Vail Simply Seasonal: Gardening at altitude – no small feat
VAIL VALLEY, Colorado -The locavore craze has swept our nation and the Vail Valley. Restaurants use and promote local, natural, organic, farm fresh, sustainable ingredients. And why not – it’s simply the right thing to do.But finding that fresh produce at 8,000 feet above sea level is no small feat. The long winters and short summers offer a much smaller window of opportunity for gardeners. “Patience is key – you have to be open to trial and error,” said Kathie McNeill, maitre d’ at Larkspur Restaurant. “It’s rewarding to grow vegetables, and disappointing when some of your plans don’t come to fruition.”Yet, historically, the Vail Valley has been an abundant lettuce farming area. In the 1920s, Beaver Creek and Bachelor Gulch were home to ranchers, trappers and lettuce farmers. With the nearby Minturn ice house and railroad access at Avon Depot, a bountiful iceberg lettuce crop was shipped in box cars as far as the East Coast, providing warmer locales with crisp salad greens. Modern-day farmers continue this tradition, but have branched way beyond the tip of the iceberg. Many varieties of greens are planted in early spring and can be harvested within a few weeks. Microgreens are a perfect start for the novice alpine gardener. Check seed packets to make sure the contents are considered frost free if you plan to start them outdoors, or start the seeds indoors on a sunny windowsill. Many seed packets offer a mix of greens that will sprout and be ready to harvest in about 25 days – the packet will guide you.McNeill has experimented in her home garden for many years, with all kinds of vegetables. Some she started with seeds and others as small sprouted plants. She’s tried starting them indoors, and outdoors with covers. She watches the weather trends and guesses about when the final frost will be. After years of nurturing high altitude plants, she embarked on a garden at Larkspur Restaurant.In spring 2008, McNeill convinced Chef/Owner Thomas Salamunovich that she could grow salad greens and herbs outside the kitchen door. Chef de Cuisine Cory Melanson built her a raised bed, 16-feet-by-4-feet, in a sunny spot at the base of Golden Peak. She planted and her seeds sprouted. By summer, Larkspur was judiciously, but proudly, using the bounty on the restaurant’s menu. The experiment was a success, and plans for the next year took shape. Summer 2009 yielded a harvest from six beds on Larkspur’s west lawn. Five varieties of greens and eight kinds of herbs furnished beautiful, tasty salads harvested just moments before they were eaten. In the true spirit of locavore, guests were welcome to visit the garden to see just where those salads came from.Just last week, in celebration of Earth Day, the Larkspur management team planted the 2010 garden. Once again, the garden size was increased, this year to nine beds. The soil from last year’s beds was tilled and mulched. Compost from the restaurant’s kitchen was added. The hardier seeds were sown – carrots, turnips, and three types of baby radishes.Upon returning from vacation in May, the team will plant the more delicate seeds – five varieties of greens, rosemary, garlic, sugar snap peas. With any weather luck, the perennial herbs from last year will be sprouting – parsley, thyme, sage, tarragon, oregano and mint. Executive Chef Armando Navarro shares recipes for two versatile herb dressings – great on garden fresh salads.By summer solstice, there will be items on Larkspur’s menu marked with a green thumb icon, denoting the dish was grown just outside the kitchen door. Lemon thyme vinaigrette3 tablespoons fresh lemon juiceLemon zest from half a lemon1 small garlic clove, finely minced1 teaspoon fresh thyme, minced3 teaspoons honey 2 teaspoons white balsamic vinegar1/2 cup extra virgin olive oilSalt and freshly ground pepper to tasteIn a small bowl whisk together all of the ingredients except the olive oil, salt, and pepper. While you are whisking, add the olive oil in a slow, steady stream. Continue whisking until the vinaigrette is emulsified. Add salt and pepper to taste. Makes 1 cup.Green goddess dressing 3 anchovy filets, soaked in cold water for 5 minutes, dried, and coarsely chopped 3/4 cup mayonnaise 1/4 cup sour cream 2 tablespoons thinly sliced fresh chives 2 tablespoons minced flat-leaf parsley 1-1/2 teaspoons minced fresh tarragon leaves 3/4 teaspoon finely chopped fresh basil 1 tablespoon minced shallots 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice Salt & fresh ground pepper to tasteCombine the anchovies, mayonnaise, sour cream, chives, parsley, tarragon, basil, shallots, lemon juice, and the 1/4-teaspoon of salt in a blender. Puree to make a smooth dressing. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Makes 1 1/2 cups. Use immediately or store, covered, in the refrigerator, for up to 2 days. Sue Barham is the marketing director for Larkspur Restaurant and Restaurant Avondale. Larkspur, (larkspurvail.com) at the base of Vail Mountain, has been serving American Classics with a fresh interpretation since 1999. Avondale, (avondalerestaurant.com) opened in September 2008 in the Westin Riverfront Resort and Spa and features a West Coast inspired, market driven menu.