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Thursday, Aug. 9, 2012 04:29 pm

Michael Higgins’ rooftop garden


Maldaner’s’ rooftop garden includes herbs, greens, fig trees, flowers and beehives.

Michael Higgins, longtime chef/owner of Maldaner’s Restaurant, is at the forefront of sourcing local foods for his restaurant. Actually, for years he was the only area chef to do so, even persuading Ron Suttill of Suttill’s Garden to raise fava beans, a delicious vegetable common in Europe and elsewhere, both in its early summer green stage as well as dried mature beans. But favas – especially green ones – are virtually unknown in the Midwest. Suttill initially grew them just for Higgins.

This year, Chef Higgins has taken local to a whole new level – an upper level: the rooftop of the downtown building in which Maldaner’s is located.

It began with bees. Last spring Higgins enlisted the help of local beekeeper Arvan Pierce to establish two beehives on the rooftop. Then Higgins decided to plant some flowers for the bees, using old milk crates that had accumulated over the years in the restaurant. He lined them with burlap and planted them with black-eyed susans and other flowers, including phlox and Russian sage. Next came herbs: basil, dill and more. A four-foot-tall rosemary and a bay tree are in pots. Also in pots are three fig trees. And there are crates lined and ready for fall crops of carrots, kale and Swiss chard.

Gardening on city rooftops and balconies isn’t particularly new. I’ve always enjoyed gazing up at lush plantings, often dripping with flowers, in big cities. But growing food on them is a new, fast-growing trend. There’s even a magazine, Urban Farm, which covers a whole spectrum of agricultural possibilities in cities, from raising chickens and bees, transforming empty city lots into community gardens, to those rooftop and balcony plantings.

Chefs have eagerly embraced gardening on their restaurants’ rooftops. An article in the April 2010 issue of Bon Appetit magazine, “The Top 10 Best Roof-To-Table Dining,” features chefs and their gardens across America.

It’s no surprise that Higgins is Springfield’s first chef to have a rooftop garden. He’s not only a longtime supporter of local food, he’s also a longtime gardener. Higgins has even entered vegetables from his home’s backyard garden in Illinois State Fair competitions   

“It’s not a green garden,” Higgins tells me as we gingerly make our way over loose gravel to his rooftop garden, which occupies one corner of the building that houses Maldaner’s restaurant as well as some offices. The building is owned by Carolyn Oxtoby

“It looks green to me,” I reply. Higgins explains that a green rooftop garden is one in which the roof’s entire surface is covered with a layer of soil. The soil not only provides the medium to grow plants, but also acts as insulation.

Using the plastic crates to create a container garden allows for much more flexibility – the garden can be as big or small as he wants, or has time to manage. They’re also lots cheaper. Higgins estimates that each crate can be made into a gardening container for about five dollars. The crates awaiting fall planting are lined with landscape fabric instead of burlap; Higgins found that it quickly rotted.

Earlier this summer, Higgins toured Tom Colicchio’s rooftop garden in Manhattan. Colicchio, a hugely successful chef and restaurateur who also acts as head judge on Bravo TV’s “Top Chef,” started his garden in 2011. Although Higgins hadn’t known about Colicchio’s garden (called Riverpark Farm) before beginning his, it also utilizes plastic crates – 3,400 of them.

Riverpark Farm encompasses a 15,000-square-foot space atop a stalled real estate project that’s less than 100 feet from the kitchen door of Colicchio’s Riverpark Restaurant. About 6,000 plants comprised of 85 different crops are tended by two full-time gardeners with help from several assistants and some of the restaurant’s kitchen staff. At various times they may harvest as much as 50 lbs. of cucumbers, zucchini or other vegetables a day. The restaurant’s menu changes to reflect what they’re harvesting. “I’m actually shocked at how much is growing,” said Colicchio in a New York Times 8/2/11 Diner’s Journal blog.

Higgins’ Riverpark Farm tour included people from Manhattan as well as the NYC boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn. “We talked to the gardeners,” Higgins says. “Everyone wanted to start their own rooftop or balcony gardens.”

“The most important thing I learned there is that you have to plant plants that have the most yield,” says Higgins. “So you don’t plant English peas or cabbage because you only harvest them once. Instead plant sugar snap peas or kale, things you’ll keep picking for a while.”

Like most chefs’ rooftop gardens, Higgins’ probably won’t ever supply all of Maldaner’s produce, even during central Illinois’ growing season. But for Higgins, it’s not only something he enjoys, it’s something that can bring the term “locally grown” into sharper focus. It’s also a kind of mission.

“Just look at all this empty space around us,” he says, pointing to surrounding buildings’ barren rooftops. “They could all be made into something useful.” Higgins welcomes visitors to his rooftop garden (just call ahead to set up a time). He especially hopes that people who are considering living downtown will come and learn from his rooftop gardening experiences.

Higgins says, “The three keys are having good soil [he uses 1/3 topsoil, 1/3 potting soil and 1/3 compost], having a water source and – most important – a willing landlord like Carolyn Oxtoby.”

“The rest is imagination.”

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

Maldaner’s Cold Shrimp and Cucumber Soup

Maldaner’s Cold Shrimp and Cucumber Soup prepared by Julianne
This wonderfully refreshing soup has been on Higgins’ summer menus at Maldaner’s for as long as I can remember. The Sweet Sour Syrup recipe makes much more than you’ll need, but it’s handy to have in your refrigerator for sauces and salad dressings.

  • 3 c. seeded, peeled cucumbers, either English (a.k.a. burpless) or thin regular cucumbers, quartered and cut into approximately
  • 1/4-inch slices
  • 1/3 c. finely minced celery
  • 1/4 c. finely minced red onion
  • 1 T. kosher or sea salt, plus additional if necessary
  • 3 c. buttermilk
  • 1 c. sour cream or Greek style yogurt
  • 2-3 T. Sweet Sour Syrup, recipe follows
  • 1/2 tsp. freshly ground pepper, or to taste
  • 1 tsp. Dijon mustard
  • 1 tsp. Worchestershire sauce
  • 1/2 - 1 tsp. Tabasco sauce, optional
  • 1 lb. cooked salad shrimp or other small shrimp, cut into half inch pieces if necessary (about 1 1/2 c.)
  • 1/2 c. snipped fresh dill fronds (NOT packed), plus additional for garnish

Put the cucumbers, celery and red onion in a colander and toss thoroughly with the salt. Put the colander in or over a sink and let the vegetables drain for 30 minutes.

Rinse the vegetables well under cold running water, then spread them evenly over a lint-free towel, roll the towel up and squeeze to remove as much excess moisture as possible. Set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk the buttermilk and sour cream or yogurt until completely combined. Stir in 2 T. of the Sweet Sour Syrup, pepper, Dijon mustard, Worcestershire and Tabasco, if using.

Add the vegetables, shrimp and dill fronds and stir to combine. Check the seasoning. You may want to add another tablespoon of the Sweet Sour Syrup, Tabasco, and/or additional salt and pepper.

Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes to let the flavors mingle. Serve cold, garnished with the additional snipped dill fronds. Serves 6-8.

Sweet Sour Syrup
  • 1 c. sugar
  • 1 1/2 c. white wine vinegar
  • 1/2 c. dry white wine or dry vermouth

Place the ingredients in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and bring to a boil over medium high heat.  Stir until the sugar has dissolved completely; then let the mixture boil without stirring. Cook until the big bubbles that appeared when the syrup first begins to boil give way to a more or less even surface of little bubbles, about 5 minutes. Cool completely before using.

Sweet Sour Syrup will keep indefinitely, refrigerated.

Makes approximately 2 c.

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