverse climates make for the necessity of very different gardens across the U.S., based on the local climate. I will say that within these climates we’ve adopted the gardens from other countries that match that particular climate. For instance, California has a very Mediterranean climate, so the gardens there have many attributes that resemble Italy, Spain, and Mexico. The English settled in Virginia early on, so many of the Virginia gardens have a truly English feel to them, not to mention English boxwoods so suit the Virginia climate. They look right there. Further South, in South Florida, tropical plants from around the world have been brought in to create a beautiful, lush feel. It suits the climate.
And because America is such a melting pot of people from other countries and cultures, those influences have affected how our gardens have evolved, as well.
I would say the most uniquely “American” gardens might be those of the grasslands of the Midwest and Plains, and the deserts of the Southwest. In my own travels, I haven’t seen those represented as much outside the U.S.
What garden would you never design?
I would have to say a desert garden because I don’t know the plant material as well. I come from a lush place of humidity and rain. That’s what I know. As I mentioned earlier, design principles are design principles—the same around the world—but then, to make a healthy garden, you’ve got to know the best plants for a particular environment.
And for whom would you like to design a garden and why?
I love to design gardens for people who open their minds to the possibilities. Those gardens always turn out the best because they evolve with the collaboration. Oh, it’s fun, and we become wonderful friends during the process, too, nine times out of ten.
So many people come to the table with an absolute idea of what [they think] they want in their garden, and often, in my opinion, the kind of garden they think they want is not the garden for them, at all. Yet, stubbornly, they persist. If they would just open their minds to the possibilities, let go, and let the garden evolve as it will, they would have a garden much more tailored to their lifestyle and who they really are—not who they think they would like to be. I know that sounds harsh, yet in so many cases it is so true.
I once read an article about the movie star, Brad Pitt’s, garden. He collaborated with a very headstrong designer and Mr. Pitt is very headstrong, too, according to the article. There was a lot of head-banging and arguing, I understand! And yet, the garden they created together, their collaboration, is just astoundingly creative, beautiful and lush. I would love to visit there sometime, if Mr. Pitt still owns it, because I know he keeps it maintained as he likes it. What a talented garden designer he has…the guy is to-the-moon creative, in my opinion.
On food, do you think food and gardens can be complimentary?
Oh, absolutely. It’s the big trend now here in the U.S. Unfortunately, where I garden and do most of my design work, there is too much shade to include vegetables, fruit and herbs. But we do try where we can. In Wilmington, we have sandy soil and lots of sunshine, plus a long, long growing season. You can grow many seasons of different crops here. We put the Tomatoes in with the Zinnias, the Marigolds with the shrubs…we mix it all up. It really pulls in the bees, and the crop yields are really good (given a year of good climate). The birds come in…oh, it’s glorious. Birds and bees bouncing, flying and playing; singing and buzzing…the scents, the sounds…it’s so entertaining. And there is NOTHING like a fresh Tomato—the store-bought Tomatoes here in the U.S. are dreadful.
What wine do you like?
I have a limited wine palate—sorry, I do! I wish I knew more about wines! But I do know that I love the Cabernets, Merlots and Shiraz for the cold months; and chilled Chardonnays, sweeter whites, roses for the warmer months. I do not like dry, bitter wines—I always go for the sweeter. Champagne is lovely, but it gives me a terrific headache, so I don’t indulge often, unfortunately. As far as specific wines…I leave the brand names to the experts. I am probably kind of trashy when it comes to wine selection, but I do know what I like when I taste it!!
What else do you want to tell?
I’m very private, very simple. I decorate my own house and garden to satisfy me, not anyone else. To me, our houses and gardens in Arlington and Wilmington are beautiful, each very different, yes—but we’ve done them for our pleasure, not to show off or keep up with others. That turns me off. That said, others can do whatever they want with what they have. Who am I to judge? Have at it—whatever makes you happy.
I like nice things, yet I am not materialistic. I love to travel, yet I don’t have to stay in the Taj Mahal, either. I love simple dinners with close friends, our gardens, hanging out with my partner and family in our cherished spare time.
I love people. That’s a big part of my work, getting to know people so I can help them with their yards. The resulting friendships are a nice bonus. I know lots and lots of people, it’s true, yet I have very few “best” friends—those with whom I spend a lot of time. I can count those special people on one hand. And my family, of course. I do love my family and Steve’s family, our family. As much as I love people, I need my time alone—to read, write, cook, garden, sit and meditate, recharge. My work is very demanding, so I need this time to recharge so I don’t burn out.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                  foto: bronze eelsmoker in Monnickendam harbour
The recipe:
Ingredients 4 persons:
for the smoked cod:
1 ½ lb of fresh cod or pollock
2 tbs olive oil
salt and peper
lemon juice
4 tbs smoking ground
for the vegetables:
1 big carrot in dices
½ lb of Brussels sprouts, halved
1 leek in slices
1 turnip in dices
olive oil
peper, salt and ground nutmeg
for the sauce hollandaise:
3 egg yolks
2 tbs water
6 oz unsalted butter, cut into tiny cubes, not too cold
2 tbs white wine vinegar
salt and ground white pepper
chopped parsley
the smoked cod:
You can either use an outside smoker, or a steam pan from a well known Swedish furniture supplier. You fill the device with special smoking woodpieces, like small pieces of oak, birch etc. or smoking ground. If not, an alternative way, is to use and old pan, with a thin bottom. You cover the whole inside of the pan with some aluminium foil, shiny side up. On top of the foil you put 4 tbs of special smoking ground.
Meanwhile you cure the fresh cod in olive oil, salt, pepper and some lemon juice and leave it to rest for 20 minutes. After that, you cut the fish in  medium thin slices.
Cover the smoking ground with some alu foil, pierce it with a fork and put a plate on it. Put some pebbles under the plate to help smoke/air circulation. Put a small grill on top of the plate.
Put the pan on a high fire and when the ground starts smoking, put the cod on the grill. Cover up with foil and a lid an let the fish smoke for about 10 minutes.
the vegetables:
Rinse and peel the vegetables. Put some oil in a stir frying pan and fry them until “al dente” Let them simmer for a while and add some ground nutmeg. Keep warm until the fish is done.
the sauce:
Melt the butter in a pan, that is in another pan with boiling water. See that the bottom is not in direct contact with the boiling water. (au bain marie method) In a small bowl, whisk the egg yolks with some vinegar and a dash of lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Bit by bit beat in the melted butter, then add some water water. Return this into pan and beat over very low heat until mixture is slightly thickened. Leave to rest. Add some chopped fresh parsley before serving.
Serve the pieces of fish on a bed of the stir fried vegetables and add the sauce.
Note: Special thanks to Keizer Culinair for teaching me how to smoke cod in a pan.

 

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