LOCAL COOK: Farmer's granddaughter reaps fruit of garden labor

Jessie Dryden, manager of Hannibal’s Common Ground Community Gardens, cuts mint for a chicory root tea. The chicory root comes from a hardy wildflower readily found across the region. (H-W Photo/Steve Bohnstedt)
Posted: Aug. 12, 2014 12:55 pm Updated: Aug. 27, 2014 1:15 pm

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

HANNIBAL, Mo. -- Jessie Dryden takes some lessons from the garden and puts them to work in the kitchen.

"It's just about extracting the most you can from life in general and living as sustainably as possible," Dryden said. "That's the goal at the garden and my personal mission in life."

Dryden developed Hannibal's Common Ground Community Gardens after moving back to her hometown two years ago.

"It teaches people how to take care of their most basic needs, how to grow their on food. It's educational. It's life-skill building," Dryden said. "They way the garden is set up, it's about working together."

Dryden said the garden, now in its second year, has seen the number of volunteers double with growing interest from community organizations. The garden is "constantly in motion," she said, with plans to offer food preservation classes and perhaps a contest to develop a rain-catching system from recycled materials to eliminate hours spent watering.

People volunteer their time, then share in the "best-tasting" food.

"You quite literally reap the fruits of your labor," Dryden said. "The whole goal is to really encourage people to grow their own food and get the confidence they need to start even if on a smaller scale in containers."

The community garden features standard Midwestern fare like tomatoes, peppers, potatoes and beans along with okra, eggplant, melons growing in compost made last year and a wide variety of herbs -- all the key ingredients for Dryden's own dishes.

"I try to eat a vegan diet as much as possible. I'm not vegan, but I feel better when I eat more veggies and stay away from processed food," she said.

It's part of the "generational knowledge" of cooking and gardening passed down in her own family.

"I'm a farmer's granddaughter, and my mom is kind of a gardening guru who knows how to do everything," Dryden said.

Dryden turns garden-fresh tomatoes and garlic into Bruschetta. "I add tuna to it for something a little heartier," she said. "It tastes phenomenal."

Cilantro and garlic flavor her Pico de Gallo. Purple, sweet and lemon basil are key to Pesto, which Dryden serves over brown rice wakame noodles. The roots of chicory, usually considered a weed in the Midwest, produces a fragrant tea and coffee, a healthy native-growing alternative to store-bought. Herbs take a medicinal turn in a homemade cold and flu remedy and repel bugs. "I love green beans, so I use this pesticide ‘tea' to get rid of aphids," Dryden said.

"A lot of people grow things in the garden or see weeds in the yard but don't know it has a different purpose. I try to illustrate to people that nature is functional," she said. "People look at dandelions and say that they're weeds, but they even have medicinal purposes. It's recognizing those plants and understanding how to use them."

Cooking, much like gardening, relies on trial and error.

"It takes patience, a little bit of courage and definitely luck," Dryden said. "Some things you try you're not so sure about, but it's having the courage to try again if it doesn't turn out the way you want. Just being bold with whatever you do. That's really important."

From a starting point of salt, pepper and crushed garlic, Dryden plays around with additional flavors.

"I'm a creative person. I like to add my own touch," she said. "It's all about having fun."

Garden produce provides ingredients for summer stir-fry meals served with brown rice or kabobs for the grill. "This year, I'm playing around with more exotic spices. This is the first year I've ever made my own curry," she said. "I've really got into herbs this year. It's nice to go out and pick what you need. It's just really convenient."

Dryden's top three herbs for cooking and healing are calendula, lavender and rosemary. Once planted, herbs are easy to maintain and often serve a dual purpose.

"Basil not only makes food taste Italian but also protects tomatoes from hornworms. Mint enhances the flavor of tomatoes," she said. "You can have this beautiful garden, all these different colors interwoven. They serve the greater purpose in their own ecosystem, and the cherry on top of it is they feed you."



8 garden-fresh Roma tomatoes, diced

1/3 cup chopped fresh basil

1 white or red onion

1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1 teaspoon olive oil

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 loaf French bread, sliced and toasted

1-2 cans tuna (in water), optional

In a bowl, toss together tomatoes, basil, onions, Parmesan cheese and garlic. Mix in the balsamic vinegar, olive oil, kosher salt and pepper. Let set for 30 minutes or longer. Serve on toasted bread slices.

NOTE: Dryden mixes purple and sweet basil in the recipe. When picking basil, keep it unwashed in a Ziploc bag to keep it fresh, or wash then freeze it. Onions need to be hung in a cool, dry place for two weeks after picking.


2 cups packed fresh basil leaves (Dryden uses a combination of purple, sweet and lemon basil)

2 cloves garlic

1/4 cup roasted walnuts

2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan and Romano cheese blend

Combine basil, garlic and nuts in a food processor, and pulse until coarsely chopped. Add 1/2 cup of the oil, and process until fully incorporated until smooth. Season with salt and pepper. If using immediately, add all the remaining oil and pulse until smooth. Transfer the pesto to a large serving bowl and mix in the cheese. If freezing, transfer to an airtight container and drizzle remaining oil over the top. Freeze for up to three months, thaw and stir in cheese when ready to use.

Pico de Gallo

4 large garden-grown tomatoes, diced

1 medium white or red onion, diced

1/4 bunch cilantro, or more depending on personal preference

1 lemon, squeezed for juice

2 limes, squeezed for juice

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

Pepper to taste

Dash cayenne pepper and cumin

2 jalapeño or other hot peppers

Fresh mango or avocado, optional

Wash tomatoes and cilantro. Dice tomatoes and onion. Chop cilantro, jalapeño and optional ingredients. Combine in a bowl. Add salt, pepper, cumin, cayenne, garlic, lemon and lime juice. Let set for a few hours before serving so ingredients have time to blend well.

Chicory and Mint Tea

4-5 wild-harvested chicory roots, dried, roasted and ground

Fresh-cut chocolate mint, dried and crushed

Fresh-cut peppermint, dried and crushed

Using a shovel, loosen soil around the chicory plant and pull up plant at the base of the root. As soon as it is harvested, prepare the root for drying by washing away all soil and scrubbing the "bark" off the root. If the bark is tough, use a knife to remove it. Chop the root into 1/4- to 1/2-inch pieces, and run through a tough blender or meat grinder. Place the root material in a food dryer or dehydrator, and let it run on a low setting overnight. To roast, preheat oven to 350 degrees, and bake the chicory for about 13-15 minutes. After roasting, run the roots through a coffee grinder and place in a tea ball or tea bag with the crushed mint for brewing.

Cold and Flu Recipe

1/4 cup ginger root, freshly grated

1/4 cup onion, chopped

1/4 cup rosemary, chopped

1/4 cup fresh sage leaves, chopped

1/4 cup grated horseradish

4-6 cloves garlic

2 tablespoons ground cayenne pepper

Organic apple cider vinegar to cover

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Combine all ingredients in a quart-size Mason jar and fill to the top, leaving 1 inch headspace. Shake daily for 2-4 weeks, then strain, squeezing out all the liquid. Heat gently over low heat and add 1/4 cup honey, stirring to dissolve. Drink, as needed, like a tea.

Bug Repellent

Distilled water

Organic witch hazel

Dried garden-grown herbs: peppermint, spearmint, citronella, lemongrass, catnip, lavender, rosemary or lemon thyme

Boil 1 cup water. Add 3-4 tablespoons dried herbs total in any combination. (Dryden uses 1 tablespoon each of peppermint, spearmint, catnip and lavender and adds a couple of dried cloves.) Mix well, cover and let cool. Strain herbs out, and mix water with 1 cup witch hazel or rubbing alcohol. Store in a spray bottle in a cool place. Use as needed.

Organic Pesticide

Onion peels

3-4 garlic cloves, crushed

2 sprigs fresh rosemary

1 cup fresh basil

1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce

Add onion peels, garlic cloves, rosemary and basil to a pot of water. Bring to a boil and let steep like tea. Strain into a Mason jar or spray bottle. Add Tabasco.

Makes about a quart. Store in a cool place.

Things to Do