Imagine a beautiful piece of wild halibut, pan seared and sitting atop a polenta pyramid accompanied by a ragout of bright green peas, mint and basil. If that doesn’t get you excited about spring, nothing will.
“The color green comes back with a vengeance, and the browns and orange, the squashes and potatoes start to go,” said Dave Stewart, executive chef at Seasons Rotisserie & Grill. “We start to see green things, and that’s fun.”
As creator of the aforementioned dish, Stewart is salivating at the prospect of delicate local asparagus, crunchy sugar snap peas and the sweetest spinach of the season.
But not everything spring has to be green. Stewart also has a chef’s admiration for that king of mushrooms and all things French, the morel, also locally grown. The height of rich flavor and exquisite earthiness, morels will transform even a simple potato gratin into a celebratory affair.
While summer-like temperatures can mean glimmering green zucchini and perfectly formed spring onions as early as the May 9 opening of the Durango Farmers Market, for farmers, it also can be a mean trick of Mother Nature.
“This is ridiculous,” said Kellie Pettyjohn, owner of the Wily Carrot farm in Mancos, of the 70-plus-degree days the Four Corners has been experiencing. “We’re watching the snow melt off the mountains and wash away. Water is a huge concern.”
So even as she’s preparing her famous micro-greens for planting – experimenting this year with arugula and tiny corn – she also is considering putting in crops that require less water. Yes, she will have fabulous carrots, beets and broccolini to sell at the Mancos farmers market next month, but expect a lot of winter squashes as the summer wears on.
Farming in Southwest Colorado is like being a gambling addict, says Jennifer Wheeling, who owns the Gardens at James Ranch with her husband, Joe. You can try planting two weeks ahead of schedule because of the sunny days and milder-than-average nights, but you risk losing an entire crop just for an early return.
As for her crop of crisp asparagus, it’s on hiatus for the next two years as it adjusts to its new home in a different field. And now that both daughters are out of the house, she and Joe are a two-person show, planting, weeding, watering and harvesting by themselves. They’ve halted their full-to-brimming produce-on-demand CSA and are limiting their vegetables to the ones that have proved themselves suited to the land.
You can expect rhubarb, currants and head lettuce this spring, and four different colors of cauliflower, lunchbox sweet peppers and tomatoes in the summer. And sugar snap peas – those harbingers of spring itself – will arrive around market time.
Jennifer Wheeling said if their farm didn’t grow peas, their customers would be infuriated.
Stewart agreed. “I’m always thinking about those sugar snap peas.”
Asparagus, however, should make a timely arrival the end of this month at Rohwer Farm in Pleasantville, where it’s always the first crop of the season. The mother-daughter team of Judy and Heidi Rohwer on April 12 will host their second annual onion planting party – a merry ruse complete with lunch to get friends, family and anyone with a strong back to help plant thousands of onions.
Heidi already is planting zucchini and cucumbers in the greenhouse, with peas and fava beans, those savory Italian favorites, hard on their heels. Because of the early and sustained warmth, she predicts it will be a great season for potatoes – and here, let me implore Judy to bring back the Kennebecs, those specimens of potato perfection – and fruit. That’s good news for those of us who arrive early at the market to snatch up her sweet plums and juicy nectarines.
But all those higher-than-normal temperatures are causing some farmers to fret.
“The garlic is further along, and that’s troublesome to me,” said Linley Dixon, owner of Adobe House Farm.
No matter how warm it is now, to keep her from planting too early, Dixon need only recall the night in late June last year when it got down to almost freezing. This year and last it seemingly was warm enough to plant in February, she said, but you can count on 60 mph winds in April and a hard frost in May to damage crops.
No can you blame her for worrying about the Four Corners’ dastardly hail, which has hit her farm five years in a row.
“We’re planning for it now instead of saying it was bad luck. We grow a lot of stuff under tunnels,” she said.
So spring onions and spring greens will be ready when the market opens, and warm-weather produce like basil and tomatoes should appear in early summer. And you can taste her amazing spinach right now at Seasons.
Chef Linda Illsley of Linda’s Local Food Café swears greens grown in colder weather are sweeter than those available in summer. The market is a month away, yet she’s sourcing spinach and kale, arugula and chard from local farmers. They not only supply her with produce but often come to the restaurant to sell the extra to customers.
So OK, it’s spring and all that, but why should we home cooks care, other than the basil will grow in the backyard?
“Because of the flavor!” Illsley answers, vexed that anyone would ask such a clueless question. “It’s fresh and delicious and healthy.”
Enough said. Welcome, spring, to Durango.