Moab's wet spring weather was a blessing to local farmers and gardeners, and next week, they'll be sharing some of their seasonal bounty with diners whose financial support keeps the Youth Garden Project going strong.
The nonprofit group's July Garden Dinner fundraiser on Tuesday, July 7, will make the most of locally grown ingredients, with an emphasis on vegetables and herbs from the YGP's own garden, as well as produce from Castle Valley Farms, Hole Foods Farm and Early Morning Orchard.
“We pull from a lot of local – and sometimes regional – farms,” Youth Garden Project Associate Director Erin Trim said. “We like to showcase what's going on in our area.”
Although past dinners featured menu items for omnivores and herbivores alike, Youth Garden Project Board treasurer and guest chef Susan Kittler of Oh Susanna's Bakery and Paradox Pizza fame will be catering a five-course vegetarian meal this month.
“It's just up to the chef's preferences,” Trim said.
Roasted beet and kale salads are at the top of the $50 per person menu – no thanks to the grasshoppers who were especially hard on one key ingredient in the salad dressing: basil.
“It's been a rough grasshopper year,” Trim said. “They eat all of the leaves.”
Fortunately, she said that dinner organizers tracked down another source of lemon basil that was far away from the insects' mandibles.
Over the years, menu offerings have varied from one guest chef to the next, although Trim said they usually tend to feature ingredients from Castle Valley Creamery.
“The chefs seem to always want to use their yummy goat cheese,” she said.
Kittler shares her predecessors' tastes: Baked goat cheese feta, tomatoes and herbs with ciabatta bread are one of the menu's obvious highlights.
Each meal will start off with roasted carrot and fennel soup, while the main course of eggplant parmigiana with polenta will follow the salads. Kittler will top everything off with apricot tarts and vanilla ice cream for dessert.
Finding locally grown apricots this year was no easy task, since they were one of the few crops that didn't fare especially well in the rain. So naturally, Trim said that dinner organizers were “stoked” when they tracked down some freshly picked fruit from a Moab-area source.
The dinner is set to start at 7:30 p.m., although the real fun from Trim's perspective doesn't begin until later that evening, when the sun finally goes down and the dining areas come alive with illumination from lanterns, candles, string lights and tiki torches.
“It's sort of magical,” she said.
Each dining nook is set up in a rustic spot on the YGP's property, with fresh linens on the tables, trumpet vines swaying in the breeze and music playing in the background.
“It's just a nice, laid-back atmosphere,” Trim said. “We don't rush to serve each course.”
Moab resident Marcee Nettell and her husband Andy can attest to that ambiance, having been familiar faces at past benefit dinners.
“The setting was beautiful,” Marcee Nettell said. “The food was absolutely delicious, and it's fun being in the garden.”
Apart from socializing with their friends and acquaintances, diners can expect some feline company from resident Youth Garden Project cat Jack, who makes the rounds in search of handouts.
“It's probably his favorite night of the year,” Trim said.
At other times of the year, the 1.5-acre site functions as a classroom, growing food for the community and offering young people and individuals of all ages the opportunity to learn vocational skills.
The Youth Garden Project serves about 870 Grand County School District and Moab Charter School students through its garden classroom field trips and after-school programs.
“Last year, we served more students than ever,” Trim said.
Even though school is currently out for the season, the Youth Garden Project continues to teach about 25 or so young people each week during its summer camps.
Altogether, another 300 people of all ages show up for the group's Weed 'n' Feed nights, which are held every other Wednesday at 6 p.m. through Sept. 9. Volunteers work for about 90 minutes, and for their efforts, they're rewarded with big dinners that feature produce from the garden.