Veggie Stew 

Are dreary days getting you down? If so, here's a happy thought: Farmers Keith and Jill Forrester are gearing up for spring. Already at Whitton Flowers & Produce, there is head lettuce in the hoop house and a crop of early-blooming annuals growing impatient for warm weather.

"We scattered the seeds for the hardy annuals in September, and now there's lots of green vegetation," Keith says. "But we always save some seed, because we never know what will make it through the winter."

Cold temps aside, Keith is optimistic about a prolific harvest of spring flowers (bachelor buttons, poppies, iris, tulips, and larkspur, to name a few) and spring vegetables, including broccoli, snow peas, sugar snap peas, romaine, and mixed lettuce greens.

"I'd like to do more cabbage, but I have a hard time keeping the bugs off. They love it," Keith says.

Along with winter crops, the Forresters have been growing shiitake mushrooms (there might be more for spring) rebuilding the website (they finally have a blog), and reorganizing the farm's CSA (now it's easier to participate).

A CSA, or community-supported agriculture, encourages support of local growers because shoppers buy a CSA share in exchange for whatever fruits, vegetables, and flowers are in season. A full share of organic produce from Whitton farm costs $25 a week and is enough for a family of four. A half-share, at $15 a week, is suggested for a couple. Flowers are $20 for full shares and $10 for half-shares.

Both flower and produce orders are delivered weekly at the downtown Farmers Market on Saturday or at the Memphis Botanic Garden on Wednesdays from April through November. CSA applications are available online.

Last year, the Forresters required a 10-week payment in advance to participate in a CSA, but this year they are shortening the minimum contract to four weeks. "We felt like people needed more flexibility," Keith says. "We think we can handle 300 orders, and we hope we won't have to turn anybody down."

Whitton Flowers & Produce, 5157 Highway 118, Tyronza, Arkansas, (870) 815-9519

Now that daydreams of produce are dancing in your head, stop by any Schnucks on Saturday, January 24th, to celebrate the Chinese New Year with demonstrations, samplings, and product information on exotic fruits and vegetables.

The day-long event is organized by Frieda's, the California supplier of Schnucks' specialty produce. "We want to expose customers to popular new items or something they have never tried before," explains Jackie Caplan Wiggins, a vice president with the company. "In November, we focused on potatoes and onions, and this summer, we will be sampling all kinds of melons."

On Saturday, produce managers will coordinate sampling of dates, pomegranate seeds, and oroblancos, which are a cross between pummelos (the largest of citrus fruits) and traditional grapefruits. "Oroblanco means white gold in Spanish," Wiggins says. "They have a sweet flavor without the bitterness of regular grapefruits."

And what about other trends in specialty produce this year? Look for mangosteen, a sweet, deep-purple tropical fruit; super fruits such as goji berries; and Klamath pearl potatoes, an organic spud grown near the border of Oregon and California.

"Klamath potatoes are very moist and tender," Wiggins says. "Chefs everywhere are embracing them, because they have a wonderful, nutty flavor."

At Lotus Restaurant, the first Vietnamese restaurant in Memphis, owners Joe and Hanh Bach also are celebrating the Chinese New Year with four days of unique dishes not normally on the menu. (Yes, they serve Chinese food too!)

"It's the Year of the Ox, and it starts January 26th," says Joe, who runs the front of the restaurant while his wife Hanh handles the kitchen. "But we are early."

Starting Friday, January 23rd, Lotus will feature items such as bacon-wrapped butterfly shrimp and whole fish either steamed with vegetables and fresh cilantro or fried with sweet-and-sour sauce. The rest of the special menu is still in the making, but Joe can guarantee this: "You will like it, I promise."

Lotus, 4970 Summer (682-1151)

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