EATING LOCAL - Summer stirs Walla Walla Valley produce passion

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Summer is in full swing in the Walla Walla Valley, and with it comes a variety of tasty locally-grown produce. Ever since I was a child growing up in Maple Valley I've looked forward to this time of year, not only for the break from school, but foraging for blackberries in overgrown back alleys and blueberries off bushes between my grandma's house and her neighbor.

The bushes belonged to the neighbor and I was told over and over that I should ask before picking, but how could I resist plucking those luscious plump purple berries, sweet and warm from the summer heat? Popping them into my mouth, one-by-one, I'd savor each morsel. Filling my cupped hands with as many as I could carry, they would be empty when I got home. Luckily there was always tomorrow to pick more.

Summer also brings a delicious spectrum of vegetables at their prime. Nothing compares to a freshly harvested tomato, with that sweet earthy scent of vine still lingering and sweet juiciness. After your first taste of one of these vine-ripened beauties it's hard to look at off-season, tasteless, grainy grocery tomatoes the same again. In our family, we can't wait for the tomato season to begin, as we prefer to only eat them when in season.

Meanwhile there is still a bounty of locally-grown produce items to enjoy. At the Walla Walla Farmers' Market this week, we have snap peas, cherries, salad greens, beets, chard, kale, garlic scapes and asparagus. The Walla Walla Sweet Onions are in full swing, along with cucumbers and zucchini. As the season moves forward, some of these items will be replaced with more hot-weather foods, such as basil, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and green beans.

With the influx of all this delicious, and so-good-for-you produce, the key is to get them while they are available locally and enjoy them straight away. Novice cooks might find this ranging from a bit of challenge to overwhelmingly stressful and not worth the trouble. But this should not stop anyone from getting out there, to pick up fresh produce and make delicious food.

The wonderful thing about local fresh produce is there isn't much that needs to be done to the food to make it amazing. They each contain elements within themselves to be delicious; they just need washing and a little simple preparation. Some need to be cooked, while others only require a quick trimming, chopping, and sprinkle of salt and pepper.

No time to get to the Farmers' Market on Saturday? Consider joining a community-supported agriculture program, like the one at West End Farm or the co-op's "Made in Walla Walla" box. Each week you receive a box of what's in season, along with additional items of your choosing like eggs, flowers, bread, milk, meat, and/or grain. For more information, contact your local farmer or check out their websites: www.westendfarm.ipower.com and www.dailymarket.coop

Can't get enough local produce and want to take it a step further? Join a local community garden and get yourself a space to plant and grow your own. My husband and I just recently joined the Rees-Sumach Community garden and love getting our hands in the dirt and cultivating our little vegetable seedlings. Soon we will have a flourishing abundance to harvest from all summer.

Want to learn more hands-on techniques on how to prepare local seasonal produce? Contact me to sign up for a Farmers' Market cooking class. We will walk through the market, pick up fresh produce, and have fun preparing new dishes to inspire and add to your cooking repertoire.

Melissa Davis is a personal chef with a bachelor's degree in nutrition, specializing in natural foods. She can be reached at jadenluna@gmail.com. More of her culinary adventures can be read at www.melissadavisfood.wordpress.com.

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