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When it comes to urban gardening, celebrity Chef Rick Bayless sets the bar high.
Best known for serving upscale Mexican food at his award-winning Chicago restaurants, Bayless relies on a significant amount of local produce from his own garden for his most popular recipes.
Recently, Bayless hosted a rare behind-the-scenes tour of his personal garden for a select group attending the National Restaurant Association’s annual trade show in Chicago.
Tucked away off a quiet street in the city's Bucktown neighborhood, Bayless' garden started 14 years ago. Since then it's grown to cover two city lots spanning 1,000 square feet and features an outdoor kitchen and dining area.
"When you come to my house in the summer time we always eat outside. I always cook very simple food that really highlights the ingredients we grow in our garden. I will never do anything fancy...it's always very simple, because we just enjoy eating outside in that backyard so much," Bayless says.
During the summer months the garden produces dozens of lettuce greens and herbs, including chives with edible flowers, mainly used at Bayless' Topolobampo restaurant. The operation can produce as much as 500 pounds of salad greens per year.
Bayless calls himself a "huge proponent of urban agriculture" and relies on a professional full time gardener to manage the garden, which includes taking care of an active beehive (capable of producing 60 pounds of honey a year), and the urban garden's newest addition: three chickens that produce fresh eggs. Bayless grows fresh vegetables, such as vine-ripe tomatoes and chile peppers at his rooftop garden on top of Frontera Grill restaurant.
For city dwellers looking to grow their own urban garden Bayless recommends starting with leafy greens.
"Always start with swiss chard. Plant it early in the season you can grow it in a pot you can grow it in the ground. It's the best of the greens," he says. "After that, what I really like to do is to grow salad greens. You can grow a mixture of spicy salad greens or mesclun (smaller) greens. Plant a row of them and every three weeks you cut that down. It takes three weeks to grow them. You just need a bit of organic fertilizer and put that on there."
When serving up refreshing summer salads, Bayless' advice is to keep it simple.
"I'm super into a simple salad because we grow those amazing salad greens. I take those beautiful fresh picked lettuce leaves, and they are small, and I drizzle them with walnut oil and a squeeze of lime juice and a sprinkle of coarse salt," he says. "It's one of the most beautiful things in the whole wide world. But it’s because I work with this beautifully roasted walnut oil. It’s super good"
Salad aren't only about the greens, he says.
"When the tomatoes come in.....I will roast garlic and roast green chiles or sauté them in a bit of olive oil. Then I blend all of that together with a little bit of salt and little bit of lime juice and it becomes its own simple roasted green chile garlic dressing. You drizzle that on some freshly picked tomatoes, sliced. Sprinkle a little bit of cheese on top of that and you have such a beautiful flavor. That will enhance the ingredients rather than overwhelm them."
To combine a little spice with your summer grilling Bayless offers one of his favorite summer salsa recipes.
“You can roast serrano or habanero peppers and then you blend them with roasted garlic. When you blend those and add a little bit of lime juice and a bit of water to it you have this drizzly salsa that can go beautifully on a grilled steak taco. It’s like a salsa dressing basically. In Mexico there’s a ton of that sort of use of salsa.”
For more Rick Bayless summer salad recipes using fresh vegetables click here.