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Alfresco Dining


Posted on October 31


As the days get warmer and flowers begin poking tentatively out of moist earth, Sacramentans the region over heave a sigh of relief. Sliding doors are shouldered open, barbecues are dusted off and food, once again, moves outside.

We revel in a climate that allows us to grill steaks on our porches more than half the year; to picnic under gentle, leafy sycamores on hot afternoons; and to plant seeds that will produce beautiful vegetables we’ll savor during the long, luxuriant warm months. Some of us celebrate the weather by throwing elaborate dinner parties in the back yard, a few set solar cookers out in the blinding sunshine, and others devour voluptuous, ripe plums plucked right off the tree.

Here’s wishing you a season of delectable outdoor dining free of insects, sun blisters and carbonized chicken breasts.

A well-stocked picnic basket, enjoyed in a bucolic setting, has the power to kindle romance and ease our worries. It invites us to relax, to appreciate our surroundings and to savor our food with gusto. Here are five very special spots where you can plop down your basket, unfurl the picnic blanket and tuck into your very own moveable feast.

Griffith Quarry Park and Museum

Picnic tables are scattered throughout this lovely, hilly, oak-studded park in Penryn, site of the old Penryn Granite Works, which was established in 1864 by Welsh immigrant Griffith Griffith. The 23-acre park contains ruins of the first polishing mill built in California as well as several quarry holes from which the Penryn granite was taken. The granite quarried at this sylvan site was used for foundations and decorative elements in the California State Capitol, Stanford University, Alcatraz and Fort Point. After your picnic, explore the quiet, winding paths that run through the park, thick with moss, ferns and smaller outcroppings of granite. We particularly like the expansive, pretty meadow on the top of the hill, which affords a bewitching view of Placer County hills and some chunky granite rocks for the kids to clamber on.

The park is open seven days a week from dawn to dusk; admission is free. 7405 Rock Springs Road (at Taylor Road), Penryn; (530) 889-4000

Sierra Vista Winery

A steep climb up the long driveway to Sierra Vista Winery in El Dorado County pays off with a spectacular, heart-thumping view of the Sierra Nevada mountains and their deep surrounding valleys. In the spring months, the winery’s picnic area is surrounded by a riot of colorful flowers, lovingly tended by co-owner Barbara MacCready, and the mountains, says winemaker (and co-owner) Michelle MacCready Sfara, “are sparkling white.” Rustic tables snuggle up next to acres of Chardonnay, Syrah, Grenache and Merlot grapevines, and all these lovely visuals conspire to make Sierra Vista one of the prettiest places we know to unpack that picnic basket and settle in for an indulgent lunch. If you’re looking for a wine to complement your picnic fare, MacCready Sfara suggests her Belle Rosé, a Rhone-style blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre. “Served chilled,” she says, “it complements many different foods.”

4560 Cabernet Way, Placerville; (530) 622-7221; sierravistawinery.com

Insiders’ Tip: When planning a picnic at Sierra Vista Winery, stock up your basket at Dedrick’s Main Street Cheese shop, an exquisite little food shop tucked off a busy thoroughfare in Placerville. The small space is stuffed to groaning with a huge selection of specialty and international cheeses (it’s the first place we’ve ever seen a vintage label on a piece of cheese), shelves of gorgeous preserves, glass jars full of capers and olives, locally produced artisanal breads, and fanciful items like quince paste and English clotted cream. There’s also an enticing assortment of pastries.

312 Main St., #105, Placerville; (530) 344-8282; dedrickscheese.com

Davis Farmers Market

Local families flock to the Davis Farmers Market on Wednesday evenings to enjoy foot-stomping live music, a bustling produce market, a beer garden, mobile rock-climbing wall, pony rides, a carousel, magicians, jugglers and a bounce house. Spread your picnic blanket out on the enormous lawn, unwrap your sandwiches, and unleash the little ones so they can frolic in the adjacent water fountains. Music aficionados will enjoy the varied lineup of bands—you’ll hear everything from folk, swing and jazz to frisky Irish tunes, and for those of us too harried to pack a formal picnic, 10 Davis restaurants are on hand to dish out dinner.

The Davis Farmers Market is open 4:30–8:30 p.m. Wednesdays from April 7 to October 27. Central Park, Fourth and C streets, Davis; (530) 756-1695

Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park 

If you are seeking serenity and peaceful picnicking, make the trek to Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park. May and June are our favorite months to visit, when the wide meadows of this fascinating park are smothered with a lush carpet of vivid green grass and dotted with colorful, delicate wildflowers. Located in the Sierra Nevada foothills eight miles east of Jackson, the 135-acre park, resplendent with hundreds of gnarly, majestic oak trees, once provided local American Indians with a generous supply of acorns. It now features an enormous limestone “grinding rock,” pitted with more than 1,000 mortar holes, where acorns were pulverized into a fine meal that played an important role in the American Indians’ diet.

There is a covered picnic area near the park’s museum, which provides cool refuge on hot days. However, there are numerous spots at which one can unpack lunch and admire the park’s unique, wild beauty.

14881 Pine Grove-Volcano Road, Pine Grove; (209) 296-7488

Insiders’ Tip: Don’t miss the reconstructed Miwok village and ceremonial roundhouse, or the park’s Chaw’se Regional Indian Museum, which features a variety of exhibits and artifacts made by Miwok and other Sierra Nevada American Indian groups.

Sacramento Zoo

Thanks to the Music in the Zoo program, every Tuesday evening in June and July you and the animals can picnic to the sound of music. As dusk falls, the atmosphere becomes increasingly exotic and noisy, reverberating with a cacophony of screeching, roaring, chirping, barking, trilling and screaming of lively zoo occupants. “In the evening, animals tend to come out and be more visible,” explains public relations coordinator Dagmar Smith. “It’s often a better opportunity to see all our animals. In the heat of the day, many of them tend to sleep or retreat into the back of their enclosure to lay on the cool concrete.” If the opportunity for nighttime animal viewing fails to lure you to the zoo, consider the stellar musical lineup.

Local bands, including Mumbo Gumbo and the Capital Jazz Project, belt out a wide range of tunes, from blues and Caribbean sounds to swing music. Bring a low-backed folding chair or blanket and make like a hungry orangutan.

The gates open at 5:30 p.m., and the music starts at 6 and ends at 8. Admission is $9 for adults, $5 children 3–12, free for children 2 and younger. Members’ admission is half price. Note: No alcohol is permitted in the zoo.

3930 W. Land Park Drive, Sacramento; (916) 264-5888

Cooking in an Outdoor Wood-Fired Brick Oven: Dan Flynn

In 1995, Dan Flynn, a pizza-loving Land Park resident, stumbled across an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about Bay Area gastronomes constructing artisan-style, wood-fired brick ovens in their back yards. Filled with inspiration, Flynn set out to build one for himself.

“I loved the idea of it,” he recalls. “Many of us have to work so much that we don’t get to travel. I wanted to feel like I was on vacation at home. The thought of hanging outside, drinking wine and tossing pizzas had a lot of appeal to me.” Sacramento has a Mediterranean climate, he adds, “and I wanted to cook Mediterranean-style food in my back yard.”

The masonry interior of a traditional brick oven produces intense heat in three different ways, he explains: radiant, conduction and convection. Together, those methods produce crusty loaves of bread, incomparably crispy pizzas and superlative roasted meats—exactly the kind of fare he envisioned serving to enthusiastic family members and friends.

Flynn decided that the project (which took him five years) should include an elevated cooking fireplace, “similar to the fireplaces found in old European kitchens.” He also needed counter space and a sink, as well as an area to store wood and a flagstone patio for his outdoor dining table. “The more I thought about it, the longer it took to build!” he laughs. The project got more expensive, too, but he now justifies the expense with a bemused “the way I look at it, it cost less than a kitchen remodel.”

His initial culinary results, he admits, “were not very satisfactory.” The oven was either not hot enough, “so all my bread crusts were pale and limp,” or it was too hot, resulting in burned, dry loaves. It also took him awhile to locate a reliable wood supply. Fortunately, a neighbor remodeled, and he was able to purloin the castoff lumber. Another neighbor took down a maple tree, and Flynn was there to pick up the branches. “I fire the oven with scrap lumber, since any coals are raked out prior to baking,” he says, sheepishly admitting that he enjoys scavenging during neighborhood cleanups for wooden pallets, discarded shelves “and basically anything that would work as fuel for the oven.”

Flynn’s newfound cooking skills eventually blossomed, and he discovered that, as “heat declines, you can do different things.” The oven stays hot for hours, he says. At its peak temperatures, he’ll bake pizza; then, as it cools, he may slip in some focaccia or bread dough, and later in the day he roasts meats and vegetables. At its lowest temperatures, he can make items such as croutons and oven-dried tomatoes. “I don’t always have the energy to get it together to bake all day,” he adds, “but I have made a lot of things, from roasted chickens and pork to cakes, pizzas, innumerable loaves of bread and even roasted nuts.”

The advantages of the oven, he says, are “the atmosphere that it creates, the character that it gives bread and pizzas, and its numerous opportunities for barbecuing and slow roasting.” However, he warns, “It isn’t for people who like to get dinner on the table fast.”

He uses the oven more than he thought he would. “It’s a satisfying ritual, and helps me to get out of the house,” he observes. “If there’s lots of cleanup or commotion inside, I can escape outside.” Friends enjoy coming over and gathering around the oven, he notes happily. His favorite items to bake are, as he had anticipated, rustic pizzas and breads. “Occasionally,” he says with a grin, “I taste my bread and think, wow, this is pretty darned good.”

Solar Cooking: Robert Metcalf

Many Sacramento residents find themselves sweltering uncomfortably in the sun on the long, hot days of summer. But few of us have considered harnessing this brilliant radiant power for anything other than enhancing our tans or growing vegetables. Meet Dr. Robert Metcalf, a biology professor at California State University, Sacramento, who has utilized the sun’s power to feed family and friends for 25 years.

Introduced to solar cooking in 1978, Metcalf began experimenting with a solar box cooker, which he describes as a “box within a box” that looks something like a big suitcase. It consists of a foil-lined box inside a larger box, with a layer of insulation between the two and a glass window on top. “At first, I thought it would just be a novelty,” he recalls, “but it was so easy to use, and the cooked food was so delicious, that we began using it regularly. I have used it over 4,000 times since 1978. We continue to solar cook every day in the summer.”
 
There are three basic kinds of solar cookers. The box cookers, described above, can accommodate large quantities of food, and cook the food slowly and evenly. Panel cookers are designed with various flat panels, usually made of cardboard and covered with aluminum foil, that concentrate the sun’s rays onto a pot inside a clear plastic bag or under a glass bowl. Parabolic cookers utilize concave disks that focus the light onto the bottom of a pot.

If the food you intend to cook already has water in it, explains Metcalf, you don’t need to add water. “You just put meat or vegetables in the pot, add the dark lid, and place it in the plastic bag (if you’re using a panel cooker), and set it out in the sun.” Food safety is ensured, he says, since the process “is going to cook all the microbes in the food.” Heat from the sun is transferred to food, but does not burn it. The advantages of solar cooking are numerous: Kitchens remain cool while the food cooks outdoors, reducing the load on air conditioners on warm days, saving fossil fuels and lowering utility bills. You can start your meal early in the day and don’t need to worry about it drying out or burning. (At moderate solar cooking temperatures, food doesn’t need to be stirred, won’t burn and can be left to cook, unattended, for several hours). Many solar cookers also are portable, providing opportunities to solar cook while picnicking or camping.

How do you assess whether it’s a good solar cooking day? “You need to see a shadow,” he says, “and you need three hours’ worth of sunshine. May through September, we have powerful sun days.” Metcalf particularly likes to prepare lasagne in the solar cooker. “You don’t even have to precook the lasagne noodles,” he says. “And the result is really spectacular, and so easy to make.” Another family favorite is corn on the cob. “You husk the corn and put it into the pot for an hour or hour and a half. You don’t need to add water.” When Metcalf makes a pot roast, he simply slips carrots, potatoes and onions under the meat and puts it all in the solar cooker. “The roast is so tender, with a wonderful flavor,” he enthuses, “and baked whole chickens turn out golden brown with meat so moist it falls off the bone.” Baked squash and apples are “also wonderful,” he adds, as are many vegetarian recipes and beans, which cook in four hours after presoaking them.

“It’s exciting to be able to have cooked food that didn’t require one molecule of natural gas or one watt of electricity, just by using the natural resource of the sun,” he exclaims. “It demonstrates what two and a half billion people around the world could be using instead of wood, which is a dwindling energy source.” Solar cooking, he says, is the simplest, safest, most convenient way to cook food without consuming fuel. For the millions of people who lack access to safe drinking water and become sick or die each year from preventable waterborne illnesses, solar water pasteurization also could be a life-saving skill.

Metcalf constantly is amazed, he says, “that these very simple materials can accomplish the serious task of cooking our food.” He started solar cooking when his sons were 2 and 5 years old, and “they wound up having more solar-cooked meals than conventionally cooked meals.” He urges people to solar cook with their children. “These are simple concepts a child can understand: shiny things reflect, dark things absorb, and a bag traps heat. This will really change your perspective about cooking.”

To learn more about solar cooking, visit solarcookers.org and solarcooking.org.

Roasting Livestock on a Spit: Chef Patrick Mulvaney

If you happened to be in midtown Sacramento around St. Patrick’s Day and a savory, drool-inducing aroma wafted your way, you were probably sniffing a 50-pound pig or a lamb slowly turning on a spit over an industrial-sized fire. This succulent meat was carved up and served to 200 ravenous guests, along with a pint of cold beer, New York kielbasa sausage, salad, grilled asparagus, bread, tortillas, salsa and pickled onions. Welcome to chef Patrick Mulvaney’s annual Roasting of the Pig and Patrick’s Saint-Name-Day Celebration.
Mulvaney, who has been carrying on his father’s tradition of hosting a saint-name-day celebration, devotes the afternoon to his clients and staff at this casual, rambunctious appreciation party where, his invitation warns, “Queensberry rules apply.” (Marquess of Queensberry rules are a set of boxing standards, introduced in 1867, which include, “A man hanging on the ropes in a helpless state, with his toes off the ground, shall be considered down,” and “No shoes or boots with springs allowed.”)

Spit roasting, a culinary method conjuring up images of bawdy, medieval-style feasts, also happens to produce extraordinarily delicious meat when executed properly. The day of the event, he rubs six brined chickens with achiote paste (a Mexican staple, prepared from the ground red seeds of the annatto tree) and stuffs three inside each pig, along with fresh rosemary and heads of garlic. “The spit goes directly through the chickens, and the moisture of the chickens as they cook inside the pig bastes the inside of the pig and keeps it moist,” Mulvaney says. He removes the chickens at the end of the spit roasting. “The achiote paste gives the chicken a nice orange color,” he explains, “and they are really tender and tasty.”

A half hour before the pig is pulled off the spit, the skin is thoroughly wiped with a wet towel and sprinkled with salt. “This produces a delicious, crispy skin, or chicharron, which is very popular with the crowd,” says Mulvaney. The cooked meat is then laid out on big platters for guests. “It’s educational, it’s fun, it showcases local food,” offers Mulvaney, “and it’s a way for me to thank everyone—to say, ‘Come to my table and enjoy yourself.’”

Yellow Jacket Survival Guide

As soon as the picnic basket is pulled out or the barbecue is fired up, yellow jackets descend from the skies, hell-bent on joining the party. Buzzing annoyingly, clustering around every plate of food and open beverage, these exasperating insects can put a real damper on the day’s activities.

Yellow jackets sting only when they sense a threat to themselves or their colonies. Those flying about freely are looking for food and usually won’t sting unless swatted at or accidentally touched.
Here’s a look at how to survive the pesky stingers.

To avoid getting stung
Don’t go barefoot.
Don’t swat with your hands.
Check food before you put it in your mouth.
Avoid wearing perfume and other scents.
Apply unscented deodorant, sunscreen, hairspray and sunblock.
Avoid wearing brightly colored clothes. Wear light-colored clothing without patterns.
Keep drinks, especially juice and soda, covered. Use straws, and look before you sip.
Do not carry snacks containing meat or sugar in open containers.
Don’t sit on, or handle, wet towels or clothes without first checking to make sure that no yellow jackets are drinking the moisture.

If a yellow jacket lands on you
Stay calm and don’t panic.
Do not squash it. Many species emit a chemical when crushed that causes other nearby yellow jackets to attack.
Brush it off with a piece of paper or some other object, moving slowly and deliberately.

Keeping them away from food
Place traps around the periphery of your picnic or barbecue area a few hours before the event to keep yellow jackets away from your food.

Try hanging a piece of meat, fish, tuna-flavored cat food or Braunschweiger sausage (a German liver sausage) over a gallon container of soapy water. When the yellow jackets leave the hanging bait, they often drop a short distance before beginning to fly, and will drop into the water and drown. (In the late summer and fall, yellow jackets also develop a sweet tooth and are attracted to sweet foods, so try candy, grenadine or syrup as bait).

Keep garbage cans securely covered.

Christian Sieck, Enotria Cafe & Wine Bar

When Christian Sieck, chef of Enotria Cafe & Wine Bar, is not in the restaurant kitchen, you can usually find him in the back yard grilling dinner for his large family. The easiest and most forgiving meat to grill, he says, is beef, “since it can be served rare to well-done in temperature.” Chicken, however, “is easier to ruin,” so he advises browning chicken on the grill and then slipping it into the oven to finish it off. Sieck suggests that novice grillers avoid “lighter” fish like sea bass and sole. “Unless you know what you’re doing,” he notes, “they can be a headache.” Instead, stick with fish like salmon, swordfish, ahi tuna and shark, which are more steaklike and easier to handle.

Sieck uses mesquite charcoal or gas to grill food. “Stay away from lighter fluid,” he warns, “and I think pit Webers aren’t good to cook on—they don’t have good temperature control.” Just about any kind of vegetable can be grilled, he adds, and zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes and bell peppers are especially grill-friendly. Brush them with olive oil, fresh garlic, and salt and pepper and “you’re ready to go.” And don’t overlook fruit: “Fruit is wonderful grilled!” he exclaims. “Try pineapple, mangoes and papaya. Brush with oil and keep a close eye on the fruit, however, as they contain a lot of sugar and are easy to burn.”

Turkey Bacon-Wrapped Turkey Medallions
This dish, says Christian Sieck, “is a great alternative to traditional grilled chicken, hot dogs and burgers.”

For marinade:
2 tablespoons paprika
2 cups apple cider
1 cup Apple Jack bourbon
2 sticks cinnamon
3 tablespoons shallots, finely chopped
3 tablespoons garlic, minced
salt and pepper to taste

For dish:
12 2-ounce turkey medallions
12 slices turkey bacon
1 cup unsalted butter, melted

Blend all marinade ingredients together in a shallow glass container. Reserve 1 cup marinade and refrigerate.

Wrap each slice of bacon around a medallion. Secure with a wooden toothpick. Place bacon-wrapped medallions in remaining marinade, cover and refrigerate overnight or a minimum of four hours. Spray grill rack with nonstick vegetable spray. Prepare grill for direct cooking method. Remove turkey medallions from marinade and discard marinade. Place medallions on grill rack, about four inches from the heat. Grill approximately 4 to 5 minutes, brush once with reserved marinade and turn. Continue to grill another 4 to 5 minutes or until internal temperature reaches 170 F. Meanwhile, mix melted butter with remaining marinade.

Over medium heat, reduce marinade mixture to desired consistency, stirring occasionally. Place two medallions on a warmed dinner plate. Ladle sauce over medallions and serve. Serves 6.

Chef Glenn Weddell, Tapa the World

Glenn Weddell, chef at Sacramento’s Tapa the World, relishes cooking outside. Two of his favorite methods of preparing food, however, are somewhat out of the ordinary. “I smoke everything,” he says, “even vegetables. Smoked eggplant and tomatoes are really fabulous.” Weddell uses mesquite wood in the smoker, and places wet wood chips over the hot mesquite. A huge rib fan, he can easily smoke four racks of ribs at a time, which feed eight to 10 people. He also enjoys hot- and cold-smoking a number of foods, from steaks and chicken to salmon and even feta cheese. Weddell’s other specialty is Spanish paella, cooked in a large paella pan outdoors over a Weber grill at full flame. “It imparts a wonderful smoke flavor,” he says. “It’s definitely the best way to cook paella.”

Camarones Piri Piri
Glenn Weddell likes this recipe because “it’s so fast and easy, and it tastes great. It leaves you with more time to have fun with your guests.”

1/2 cup minced garlic
2 tablespoons red chile flakes
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup canola oil
1 pound jumbo prawns, peeled and deveined
8–10 bamboo skewers
8 lemon wedges

In a large bowl, stir together garlic, chile flakes, coriander, salt and canola oil, and add prawns. Marinate prawns, covered and chilled, at least four hours or overnight.
In a shallow dish, soak skewers in water 2 to 3 hours and prepare grill.
Thread shrimp onto skewers and grill over hot coals approximately 3 minutes per side. Serve with lemon wedges. Serves 2.

Yvan and Mary Chalaye, Cafe Campanile

Chef Yvan and Mary Chalaye, owners of Cafe Campanile in El Dorado Hills, choose grilling as their “preferred mode of cooking” in the warm weather months. “We cook absolutely everything on our Weber Genesis grill,” says Mary. “I have a really good one. We have a vegetable garden and can pick corn and just throw it into water we have boiling on the gas side burner while we’re grilling something.” The Chalayes “love the efficiency and accuracy of a gas grill,” she adds, “because you can control the temperature, it’s not messy, and you don’t need fluid to start it.” The couple frequently use wet wood chips in the grill to flavor the food, often mixing fresh rosemary into the chips. “We like grilling,” she offers, “because you can plan everything ahead, and it’s always casual and relaxed. There’s no limit to what you can cook outside.”

Grilled Rib-Eye Steaks With a Mediterranean Rub

Mary Chalaye calls this “a dry rub you can’t live without.”

2 tablespoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon ground paprika
1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons good-quality olive oil
4 1-pound boneless rib-eye steaks, trimmed
salt
8 lemon wedges

Blend first five ingredients in a small bowl. Add oil to form a smooth paste. Rub mixture over steaks. Transfer to a baking pan, cover and chill a minimum of three hours or overnight.
Prepare grill. Sprinkle steaks with salt to taste. Grill to desired doneness, about five minutes per side for medium-rare. Place on cutting board; let stand four or five minutes. Cut steaks into 1/2-inch-thick diagonal slices. Serve with lemon wedges. Serves 12.

Joy Reed, Spoons Market Cafe & Bakery

Outdoor cooking and dining, according to Joy Reed, can be casual or fancy. “There are a lot of different formats you can use when entertaining outside,” says Reed, owner of the popular Granite Bay gourmet takeout establishment. “I really like small, casual dinners, where my guests participate in the menu. Most of my friends are foodies.” Reed has hosted “huge sit-down, multicourse dinners outside. I love to cook outdoors. We live in the most spectacular climate in the world to do that.” It’s important, she advocates, that the host enjoy her own party, and that can be accomplished by “doing as much prep work as possible ahead of time, so you can be relaxed and happy when your guests are there.” And another piece of advice: “Use china, linen and beautiful glassware, whether you’re in the forest, on a boat or throwing an incredibly formal dinner outside. It makes the food taste better.”

Grilled Pizza

A popular outdoor entertaining menu item for Joy Reed is grilled pizza, “where each guest picks his or her favorite toppings.” Homemade pizza dough is very easy to make, she says, but you also can purchase ready-to-use pizza dough or shells from your local pizza parlor. “All the preparation for the pizzas can be done ahead of time, and the toppings can be as creative as your imagination allows.” It isn’t necessary that each guest ends up with the pizza they created, she adds. “I like to cut them in fours and arrange them on a platter so everyone can sample.”

Pizza dough (homemade or purchased)
Suggested toppings: Cambozola cheese, fresh figs, fresh basil, pine nuts, caramelized onions, goat cheese, pepper Jack cheese, shredded cooked chicken, fresh cilantro, salsa, mozzarella cheese, Italian sausage, portobello mushrooms, olives, sun-dried tomatoes. Brush pizza crust with olive oil and place it carefully on a hot grill. Grill just until crust begins to color and get grill marks. Remove the crust and add your favorite toppings to the grilled side of the crust. Return pizza to the grill and close the hood for several minutes until the bottom crust is cooked and crispy, the cheese is gooey and the topping is hot.

Spade in hand, imagination fired with visions of ripe, fleshy tomatoes and sweet watermelons, gardeners approach summer with enthusiasm and purpose. Each year they prepare their soil, sow their seeds and tend to the emerging plants with solicitous care. How, we wonder, do they maintain their devotion and energy, undaunted by slugs, crab grass, blazing hot days and mud-encrusted fingernails?

The dreamy smile you see on their faces as they wrench weeds out of the earth reveals a secret only they could know: Nowhere is outdoor food more pristine and elemental, more full-flavored and satisfying, than when it is tweaked—fresh and plump—from one’s very own plant, tree or vine.

Master Gardener Phil Damewood

Sink your teeth into a sun-warmed, juice-laden peach, and it may well be the beginning of a lifelong love affair. It certainly was for master gardener Phil Damewood, who still remembers the lush tree fruits he enjoyed as a child. “Back then,” he reminisces, “Silicon Valley was just miles of orchards. We used to buy ripe plums, apricots and peaches there during the summertime. Once you taste the real thing, your brain just holds onto it forever—I have always had a real passion for the taste of fresh fruits.” He says his affection for vegetables was also born early on. “When I was a kid,” he says, “my grandparents put a garden behind our house, and I was hooked the day I pulled a carrot out of the ground and ate it.”

His ardor for produce led him to found the Fair Oaks Community Garden in 1981 while he was studying for his master gardener certification. He actively gardened at the site until 1995, when he finally turned his plot over to a colleague. “Now I have a kitchen garden,” he says, “and I grow things that I want to cook, like tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and onions.” Damewood also cultivates grapes and blueberries on his property, as well as a number of flourishing fruit trees. He delights in giving away ripe peaches, nectarines, apricots and plums to friends and neighbors. “When you can eat a fully ripe nectarine or peach off a tree,” he explains, “it’s a pretty special experience. Sometimes I grow things for the neighborhood kids, like potatoes, just so they can dig them up and see where they come from.”

The Deconinck Family Garden

Chef Marc Deconinck devotes most evenings to feeding appreciative customers at Le Bilig, the Auburn restaurant he owns and runs with his wife, Monica. This effort translates into some very long hours, intense, hot working conditions and tired feet. His recipe for stress reduction? Growing food. “Being in the garden is very therapeutic,” he says. “After I spend five nights in the kitchen, I am able to regenerate after one day of working in the vegetable garden. It makes me feel resourceful.”

Although Deconinck’s home garden does supply about 25 percent of the restaurant’s produce, its main purpose is to feed his family. “A garden is now a necessity for a family to eat well,” he observes, “since you don’t always know where store-bought produce comes from or how it is grown.” The plot is a year-round project, producing potatoes, garlic, shallots, Brussels sprouts and cabbage in the winter, and a bounty of vegetables in the warmer months. “In the summer,” says Deconinck, “the garden doubles or triples in size with everything we’ve got growing out there.” The family also tends to, and enjoys, their apple, cherry, plum and almond trees and an herb garden. “We have five children,” he adds, “and the older ones are definitely involved.”

A Restaurant that Grows Food

Doug Silva of Silva’s Sheldon Inn in Elk Grove has always fiercely believed in serving his customers the freshest ingredients available. So it seems logical that he would cultivate a garden alongside his restaurant, which was established in 1988. Recognizing his limitations early on (“We knew we could never supply all the produce the restaurant needed”), he decided to focus his energy on a small handful of fruits and vegetables that he knew they could grow well. “We felt we were capable of growing enough to make a real statement,” he says.

The vegetable plot comprises six 30-foot-long rows on a drip irrigation system. Silva and a few staff grow a wide range of heirloom and conventional tomatoes, bell peppers, green beans, fava beans and four different varieties of eggplant. Five years ago, they built four large herb boxes and now raise arugula, basil, oregano, marjoram, sage, tarragon, thyme, chives and rosemary for the restaurant kitchen. “Herbs play a big role in our cuisine,” he explains, but it can get costly to purchase them. “It’s economical to grown your own and pick what you need.”

Silva does his own composting, which “creates a great soil foundation.” The soil is further enhanced with the crushed pulp of olives, which comes from Silva’s neighbor, Bariani Olive Oil. “It’s high in nutrients,” he says, “and it’s very beneficial for the soil. It’s really an ongoing process, and our soil gets better every year.”
The restaurant’s customers “love the garden,” he adds with satisfaction. “They respond tremendously when we’re able to serve them something we’ve grown right outside.”

Growing Your Own Food: Six Ways To Get Started

Establish a good relationship with your local nursery. Experienced nursery workers can assess your soil, help you figure out what varmint is chewing up your seedlings, and give you tips on everything from drip irrigation systems to weed management and proper planting techniques.

Visit anrcatalog.ucdavis.edu and download Publication #8059. (It’s free.) “Vegetable Garden Basics,” a seven-page manual written by a UC cooperative extension farm adviser, is “a good start for most folks wanting to grow something edible,” says UC’s Agriculture and Natural Resources marketing coordinator Cynthia Kintigh.

Check out sacramentogardening.com. This chatty, fascinating and beautifully maintained gardening site has it all: information about plants, trees and gardening in our region; lists of free publications for home gardeners; links to “garden problem solvers” and a raft of useful products, books and clinics; and loads of useful, well-written gardening advice. The site encourages Sacramento gardeners, “from seasoned to newbie,” to “share tips, find answers, swap seeds and more.”

Buy California Master Gardener Handbook or Sunset’s Western Garden Book. These two inestimably helpful gardening tomes address the specific requirements of our climate. (To purchase California Master Gardener Handbook, call (800) 994-8849 or visit anrcatalog.ucdavis.edu.)

Visit the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center. Would-be vegetable gardeners must visit the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center, an excellent, friendly community resource that provides practical instruction in how to grow fruit trees, grapes, berries, vegetables and landscape plantings using the least toxic and most water-conserving methods possible. “Our mission,” says a center volunteer, “is hands-on education. People can read about pruning and fertilization, but we’re set up to really show them these things.” UC Master Gardeners have installed demonstration plantings of fruit trees, more than 30 varieties of table grapes (with several different trellising methods utilized), dozens of berry bushes (lucky visitors are able to sample the berries during May and June workshops), a vegetable trial area, and raised-bed herb gardens.

Don’t miss the whimsical Asian pear arbor sculptures or the center’s annual Harvest Day celebration (the first Saturday in August), which features an extremely popular tree-fruit, grape and vegetable tasting, educational seminars and garden tours. Annual workshops at the center include “Pruning Fruit Trees,” “Berry Varieties for the Sacramento Area” and  “Growing Herbs in the Landscape.”

The horticulture center is at 8100 Temple Park Road in Fair Oaks Park. It is open to the public during workshops or by appointment. For more information, call (916) 875-6913 or visit sacramentogardening.com for a list of upcoming workshops.

Take a class. American River College Extension offers a class called Year-Round Vegetable and Flower Gardening, which guides students through the “perfect timing for maintaining a year-round garden.” It is held four Saturdays during the year. (The next classes are June 5, Sept. 11 and Nov. 13.) The first half of the class is held on campus, and the second half takes place at instructor Suzanne Ashworth’s home, a 200-acre farm in West Sacramento. “It is a great class for beginning to advanced gardeners,” says Courtney Mills, who took the course in 2002. “Suzanne teaches you everything you need to know about starting and maintaining a garden, from your soil to pruning [techniques]. She lives on a commercial farm where she has a smaller vegetable and flower garden, and in this garden, students can see plants, taste vegetables and get hands-on experience about what they just learned in class.” For more information, call ARC Extension at (916) 484-8643.

Miners’ Garden Herb Farm, an educational center and organic farm located on 30 acres above Foresthill (approximately a half hour outside Auburn), offers a course called Gardening 101. The one-day class covers the “basics of establishing a nontoxic garden or landscape,” notes owner Vicky Bartish, “and it’s designed to take the mystery out of gardening and instill the confidence and knowledge you need to create your own healthy garden or landscape.” Subjects covered include soil improvement; how to compost; good planting procedures; how, when, and why to use fertilizers; and “pest control without wearing a gas mask.”

Bartish also offers a five-month intensive apprenticeship for “truly serious, aspiring organic vegetable gardeners.” The apprenticeship is one weekend per month beginning in June, and there are only three spaces available each year. For more information, call (530) 367-3441.

The Sacramento Co-op Community Learning Center is a one-stop shop for ambitious vegetable gardeners. In addition to its “composting tutorial” and Living Soil class, the co-op offers a course called Bio-Intensive Vegetable Production, which discusses “how to take a barren piece of land and transform it into a productive vegetable garden.” For more information, call Barbara Ramirez at (916) 455-2667 ext. 220.