Salad lover's delight in Uniontown

Farm: Gardener's Gourmet can fill the plate of those with an appetite for greens and culinary herbs.

May 26, 1999|By PAULA GALLAGHER | PAULA GALLAGHER,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Think of this farm as a kind of living salad bar.

"Go ahead, you can taste anything in here. It's all edible," encourages Cinda Sebastian as she pauses to pluck a leaf from a greenhouse bed. "Lime basil. Smell it, taste it."

Sebastian, 38, and her husband, Scott Williams, 46, (with help from their children, Carlisle, 15, and Waverly, 11) operate Gardener's Gourmet, a small "niche" farm in Uniontown in Carroll County.

But don't expect to see the usual Maryland crops growing here. The family got out of the tomato, corn and cantaloupe business more than a decade ago. These 27 acres echo California.

How did Gardener's Gourmet become an incubator for such uncommon produce as arugula, tatsoi, Chioggia beets and pineapple sage?

"We started out growing what everybody does around here," says Sebastian, who grew up in Carroll County on a chicken farm. "And we tried to be as competitive as we could with the price."

They soon came to the realization that vegetables like potatoes are heavy and, pound for pound, aren't worth the effort to grow on a small-scale farm.

"Lugging them [to farmers' markets] was hard on the back," Sebastian said. "We decided to look for lighter things to sell."

You can't get much lighter than greens. The couple discovered a demand for gourmet baby and heirloom vegetables, European lettuces and fresh herbs.

In recent weeks, Sebastian has devoted a lot of time to preparing for the annual Baltimore Herb Festival, to be held Saturday in Leakin Park. She will be on hand with plants and advice for those who would like to try a hand at raising their own oregano or tarragon.

"The day is always a lot of fun. It's almost like a party," Sebastian says. "It's only once a year. And it concentrates solely on herbs."

Her husband also enjoys the laid-back atmosphere of the festival.

"I don't get as much involved in the selling," says Williams, a former chef. "I'm there for either 'ask the chef' or 'ask the gardener.' I spend so much time just talking about food [that] it's a lot of fun."

Sebastian and her husband raise more than 30 varieties of culinary herbs at the farm. Two greenhouses also keep optimal temperatures for raising trays of fennel, nasturtiums, mustard greens, mache and the like; all of which end up as part of the popular mesclun mix that Gardener's Gourmet sells by the bowl at area farmers' markets.

Although mesclun greens are grown year-round, spring heralds the arrival of the busy season. Fertilizing, watering and scouting for pests and disease are continuing projects. While the farm isn't certified organic, pesticides are kept to a minimum, Sebastian says.

The work is physically demanding, she says.

"You have to choose between your knees and back," she says with a laugh, referring to the constant bending and stooping. "There are not enough hours in the day to get everything done."

But she adds, "It's a wonderful way to live."

Because of zoning restrictions, you won't find a farm stand on Sebastian and Williams' land. Instead, Sebastian tirelessly makes the rounds of all the major area farmers' markets, going as far south as Falls Church, Va.

On Wednesdays, she delivers produce to a handful of restaurant clients.

"I have about a dozen queries from chefs, but I don't have enough time or 'stuff.' We're small," she says. "And we don't want to get much bigger."

For now, Gardener's Gourmet greens and herbs make it to the tables of Caves Valley Golf Club, Rudy's 2900 Restaurant, Gertrude's, Golden West Cafe and Spike and Charlie Gjerde's Baltimore restaurants.

Spike Gjerde is enthusiastic about the mesclun mix.

"It's really fresh and it's got herbs in it like chervil and wild fennel," he says. "When you eat it, the flavors are so bright. It blows all others away."

Thomas Rudis, owner and chef of Golden West Cafe in Baltimore, developed his relationship with Gardener's Gourmet by frequenting the Waverly Market stand.

"I buy mostly herbs -- cilantro, basil, mint and some greens, heirloom tomatoes, squash blossoms," he says. "I do a lot of Vietnamese cooking, New Mexican, Thai, California. ... '"You absolutely have to have fresh [herbs]."

At the markets, Sebastian keeps a stack of recipe cards on hand to entice would-be buyers to try an unfamiliar item.

"Most people don't know what to do with a lot of these herbs. It makes a big difference [in sales] when we have the recipes out," she says.

Herb Pancakes With Smoked Trout

Serves 6 as an appetizer

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

pinch of salt

1 egg plus 1 egg yolk

1 cup milk, or 1/2 cup milk and 1/2 cup plain seltzer water, more as necessary

3-4 tablespoons sunflower or olive oil

4-5 tablespoons coarsely chopped mixed herbs such as chervil, parsley, dill, fennel tops

6 smoked trout fillets

HORSERADISH SAUCE:

1/2 cup cream cheese

scant 1/2 cup sour cream

1 teaspoon prepared horseradish, or to taste

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