A tour of the organic farm at Paradise Valley Ranch inspires a vegetarian menu

"I'm just trying to give the vegetables a happy childhood," explains Peter Martinelli as Alice Waters and I tour his Fresh Run Farm. This organic farm, part of Paradise Valley Ranch, is located near the coastal town of Bolinas, an hour north of San Francisco. Once the lettuces, radishes and tiny green onions leave their home in the dirt, they make their way to restaurants in the Bay Area. At Berkeley's Chez Panisse, they inspire Waters to create dishes that taste of the essence of spring, such as those in the menu that follows.

Part of what makes Martinelli's vegetables so extraordinary is the permaculture methods he uses to grow them. An agricultural movement begun in Tasmania about 24 years ago, permaculture rejects the typical farming practice of subduing and altering nature in favor of working with the land's ecology. Rather than leveling a hill to make room for a field of carrots, Martinelli plants right on the slopes. He uses ditches to regulate the amount of rainwater running down the incline, slowing soil erosion and protecting the seedlings. Instead of chopping down trees to clear the land, Martinelli plants mizuna under the boughs. The shade prevents the greens from turning bitter. He also cultivates watercress in springs, its prime natural habitat.

Waters appreciates Martinelli's approach: "Pete's vegetables have a life in them that translates to the plate. He understands that vegetables need to be at their best, but he sees the big picture as well and is committed to preserving the natural resources of his farm."