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The gospel of gardening

First lady's book grew from seed of an idea

By Joe Gray, Tribune Newspapers

July 4, 2012

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First lady Michelle Obama got the idea to plant a White House kitchen garden before her husband ever made it into the big mansion on Pennsylvania Avenue.

As she writes in "American Grown," her new book about the garden, the idea came to her as she was making dinner for the family in their Chicago home. It was early in the primary race; Barack Obama was still an underdog. But she was thinking ahead to how she — if her husband became president, if "something amazing happened," as she puts it — could focus on an issue very important to her: the food we eat and how it affects our health. From that sprang the idea for the garden.

"American Grown" tells the story of conceiving, planting and tending that garden — and the many people who helped with it — a symbol of and promotional platform for the first lady's Let's Move! (letsmove.gov) initiative. It aims to eliminate childhood obesity in a generation through education about eating healthful whole foods and the importance of exercise.

The book also focuses on community gardens, as Obama describes the White House kitchen garden, across the country from Houston to Seattle to Reading Township, N.J., to Rainbow Beach Park in Chicago — the neighborhood where the first lady grew up. It has been a community garden since a victory garden was planted there during World War II, she writes.

The book details the scant history of White House vegetable gardens, from a kitchen garden that was planted by John Adams but never harvested, as he lost his re-election bid, to Eleanor Roosevelt's victory garden. Despite the many changes to the White House gardens from administration to administration, no one seems to have grown vegetables there since Roosevelt's efforts.

Obama uses her garden (which she'd rather have us think of as the nation's garden) to follow in the footsteps of Roosevelt, who used her victory garden to encourage the idea across the nation. Viewed from that perspective, one wonders why no one thought of this before. Maybe it took the burgeoning farmers market movement with its focus on where our food comes from.

After lots of pages spent on the garden, and how readers can start their own, the book gets to the food and how the produce is used in the White House, and from there to how the reader can do the same at home. In this section, broken into chapters by season, White House executive chef Cris Comerford highlights some ingredients such as, for summer: corn, tomatoes, basil, shell beans, squash, blueberries, eggplant. Then come the recipes from the White House chefs. But only 16 in all.

Those recipes focus on simple, doable dishes that star the fresh vegetables in the least-tampered-with manner — the main point of the book. But most of them, though straightforward, offer a creative little twist: green beans with almonds kissed with paprika; cauliflower mac and cheese; collard greens with a smoked turkey leg, more healthful than fatback or ham hocks.

They sound good enough to make us want more. Maybe the first lady will write a follow-up.

"American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America"

By Michelle Obama; Crown, $30

Corn soup with summer vegetables

Prep: 30 minutes
Cook: 1 hour, 10 minutes
Servings: 4 to 6

Note: "This versatile soup is the essence of summer," writes White House chef Sam Kass in a headnote to this recipe from "American Grown." The smooth corn soup is transformed with a textural contrast from a garnish of grilled vegetables. Choose the mix yourself to put your own stamp on the dish.

Ingredients:
6 ears fresh corn, shucked, silk removed
2 sprigs fresh thyme
Juice of half lemon (about 1 tablespoon)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
Grilled vegetables, such as zucchini, summer squash, tomatoes eggplant, peppers, mushrooms

1. Cut kernels from cobs. Place the cobs in a stockpot; just barely cover with water. Heat to a boil; lower heat and simmer, until stock has a rich flavor, 45-60 minutes. Strain.

2. Reserve 3/4 cup corn kernels; place remaining corn in a blender. Blend, starting on low speed and increasing the speed as the corn purees. You can add a little of the corn stock to get the corn started. Blend on high, 45-60 seconds.

3. Pour puree into a medium saucepan through a fine-mesh strainer. Add the thyme; cook over medium heat, stirring frequently. You do not want the soup to boil. The starch will begin to thicken the soup. Once the soup has thickened, add the lemon juice and reserved corn stock little by little until the soup reaches desired thickness. You should have 4 to 6 cups of soup. Add the salt.

4. Heat a small skillet over medium heat; add enough olive oil to coat the bottom. When the oil begins to smoke, add the reserved corn kernels; do not stir until the corn has a nice brown color. Stir the corn; remove from heat. Add the seared corn, and grilled vegetables of your choice, on top of the soup; serve.

Nutrition information:
Per serving (for 6 servings): 98 calories, 3 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 17 g carbohydrates, 3 g protein, 208 mg sodium, 2 g fiber.

jxgray@tribune.com