The Kitchen Garden Companion – Stephanie Alexander

Australia's kitchen goddess takes us into the garden

By Kerry Scambler

November 06th, 2009


It’s heavy and red and certain to be a favourite for many years to come.  No, it’s not a bottle of Coonawarra cabernet but Stephanie Alexander’s latest book The Kitchen Companion - dig, plant, water, grow, harvest, chop, cook. And the title says it all.

On a Sunday morning propped up in bed with a cup of tea in one hand and The Kitchen Companion balanced on my knee, I was soon engrossed. 

Whilst I confess to a rather large library of gardening magazines, with my new found companion it seems so much easier to just go straight to S for strawberries. And timely too – when the second cup of tea is finished (one shouldn’t rush Sunday mornings after all) it will be time to head to the brand new vegie cage for some planting action. 

Taking Stephanie’s advice, there are now three new beds of strawberries in place and thriving under their coat of pine needle mulch and I’ve already picked the recipe for strawberries on a crisp almond filo base to try once the fruits of my labours are ripe. Of course, one my of my favourite uses for strawberries wasn’t mentioned – in sparkling wine (the cheaper variety quaffed on a sunny afternoon of course!).

It’s heartening to see the resurging interest in the home garden, despite the busy world in which we live. And with this heightened awareness of the benefits of home gardening, there are many helpful authors busy providing all the advice and inspiration we can possibly soak up. Along with this Kitchen Garden Companion, is also featuring Harvest. A complete Australian guide to the edible garden by Meredith Kirton and Cook it Grow It by Sally Clark and Charlie Smith.

It’s also interesting to compare this new, linen-clad tome full of holistic gardening advice and 250 recipes with one of the earliest Australian books published for gardener cooks. In 1992 Sheridan Rogers won the Prestigious Award for Gastronomic Writing and published The Cooks Garden.  Like Stephanie, Sheridan was inspired by her mother and she also found solace and peace in the garden. However her book also features poems and prose on the garden, cooking, friends and family along with recipes for home grown produce. These are illustrated with lovely pencil drawings which make me wonder if my personal need for large photos of the finished dish are more recently acquired and perhaps a result again of a busy lifestyle and an aversion to culinary suprises!   And of course, printing text in italics is thankfully no longer common practice.

The Cooks Companion, another weighty and wonderful book by Stephanie Alexander is a compete book of ingredients and recipes for the Australian kitchen. It was first published in 1996 but the 2004 edition came out with silver leaf pages, perhaps reflecting its encylopaedic content. Covering a vast array of incredients including dairy and meat, detailing varieties and seasons, selection and storage, preparation and recipes and some well placed photographs, this is a great reference to those for whom cooking is their first passion. For those of us who want to get our hands dirty in the garden, The Kitchen Garden Companion is perhaps more suitable.

The Kitchen Garden Companion doesn’t aim to be an encyclopedia – it’s simply a guide to growing, harvesting and cooking the vegies, fruit and herbs most commonly found around Australia.  You may not have the space or energy to become totally self-sufficient but the thorough enjoyment of harvesting even a few fresh herbs from a patio pot and tossing them with tiny tomatoes just plucked from the bush in the pot next to it can’t be underestimated. It’s a cliché but true – fresh is best.

The book starts off with getting started and the reasons why we should, then lists the equipment required for both parts of this soil to plate process – gardening and cooking. Other sections include a planting chart for the three main climates in our vast country and, most importantly for the organic garden, how to compost, and whether you’re in a house or an apartment it can be easily done with some simple rules.

Then each vegetable, fruit or herb is arranged alphabetically with a summary of gardening notes – soil type and preparation, climate, where, when and how to plant, when to fertilise, harvest period, pests and organic control. A great feature on this page is the information on successive planting and the quantities required to feed a family of four – just the type of details to ensure constant supply without wastage.  This followed by more detailed information for getting the best result along with how to engage children with this particular vegie, fruit or herb. 

Stephanie Alexander was inspired to write this book after working with school children to establish kitchen gardens  - indeed she aims to have 30,000 kids around the Australia learning in gardens by the end of 2012.  We can only hope that this is achieved - perhaps even before three years pass - and with the inclusion of kids in the growing and cooking process being a highlight of both the Companion and Cook it Grow It, there’s every chance it will.

But, back to the Companion and following the gardening notes come the delicious recipes. The focus of the recipes is deliberately away from protein and concentrated on the vegetables themselves. They all stand alone but equally go well with meat – which is recommended where Stephanie thinks best.  Of course, with a copy of The Cooks Companion in the kitchen library covering a whole other range of ingredients, there’d certainly be no excuse for lack of cuisine inspiration.

Just skimming through this book is a learning process - what is Amaranth I wondered? And would it grow in Tasmania? And if it did how on earth would I cook it? Lavender, nettles and scented geraniums are surprise inclusions but each has their own place in the kitchen garden it seems. Then there's a gardening glossary, pest and weed control (organic of course) and cooking glossary. There's both a cooking and general index which is useful if you're just after a quick recipe.

Every time I pick up this book (also part of my weight training!) I discover a new recipe or information on a vegie we’ve planted or would like to grow.  Stephanie’s book comes with two ribbon book marks but there’s already numerous of sticky tabs throughout. In fact I’ve developed a deep attachment to The Kitchen Garden Companion and it’s taken up pride of place on the bookshelves, well, when it’s not next to the bed, handy or near the couch or even showing off a bit on the dining table. 

Between them I can see that Stephanie Alexander and Sally Cook will be responsible for our household purchase of a larger fridge and freezer… and maybe even a preserving kit.

This book backs up the need felt by those of us who rush home in daylight savings to just potter about in the garden after work and forget the mad world of technology and traffic to spray some water, enjoying the moments whilst deep in thought or just letting the mind wander, stop to pluck a weed here and there then smile broadly when there’s something to harvest and cook.

As Stephanie says in her acknowledgements, there are many who will garden and cook quite differently to what she has extolled in The Companion, but she says the most important thing is just to do it - and I am.


The Kitchen Garden Companion by Stephanie Alexander is published by Penguin Books (hb; RRP A$125). and subscribers can buy The Kitchen Garden Companion from our book partners Seekbooks at 12.5% discount (plus postage).


The Oscars of the food-publishing world, the International Association of Culinary Professionals, has awarded Stephanie Alexander's 'Kitchen Garden Companion' the prestigious international award for Best General Cookbook (May 2010).

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