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Easy gardening concept inspires healthful rice medley recipe

Medley of Rice with Roasted Red Pepper and Asparagus is the perfect side dish for salmon or any grilled meat. Photo by Sue Doeden1 / 2
Mel Bartholomew's latest book gives recipes for Square Foot Gardening produce.2 / 2

As I pulled my copy of "All New Square Foot Gardening" from the shelf in my office, my mind wandered back almost 30 years to 1981. My mom was so excited about a new book she'd discovered.

Apparently, a man named Mel Bartholomew had come up with a way to take all the frustration out of vegetable gardening. By condensing single-row garden space to 4 by 4 feet and amending the soil, he created a system of gardening that yielded more produce in less space. Easy to weed, easy to water, easy to harvest.

It sounded simple and painless and my mom was sure I could succeed using this untraditional method. I slid the book onto a shelf. I packed it for a couple of our moves over the years. I recently found the book when we were doing some spring cleaning. I opened it up and saw it was a signed copy: "Enjoy your garden. Mel Bartholomew."

I'm sure at that time, Bartholomew, a civil engineer, had no idea how fast his creative approach to gardening would catch on and that by 2010 he would have revised and updated his first book and would have over 2 million copies sold. And a cookbook? Well, when you garden, you have lots of fresh, flavorful ingredients to create meals. The recently published "All New Square Foot Gardening Cookbook" gives Bartholomew the opportunity to share healthful recipes and tips for using the vegetables you've grown yourself the new square foot way.

Thirty years ago I was a young married woman, mother of two small boys. My career was in the early childhood field. I was working full time at a campus child care center. The thought of vegetable gardening seemed like it would require more time than I had available. Who would guess that 30 years later I would be a food writer and I would actually visit with Mel Bartholomew by phone about cooking and gardening? It's crazy how things happen.

I pulled "All New Square Foot Gardening" from my shelf because I was thinking about April 22 when we will be celebrating the 40th Earth Day. My focus naturally leans toward food. As I began reading Bartholomew's book, something he said struck me. "Square Foot Gardening is more than a gardening method - it is a philosophy of life. It is a method that allows you to use less resources, protect the environment and have control over the food you eat."

I've decided that now is the right time to learn to grow some of my own food. I'll follow the easy instructions for square foot gardening. Growing my own food will save me some money, but more importantly, it will give me complete control of the vegetables I eat. They will be grown in my own yard, free of chemicals. I'll know the water that was used for moisture. The vegetables won't travel hundreds of miles by truck to get from a farm to my table. I'll know who's touched them. I will feel good that I am eating food produced with fewer resources while doing a small part to protect the earth.

Medley of Rice with Roasted Red Pepper and Asparagus was inspired by two recipes in "The All New Square Foot Gardening" cookbook. Brown rice and wild rice are cooked in broth, imparting flavor to the rice, which is usually quite bland. Fresh asparagus and a red bell pepper are drenched with olive oil and minced garlic and then roasted. Roasting fresh vegetables brings out their sweet flavor. The rice and vegetables get tossed together with minced parsley and toasted nuts to create a healthful and delicious side dish. Serve it with seared salmon or any grilled meat. If you want to make the Rice Medley a meatless one-dish meal, add a can or two of rinsed and drained chickpeas.

I'm going to plant some asparagus in my square foot garden. It's one of the first plants to peek out of the soil after winter has passed, making the fresh taste of asparagus a true rite of spring. And, when I am finally able to harvest it, I will smugly eat to my heart's content knowing that I'm eating fresh and healthful, I'm saving money - and, I grew it myself. My mom was right, again. I can succeed at gardening. It's crazy how things happen!

Medley of Rice with Roasted Red Pepper and Asparagus

2/3 cup long grain brown rice, uncooked

2/3 cup wild rice, uncooked

3 cups vegetable or chicken broth

1 to 1 1/2 pounds asparagus spears, washed, tough ends removed

1 red bell pepper

2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

2 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons minced flat-leaf Italian parsley

1/4 cup slivered almonds, toasted

Place uncooked rice in a fine sieve and rinse with cool water. Combine brown rice, wild rice and broth in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat to a simmer and cook until all liquid is evaporated and rice is fully cooked, about 45 to 55 minutes. Remove from heat.

While rice is cooking, cut red pepper into four pieces. Remove seeds. In a large bowl, toss washed and trimmed asparagus spears, red pepper pieces, garlic and olive oil. Spread the mixture onto a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Slide into a preheated 425-degree oven and bake for about 14 minutes, giving the vegetables a turn a couple of times during baking. The amount of time it takes for the asparagus to roast will depend on the thickness of the spears. When the asparagus spears are lightly browned and crisp-tender when pierced with a fork, remove from oven and allow to cool slightly. When cool enough to handle, chop roasted asparagus and red pepper.

In a large mixing bowl, combine cooked brown rice, wild rice, chopped asparagus and red pepper and parsley. Just before serving, stir in toasted almonds. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature. Makes 6 servings.

Recipe inspired by "All New Square Foot Gardening Cookbook," by Mel Bartholomew. Cool Springs Press. 2009.

Tips from the cook

--Toast slivered almonds in a small shallow pan over medium heat, stirring until they turn golden brown. Immediately transfer them to a plate to cool.

--If you don't have homemade vegetable or chicken stock in your freezer, I recommend using an organic variety from the store.

--I get a little fussy about rice. I don't like it mushy and I don't like it hard. For these reasons, when I'm using the quicker-cooking lighter-colored wild rice, I cook the brown rice and wild rice in separate pots each with 1½ cups of broth so I can easily take them off the heat when they reach the al dente stage.