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Spring has sprung!

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Finally! Signs of life everywhere have begun to show! After what seemed to be an interminable winter, our day lilies and hostas have popped up, and our magnolia tree is in full bloom. While the green grass and pretty flowers are beautiful to see, the real excitement for a chef this time of year is the start of the food growing season.

Fortunately I have developed relationships with several area farms who have greenhouses and can provide me with some vegetables year round, so it never feels like complete famine. But the variety of vegetables and fruits I will be able to source will increase dramatically as the weeks progress and summer gets into full swing.

Particular favorites this time of year for me are the abundant fresh greens I have been getting, including arugula and claytonia. For those who do not know claytonia, it is also called miner’s lettuce and was discovered by the gold miners growing wild in California. It is a tender and sweet green that has an almost clover like shape and is fantastic as a garnish in soups as it does not wilt like spinach. And of course arugula is fantastic in both salads and in pesto. I also am extremely fond of asparagus and cannot get enough of the fresh specimen. I use it for soups, salads, roasted, grilled, shaved raw ... you name it.

As the season progresses, not only will I continue sourcing from local farms, but I will be expanding my herb and vegetable garden here at the inn. I confess I am eliciting the help of a professional because I have a black thumb. Blame it on my roots in California where nobody has space to grow anything and living in Las Vegas, where nothing grows. Needless to say, once it is in the kitchen, I know what to do with it, but while it is in the ground, it eludes me. I guess we all have our strengths and weaknesses, right?

But I digress. Because of the special help we are getting this year, we are planning on planting numerous heirloom varieties of tomatoes, several types of eggplant, a rainbow of colors of beets, cucumbers, peppers and a myriad of herbs including multiple types of basil, cilantro and parsley. If you’re thinking this sounds an awful lot like a Mediterranean salad of some kind, you’d be right. All the key ingredients you need for healthy Mediterranean cuisine. I can’t wait!

Something that is important to me is that we grow our food organically and that we source our food from farms that do the same. I’m not so insistent on organic certification per se, but rather knowledge first-hand that food was grown as such. I think our food has enough chemicals in it without adding more. If that means my yield isn’t as high or that my fruit isn’t perfect, so be it. A farmer once told me, if there are no bugs on your food, you probably shouldn’t eat it either. That being said, I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t say I have to supplement some of my food with conventionally grown items from the grocery store. But the less I have to do that, the better. Not only do I know where my food is coming from, I am supporting the local economy in doing so.

Finally, this time of year is also when the farmers’ markets kick into full swing. What a great opportunity to get fresh produce and incorporate a leisurely walk in the fresh air. Farmers markets can actually be extremely affordable because most of the food you get there is grown and harvested in season. You aren’t trying to buy something that is only available in the winter in Costa Rica, but rather something that was grown locally that is available now in abundance. Take advantage of that.

A second option for keeping cost down on organic produce is to join a CSA or community supported agriculture plan. There are many, and they all have slightly different ways of operating; but the basic gist of it is that you pay for a share of the crop that a farmer is growing. They do the work, and each week, you reap the benefits from the fresh fruits and vegetables that are available that week. An average share is about $20 a week and is more than enough produce to feed a family of four. You can locate CSAs as well as other local farms through websites like www.localharvest.org or feel free to contact me at the inn, and I’d be happy to connect you with the farms I use. Eat well!

Monika Sudakov is the chef and innkeeper at the Chestnut Street Inn in Sheffield. She can be reached at monikaandjeff@chestnut-inn.com.

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