Sang Yu Lee, a Presbyterian minister at Messengers church in the Northeast, regularly brings parishioners to harvest cabbage and bok choy from his plot at the Benjamin Rush State Park community gardens.
Working together, they have pickled the vegetables to make the traditional kimchi and prepared more than 400 jars of the Korean condiment, which they will save through the winter and donate to less-advantaged church members.
Indeed, many members of these community gardens are cultivating more than just vegetables there - they're cultivating a piece of their cultural legacy.
On a given day, wandering the 11 acres off Route 1 in Parkwood, one might encounter gardeners from the Philippines, Korea, Italy, Lebanon, Germany, India and Pakistan - a stark contrast to the stereotype of the urban community gardener harvesting gentrification along with heirloom tomatoes.
What is your favorite kind of ethnic food?
"This is the United Nations, man," says Karl Dollmann, a member since 1991, who tends 12 plots there along with his son, Karl Jr.
A tour of the gardens reveals a host of foods unavailable in most American markets: bright magenta bunches of amaranth (also known as callaloo), the ridged green leaves of wild sesame plants, slender stalks of Korean watercress, tight clusters of edamame pods, and Ecuadorian frying corn.
There are long curved gourds hung with stones to encourage straight growing, bright, bumpy bitter melons woven into rustic cabanas, and squat rows of peanut plants. In the Asian gardens, even familiar sweet potatoes are raised for their less-easily-obtained leafy tops, which are blanched and tossed in salads.
Sometimes there is discussion in the garden rows about new ways to cook a vegetable, and the gardeners might exchange the secrets of their kitchens.
Retirees Jeanette and Robert Dobek have been coming to Rush for the last 27 years, indulging a love of gardening inherited from their families - hers Lebanese, his Polish. She stuffs her squash with a Middle Eastern meat and rice filling, tinged with allspice and cinnamon. Her husband makes a relish from his peppers with hot spices.
"It's a lot of work, but we can grow everything we need here," she says.
Garden treasurer Beth Bowman mashes broiled eggplant with egg and fries it into vegetarian patties called tortang talong. Sabu Kenju, who hails from Kerala, India, makes a coconut curry with his okra.
Dollmann pickles most of his vegetables and gives whatever is left to his German father, who turns the bounty into borscht and stuffed cabbage. On occasion, there are potluck events where members bring their homegrown creations.
Bowman, a nurse, grew up on a farm in the Philippines and now maintains five organic lots at Benjamin Rush, bringing her compost from home and employing gardening methods she learned on her family farm. (Included in her lots are two earmarked for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's City Harvest program. Philadelphia prison inmates grow the seedlings, tended here for donation to SHARE, a local food distribution network.)
"This is part of my heritage and part of my personal way of eating," Bowman says. "It's important for me to know the source of my food."
That Benjamin Rush is considered by some the largest community garden in the world is a point of collective pride with members - printers, cops, firemen, warehouse managers, postal workers, ministers, teachers, nurses and rock musicians - who pay $25 annually to tend their 30-by-30-foot lots.
But, taken individually, members' motivations for joining are as varied and diverse as their plantings. They might garden here to eat thriftily, to cook healthfully, or to partake in the physically and mentally therapeutic effects of working the soil. Some people come here because there is little if any room to garden at home.
Diana Denega, a 23-year-old language teacher who gardens here with her father, Drew, grows plants for their therapeutic benefits as well as their vivid flavors. She makes teas from her anise hyssop and lemon balm, gingered curries from her green beans and okra, and sautes with her lemon squash.
"I'm a vegetarian so I can't even say out loud how much I would spend on vegetables at Whole Foods if we didn't have this garden," she says.
A 30-by-30 lot, it turns out, can produce so much food that many members say they make it through the winter without ever having to buy produce. "Basically this is a supermarket without the pineapples and coconuts," Dollmann says.
And the gardens often yield far more than their owners' households can eat. Gardener Bill Taylor, a retiree from Bensalem, gives most of his output to neighbors and family.
Bowman feeds a family of four and brings extras to work, introducing her coworkers to the distinct flavors of edamame and Brandywine tomatoes. Excess vegetables are collected and donated to SHARE on a regular basis.
On a recent late-summer evening, a season's work was finally peaking. Members worked to harvest the zucchinis, green beans and tomatoes that were finally coming up red.
Meanwhile, with occasional bird-calls and cricket chirps, the gardens settled into the peaceful calm of dusk.
"You could drive down Route 1 twenty times and never know we were here," Dollmann says. "We're like an oasis in the desert."
Makes 2 servings
2 Japanese eggplants
4 eggs, beaten
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1. Preheat the broiler and place eggplants on a rimmed baking sheet beneath broiler until skins are charred and blistered.
2. Allow eggplants to cool, then remove the skin, keeping the crown and stem end intact. Use a fork to mash and flatten the eggplant flesh, but leave the body of the vegetable intact.
3. In a large bowl, beat eggs together with salt and pepper.
4. Heat oil in a large skillet. Grasp the stem end and dip eggplants into egg mixture and gently tip eggplant and eggs into the skillet. Fry until brown, then turn and repeat on other side.
- Adapted from Beth Bowman
Per serving: 295 calories, 12 grams protein, 31 grams carbohydrates, 13 grams sugar, 16 grams fat, 212 milligrams cholesterol, 112 milligrams sodium, 17 grams dietary fiber.
Napa Cabbage Kimchi
Makes one gallon
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon kosher salt
1/2 gallon water
2 heads Napa cabbage, cut into 2-inch wedges
1 bulb garlic, cloves separated and peeled
1 2-inch piece of ginger root
1/4 cup Korean fish sauce (see note)
1 daikon, peeled and grated
1 bunch scallions, cut into1-inch lengths
1/2 cup Korean chili powder (see note)
1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
Sesame oil (optional)
Sesame seeds (optional)
1. In a large bowl, dissolve salt in ½ gallon water. Soak cabbage in salt water for 3 to 4 hours.
2. In the bowl of a food processor or blender, combine garlic, ginger and fish sauce and process until finely minced.
3. In a large bowl, combine daikon, scallions, garlic-ginger mixture, chili powder, 1 tablespoon salt and sugar, if using. Toss to combine thoroughly.
4. Remove soaked cabbage from water and rinse thoroughly. Drain in colander, squeezing as much water from the leaves as possible. Toss with daikon mixture.
5. If eating right away, toss with sesame seeds and sesame oil. If fermenting, pack into 4 sterilized 1-quart jars and press firmly to remove air bubbles. Allow kimchi to sit in a cool place for 2-3 days before serving. Kimchi will be good stored in the refrigerator for up to three weeks.
- Adapted from epicurious.com
Note: You can find Korean fish sauce and chili powder in Asian markets such as H-Mart.
Per half-cup serving: 23 calories, 1 gram protein, 5 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, trace fat, no cholesterol, 3,909 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Lebanese Stuffed Squash
Makes 2 to 4 servings
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 pound lean ground lamb or beef
1/3 cup short-grain rice
1 tomato, peeled and chopped
Salt and pepper, to taste
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon or 1/4 teaspoon allspice
2 pounds small or medium-sized summer squash or zucchini
2 tomatoes, sliced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
Juice of 1 1/2 lemons
2 to 4 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon crushed dried mint
1. Make the filling by combining the vegetable oil, meat, rice, tomato, salt and pepper to taste and cinnamon or allspice in a bowl. Use your hands to knead ingredients together.
2. Wash squash and cut off the stem end. Use an apple corer to make a hole at the sliced end and scoop out the pulp, being careful not to break the skin or break through the other end. Fill each squash ¾ full with the rice and meat filling, as the rice will swell when cooked.
3. Lay a few thin slices of tomato on the bottom of a large, deep saucepan. Place stuffed squash side by side on top of the tomatoes.
4. In a small bowl, mix together the tomato paste with 1 1/4 cups of water and the juice of 1 lemon and pour over the squash. Add more water if necessary to cover the squash. Cover and simmer gently for 45 minutes or until squash are soft.
5. Crush garlic cloves with a little salt. Mix garlic with mint and remaining lemon juice. Sprinkle over squash and continue cooking for a few minutes longer.
- Adapted from Jeanette Dobek and Claudia Roden's The New Book of Middle Eastern Food
Per serving (based on 4, with lamb):
346 calories, 15 grams protein, 28 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams sugar, 21 grams fat, 41 milligrams cholesterol, 126 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.
Wild Sesame Leaves in Soy Sauce
Makes about 6 servings as a side dish
4 bunches Korean sesame leaves (also known as perilla; see note)
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and chopped
1 teaspoon finely ground red chili pepper
1. Rinse sesame leaves in cold water, then drain.
2. Combine the soy sauce, sugar, garlic, and chili pepper in a small pot and heat over medium flame until liquid just begins to boil. Reduce heat, add sesame leaves, and simmer for three to five minutes, turning often. Remove from heat. Use a strainer and remove leaves from the liquid. Set strainer over the pot so that the liquid drains back into the pot, and let cool.
3. Gently separate the leaves into small bunches of 5 to 10 leaves. Layer the small bunches in a sealable container, lightly sprinkling sesame seeds and chili pepper over each layer. Each layer should face a different direction. Pour the liquid over the leaves and seal the container.
4. Let stand at room temperature for six hours, then refrigerate. Serve in small bunches as a side dish with Korean meals.
- Adapted from chow.com
Note: You can find sesame leaves in Asian markets such as H-Mart.
Per serving (makes 6 servings): 36 calories, 7 grams protein, 2 grams carbohydrates, trace sugar, 1 gram fat, no cholesterol, 464 milligrams sodium, 20 grams dietary fiber.
Okra With Coconut
Makes 4 servings
1 pound okra, washed and dried completely
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 cups finely grated fresh or dried unsweetened coco nut
3 to 4 small green chili peppers, chopped
1 cup plain yogurt
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 dried red chili, broken into two pieces
12 to 15 curry leaves
1. Cut okra along the cross-section, wiping knife between cuts.
2. Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a skillet over moderately high flame. Add okra and cook until browned, stirring occasionally. Remove okra from pan and allow it to cool.
3. In the work bowl of a food processor, combine coconut, green chili peppers, yogurt, and 1 tablespoon mustard seeds, and process until pureed.
4. Heat remaining tablespoon of oil in skillet over moderately high flame and add remaining teaspoon of mustard seeds. When mustard seeds begin to pop, add dried red chili and curry leaves, being careful not to let the chili burn.
5. Pour coconut-yogurt mixture into pan and simmer over low heat for a few minutes. Add salt. Gently stir in okra, cover and set aside for 10 minutes to allow flavors to meld.
- Adapted from Ammini Ramachandran's Grains, Greens and Grated Coconuts
Per serving: 334 calories, 8 grams protein, 21 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 27 grams fat, 6 milligrams cholesterol, 55 milligrams sodium, 9 grams dietary fiber.