Gourmet gardening. Haute-cuisine veggies so fresh your taste buds won't recognize them

Outdoors a leaden February sky was soon to add several more inches to the already deep snow here. But indoors the radiating warmth of a wood stove was promoting the germination of several hundred lettuce plants, bunching onions, and leeks destined for the better-quality restaurants in this northwest corner of Vermont. David Miskell's fifth season as a commercial grower of gourmet vegetables was already under way.

Mr. Miskell is capitalizing on the American consumer's ``rediscovery of quality and flavor in fresh produce.''

A whole generation of Americans grew up without knowing what a good-tasting vegetable was like, he says. ``But fortunately they never lost their taste buds.'' They had only to eat high-quality produce a few times to start asking for it, even insisting on it, in restaurants.

Miskell, who for several years apprenticed himself to a master market gardener in France, says he realized he couldn't compete with conventional agriculture on his seven rented acres in Vermont. His only hope was to grow unusual, ``gourmet'' vegetables with the quality, appearance, and taste that would appeal to discerning restaurant chefs and their clients. Chocolate- and purple-colored peppers, lemon tomatoes, blue potatoes, purple beans, ivory eggplant, red scallions, and red lettuce are among the varieties not common in the supermarkets.

Part of Miskell's business success has come from his innovative growing and harvesting techniques, many of which can be used in the home garden, too.

Out-of-season crops (early spring and late fall), what the French call ``primeur'' vegetables, are grown using ``season extenders'' -- cold frames and simple plastic-covered grow tunnels, which are readily constructed.

The tunnels -- clear plastic stretched over simple wire hoops -- enable him to get lettuce and other crops to market at least two weeks sooner than without such protection. While the plastic provides a few degrees of protection from frost, its most significant contribution, he says, is the improved growing conditions it provides by warming the soil and shielding plants from the chill winds of spring. His lettuce (he grows as many as 100 different varieties in a season) generally make it from sowing to the restaurant table in only six weeks.

Miskell starts his seeds in individual soil blocks indoors, where warm temperatures ensure even, rapid germination. Within a week they are moved to a greenhouse, where the very early crops are grown to maturity. By the first of April, the lettuce seedlings are planted outdoors under plastic tunnels. By early May the tunnels are removed from the hardier crops and used over the early tomatoes and peppers. Scallions go outdoors along with the lettuce, followed by warm-weather crops when frost is less of a threat.

Using small hand tools, Miskell makes the soil blocks he uses for all his seeds, and he has developed some interesting growing techniques. Scallions, for instance, are sown 6 to 8 seeds to a 2-inch-square block; then the blocks are planted in the field about 10 inches apart. When they shoot up, the scallions are already bunched for the market. Each bunch is harvested and dipped in water to remove any soil. Then it's ready to go, saving considerably on labor.

Tomatoes are also started in 2-inch blocks, which later fit neatly into an appropriate depression in 4-inch blocks. The larger block will take tomatoes to the flower-bud stage while they're still indoors. With such advanced plants going into the field, the initial harvest is speeded up dramatically. Here it is almost unheard of to produce vine-ripened tomatoes outdoors by late June, as Miskell does.

A speciality of Miskell's is baby zucchini, picked with the flower still on. Chefs serve the baby zucchini with an appropriate filling in the flowers. Miskell picks these with gloved hands.

``Nothing takes `gourmet' out of zucchini faster than the imprint of a fingernail in the skin,'' he says. Similarly, lettuce is harvested with the proverbial kid gloves, and scallions are cut from the ground, never pulled, so that no bruising will occur.

``Remember,'' Miskell cautions, ``the better-tasting vegetables haven't been bred to take mechanical harvesting and cross-country shipping.''

All too many home gardeners find themselves swamped with large zucchini at the height of summer, and end up dumping the excess on the compost heap. Miskell says harvest the zucchini when the flowers are still on. ``It's the most delicious way to overcome the problem.''

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