The mesclun magician

Times Staff Writer

THE sun moves over the Saturday Pico farmers market in Santa Monica, filtering through the canopy protecting the delicate herbs and baby lettuces at the Kenter Canyon Farms stall. Bunches of chocolate mint, flowering thyme and cilantro, their scents infusing the air, buttress wicker baskets brimming with tatsoi, baby arugula and mesclun. Owner Andrea Crawford sips coffee while her 26-year-old son, Nathan, bags a head of gorgeous magenta Treviso radicchio and gives a customer his favorite recipe for it, grilled with tagliatelle.

Unless you're among the families and chefs who routinely shop here, or at the three other Los Angeles markets where Kenter sells its produce, you might not know the history behind the wild arugula and frisee you're buying. And why would you? The stall is bucolic and unpretentious; Crawford is friendly but reticent. There are no signs on display to indicate the role this greenery has played in the story of California cuisine. Nothing to tell you that the salad of market lettuces we take as a given on the menu these days, an edible bouquet that tastes as good as it looks, effectively began in Crawford's garden.

Or, to be more accurate, Alice Waters' garden. Twenty-six years ago, Crawford began growing lettuces and herbs for Chez Panisse, literally in Waters' backyard. She would have stayed in Berkeley were it not for a call from an equally famous restaurateur -- Wolfgang Puck.

"No one was growing mesclun then in Los Angeles," remembers Puck, who in 1985 was in the process of closing his renowned restaurant Ma Maison. "There were no restaurants serving it either. Now we take it for granted, but back then you couldn't get fresh basil, tarragon; there was nothing." Puck asked Crawford to come to Los Angeles to supply his new restaurant, Spago. "I gave her the money to plant it," he said of Crawford's first L.A. garden.

Crawford and then-husband Dennis Peitso came to L.A. to give it a try. "We were opting in," Crawford says about going into business. Neither Crawford nor Peitso started out as farmers: Peitso had studied Chinese history; Crawford studied landscape painting. In fact Crawford started growing lettuce not to sell it or even to eat it, but to paint it. And she had to borrow a garden because she didn't have one of her one: Crawford and Peitso lived on a boat, a 50-foot gaff-rigged schooner that they moored in Berkeley Marina.

A fresh start

ONCE in L.A. -- their boat moored in Marina del Rey -- Crawford and Peitso planted a new garden, this time in the Encino backyard of Larry Silverton, whose daughter Nancy was then Spago's pastry chef. "Larry gave me his backyard," Crawford said. "And he talked me out of leaving." (These days Nancy Silverton gets her arugula delivered to Mozza by wholesalers -- instead of from her father's backyard.)

Eventually Crawford and Peitso leased land in Tarzana and Agoura Hills. Kenter Canyon is named not for the well-known canyon north of Sunset Boulevard in Brentwood, but for the power line that runs through the Tarzana property: the DWP Kenter Canyon power line.

After Crawford and Peitso divorced in 1988, they split the business. Peitso, who renamed his share Maggie's Farm, still farms in Agoura Hills and Tarzana and continues to be a major presence in Los Angeles farmers markets and restaurants. It was an amicable divorce. "Charming woman!" Peitso recently said of his former wife over a basket of baby chard at his stall, a fixture on 2nd Street just south of Arizona Avenue at the Wednesday Santa Monica farmers market.

Crawford remarried and, with her second husband and business partner Robert Dedlow, moved the business north, buying land in Ventura County. There, in the shadow of the Santa Paula Ridge of the Transverse mountain range, on 65 acres in Santa Paula, they grow the same greens that Crawford has been growing since she painted her first bouquet of arugula more than 25 years ago. "We haven't reinvented ourselves at all," she said.

Two weeks ago Crawford was in the middle of spring planting. Rows of baby red lettuces, cilantro, chervil and opal basil grew in tidy lines. Crawford said she sometimes sees condors; she pointed out overgrown land adjacent to the farm, now a preserve with a redwing blackbird aviary. As she drove down the road next to her fields, the scent of orange blossoms from a grove of Valencia orange trees filled the truck with intense perfume. Rows of sage, calendula flowers, soft-stemmed rosemary ("the bakers love it for rosemary bread") and flowering thyme undulated in the breeze. And when the wind shifted, a heady wave of mint blew through the open window. "Thanks to mojitos, mint is very popular," she said, turning the corner.

"These days everyone is growing what we grow," she continued, "it's not unique any more." Still, her baby arugula, which you can buy in bags at Bristol Farms or Vicente Foods, is superlative -- the dark green leaves, shaped like perfect tiny oak leaves, have terrific flavor, never overly spicy or bitter.

The 'V' factor

IF there's a secret to growing it, Crawford's not talking; she claims that nothing about what they do is "particularly novel," and attributes the quality of her greens to freshness. "We follow standard cultivating procedures," she said. "It's the fresh factor that people notice; we send product out every day. Vitality is a pretty subtle thing."

Then Crawford had another thought: "Perhaps we can chalk it up to 'terroir.' Maybe we need an appellation." Santa Paula, she pointed out, is an alluvial plain. "That's what you want when you're farming."

Kenter also grows wild arugula, which isn't technically wild, but an heirloom. It has a spicier bite, a wilder flavor than regular arugula.

Crawford's herbs and baby lettuces have a short span between planting and market: "When you're in the baby lettuce business," she says, "everything goes pretty quickly."

Not so of her Treviso radicchio, which takes a few months to grow. "Like all the chicories, Treviso is a winter crop, so timing is crucial to success," Crawford says. "Seed in the fall, harvest in late spring." Many people think growing radicchio is difficult, but Crawford says it's mostly about the time it takes. "If people have trouble with it, it's because it's in the ground so long that something happens to it. If there's a lot of rain it can rot, something eats it, weather comes in."

Over the years, Kenter may not have changed what it grows, but it has changed the way it markets its produce. It's been a long time since Crawford walked out to the garden with a basket in the morning, picked her mesclun and carried it straight to Spago's kitchen.

Though Kenter has stalls at four weekend farmers markets (Calabasas, Pico, Beverly Hills and Hollywood) year-round, these days they sell primarily to wholesalers, who in turn sell to restaurants and to Bristol Farms, Vicente Foods and other supermarkets, where you can find bags of Kenter's baby arugula, along with mesclun, baby spinach and clamshell boxes of herbs. Crawford says they used to go to more farmers markets, but "it's very expensive for us to do them."

A new generation

THOUGH less than 10% of what Kenter grows goes to farmers markets, Crawford considers them emblematic of why she started gardening and farming in the first place. "It's the most direct link for getting the produce to the table," she says, "which is what it's all about."

And chefs still love Crawford's greens -- not just long-timers like Nancy Silverton, but the next generation too, such as Jason Travi at the just-opened Fraiche in Culver City -- he plans to feature Kenter herbs in a farro salad with basil, mint, parsley, marjoram, peppers and English peas. Or Amy Sweeney of Ammo, who uses Crawford's wild arugula in a salad with shaved fennel and baby artichokes. Or D.J. Olsen of Lou, the Vine Street wine bar; he cuts Kenter Canyon Treviso radicchio into chiffonnade and stirs it into a slow-cooked polenta with fennel and herbs, grilling more radicchio to place on top.

And to think that history, not just the personal history of one young art student, but maybe even for a city full of salad lovers -- changed when Wolfgang Puck ate a mesclun salad at Chez Panisse.

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amy.scattergood@latimes.com

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Smoked salmon and mesclun salad with herbed toast

Total time: About 25 minutes

Servings: 4

Note: Use high-quality precut smoked salmon. Mesclun (wild baby lettuces) is available in produce aisles and at farmers markets, as are edible flowers.

2 tablespoons apple cider

vinegar

1 tablespoon honey

1/4 cup best-quality olive oil

1 tablespoon stone ground mustard

Sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup chives

1/4 cup fresh dill

1/4 cup fresh mint

1/4 cup edible flowers, such as nasturtiums or calendulas

2/3 cup creme fraiche

Grated zest of 1 lemon

4 large slices pumpernickel bread, cut 1/2 -inch thick on a diagonal

5 ounces (about 4 cups)

mesclun

16 thin slices of smoked salmon, about 1 pound

1. In a large bowl, whisk together the cider vinegar, honey, olive oil, mustard and salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

2. On a large cutting board, mince together the chives, dill, mint and edible flowers until they resemble fine confetti. Reserve one-eighth cup of the mixture and stir together the rest in a medium bowl with the creme fraiche and lemon zest. Set aside.

3. Toast the pumpernickel bread in a toaster until slightly crisp, cut in half diagonally and spread with the herbed creme fraiche.

4. Arrange four slices of smoked salmon in a single layer on each of four large plates. From the bowl of dressing, reserve two tablespoons and set aside. Add the mesclun to the bowl of dressing and toss to combine. Pile one-fourth of the salad on top of the salmon on each plate, being sure to get a little height to the salad. Stand two toasts against the salad. Sprinkle the reserved herb confetti and drizzle the reserved dressing around the salmon. Serve immediately.

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Each serving: 394 calories; 24 grams protein; 15 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 27 grams fat; 8 grams saturated fat; 43 mg. cholesterol; 2,470 mg. sodium.

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Salad of wild arugula, shaved baby artichokes and fennel

Total time: About 20 minutes

Servings: 4

Note: From chef Amy Sweeney at Ammo

Juice of 1 1/2 lemons, divided

1/3 cup best-quality olive oil

Sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

4 baby artichokes

1 head fennel

Small wedge of

Parmigiano-Reggiano

1/2 pound wild arugula, washed and dried

Leaves from 4 parsley sprigs

1. Place the juice from one lemon into a large bowl. While whisking, slowly add the olive oil to emulsify. Add sea salt and pepper to taste and set aside.

2. Place the remaining lemon juice in a medium bowl and fill with cold water. Peel the artichokes down to the tender core, and slice them lengthwise on a mandoline or as thinly as possible. Place the slices in the acidulated water to keep them from turning brown. Trim the fennel and also slice lengthwise, reserving in the acidulated water.

3. Shave the Parmigiano-Reggiano with a vegetable peeler (four pieces of shaved cheese per serving) and set aside.

4. Toss the arugula into the large bowl with the dressing. Drain the artichokes and fennel, pat dry and toss them into the bowl with the arugula. 5. Divide the salad among four salad plates and top with the shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano and parsley. Serve immediately.

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Each serving: 276 calories; 4 grams protein; 14 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams fiber; 22 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 12 mg. cholesterol; 196 mg. sodium.

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Polenta with Treviso radicchio, fennel and herbs

Total time: About 1 hour, 25 minutes

Servings: 6 as a main course, or 8 as a side dish

Note: From chef D.J. Olsen of Lou wine bar.

1 1/2 quarts low-sodium chicken broth

1 cup coarse, stone-ground polenta

1/4 cup finely minced herbs, at least five types such as rosemary, thyme, chives, tarragon and parsley

1/3 cup plus 3 teaspoons olive oil, divided

1 small sweet onion (Maui, Vidalia or Walla Walla), julienned

Kosher salt

7 small heads Treviso radicchio (about 14 ounces), divided

2 small heads fennel, split, core removed and thinly julienned lengthwise

Freshly ground black pepper

Sugar

1/4 cup grated ParmigianoReggiano

Juice of 1/2 Meyer lemon

1. In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, bring the chicken broth to a boil. Slowly rain in the polenta, whisking all the time. Once the broth has returned to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, add the herbs and cook, stirring frequently for 30 minutes. If the polenta gets thick or becomes difficult to stir, add more broth (or water) to loosen as necessary.

2. Meanwhile, heat a large saute pan over medium-low heat. Add one-third cup olive oil to the pan; when it's hot, add the onion. Season with salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is translucent, 5 minutes.

3. While the onion is cooking, remove any bruised leaves from four heads of the radicchio and thinly slice each head crosswise down to its base, discarding the root end. Add the sliced radicchio, fennel and pepper to the onions. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pan and cook until the fennel is tender, about 20 minutes.

4. Add the mixture of fennel, onion and radicchio to the polenta. Season with salt to taste and continue cooking, stirring frequently, adding additional broth or water as necessary, until the polenta is tender to the tooth, an additional 20 to 30 minutes.

5. When the polenta is almost done, halve the three remaining heads of radicchio lengthwise. Brush each half with about one-half teaspoon olive oil and sprinkle with a pinch of salt and sugar. Grill, cut-side down, over medium-high heat for about a minute to soften the radicchio and caramelize the sugar. Set aside in a warm place.

6. Once the polenta is cooked, stir in the Parmigiano-Reggiano, season with Meyer lemon juice to taste, adjust seasoning as necessary. Serve the polenta in a pre-warmed pasta bowl, finishing with a grind of black pepper. Splay one of the grilled halves of Treviso radicchio over each bowl of polenta and serve immediately.

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Each of 6 servings: 297 calories; 9 grams protein; 34 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams fiber; 15 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 3 mg. cholesterol; 323 mg. sodium.

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