Greetings from Monterey, CA, where I traveled to on Monday morning to celebrate all things salad with my buddies at Dole Salads for a few days!

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Quickly, a note about Monterey and specifically the Carmel Valley Ranch where I am staying. NEVER LEAVING. I have spent a bit of time in both northern California (San Fran and above) and southern California – but never in Monterey, a couple hours south of San Fran, which is absolutely incredible. Very rustic, and untouched feeling. “Ranchy” vs manicured. I feel so at home here.

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The Carmel Valley Ranch itself is a sprawling golf resort filled with wildlife (including, ahem, loudly gobbling wild turkeys,) wild flowers, fresh air, singing birds, and a breathtaking night sky. It has the most incredible “camp” vibe.

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Except I’ve never camped in a nearly 1,000 sq foot “tent” before. ; )

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While the landscape at the ranch is rustic and homey, the rooms compliment it well, containing natural decor with an upscale twist. Touches of wood, burlap, cotton, leather, and lavender (which grows like crazy around here) are upscale but fabulously unfussy.

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I don’t normally do hotel reviews but this one was too spectacular not to mention. I can’t wait to bring Ben (and the baby!) back here someday so he can play a few rounds of golf then join me on one of the many hiking trails that surround the ranch. Finish the day out with couple’s massages and a cuddle by one of the two in-room fireplaces? Done.

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AHH!

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Oh, they also have a ranch dog, natch. Roxy. I die.

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Ok, back to salads! This week Dole gathered a bunch of food bloggers from around the country to come check out some of their independent growers’ fields, tour their lettuce plant, and get a taste of Spanish cuisine to promote their new Taste of Spain contest, which includes a 9-day trip to Spain. Whee!

Tuesday morning we started off with breakfast at the ranch highlighting Dole berries and small plates, or Tapas, of Spanish tortillas (egg, potatoes, spices) and prawns.

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Breakfast of champions!

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Afterwards we boarded a bus and headed off to a lettuce farm about an hour away. Dole itself only has 500 acres or so of growing fields. To meet the demands of their consumers they actually rely on thousands of independent growers across the country, which I never knew.

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I was really excited about this portion of the program as it ties into what I’m doing back home with the Join My Journey program – traveling to farms all across Iowa to learn about modern farming systems and practices. Where we grow acres of soybeans, though, California grows lettuce. And lots of it!

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Our first stop was to visit farmer Mark Pisoni, who grows numerous types of lettuce for Dole. When Mark is done at his big farm for the day, he goes home and tends to his home garden with the help of his wife and children. This man LOVES farming.

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And lettuce. The day we visited, Mark his team were harvesting acres and acres of big, fat, juicy, iceberg lettuce heads. So fresh we could tear them from the ground, slice ’em in half, and take a big ‘ol bite.

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Best iceberg I ever had. Sweet. Cool. Crisp. My Mom made an iceberg salad every night growing up and I still remember how she’d thump the core onto a cutting board, rip it open, then tear and wash the pieces. This totally took me back!

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Afterwards we donned hair nets and headed into the field ourselves, trailing the harvesting team.

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What do we think – is this a good look? ; )

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I find it absolutely fascinating that the back-breaking job of hand harvesting still results in a $2 head of iceberg lettuce at the store.

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I will definitely remember this crew the next time I stab my fork into a bowl of salad.

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After leaving Mark’s growing fields, the gang traveled to Dole’s nearby packing plant, where all the lettuce is transported to immediately after harvesting. Due to proprietary techniques we weren’t able to take pictures, but this is where all the lettuce is cut, triple-washed, sorted, bagged, and shipped.

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After perusing the plant we headed to R&D for a little Lettuce 101!

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With Emilio… ;)

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Dole includes over 35 types of lettuce and vegetables in their salads and salad blends. They want people to see salad differently and the dozens of pre-packaged and kit options definitely allows for that.

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Over 20 of the lettuces were on display in front of Emilio, and before he explained the different varieties, we were to go around and try to match the different lettuces to their name. As a frequent salad connoisseur I figured I had this one in the bag. I did not. I had never even heard of some of these lettuce varieties! After tasting a few, including baby butter lettuce and red oak, I am looking forward to branching out and trying some different Dole blends the next time I’m at the store.

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After lettuce 101 we headed to nearby Paraiso Vineyards for lunch, a small, family-run winery that totally took me back to Napa.

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Wine was poured, and nibbles including Empanadas – flaky pastry wrapped around a cheese and chorizo filling – were served. Think upscale Hot Pocket, mmkay? ; )

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Lunch was served at a beautifully set table on the patio. The sun was warm and the breeze was cool. It was perfect.

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I ordered Saffron Risotto with Grilled Chicken Romanesco. The risotto was mouthwatering and reminded me to make another batch at home sometime soon. I loved how Spanish touches were worked into every meal we had out here, to tie into the Taste of Spain promotion.

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As a side note, I have absolutely loved getting to know the women on this blogging trip. Some, like Ali, I have had the pleasure of meeting before,

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while others like Liz and Chung-Ah, I got to meet for the first time this week. Everyone has been unbelievably warm and friendly. As an introvert, sometimes these blogger get-togethers can be overwhelming and intimidating but I have enjoyed my time with them so, so much.

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I also don’t know why I feel it’s ok to eat dessert with every meal when I’m on trips like this, but I decided not to stop now and enjoyed a Vanilla-Bean Creme Brulee with fresh berries for dessert. Delicious! Creme Brulee is hands down my favorite dessert.

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I made sure to leave my mark on the way out of the vineyard. : )

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To close out the day’s activities, later that afternoon we had both the head chef and owner of nearby Spanish restaurant, Mundaka, come and give us a tapas demonstration!

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Tapas are small plates of food meant for sharing, and originated in Spain. They say small plates used to be placed over glasses of wine or sangria at bars and restaurants to keep the bugs out, which chefs started adding little nibbles and bites to. The rest is history!

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Chef demonstrated this amazing little black beluga lentil salad with smoked ham, shaved brussels sprouts, pickled cauliflower and the most perfect lemon vinaigrette. Ugh it was so good, and I just loved how it was presented in a jar. Great for entertaining!

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Then we split up into teams for a tapas making competition, muwahaha!

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With ingredients like hard boiled eggs, anchovies, smoked ham, roasted red bell peppers, and green olives, we were to come up with a unique tapas dish that could be eaten in 2-3 bites.

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The competition was stiff…

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My team modeled our tapas after the woman adorning the packaging of Dole salad promoting the Taste of Spain contest. While we didn’t win best tasting – we did snag best looking. I’ll take it!

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Now, no visit to the west coast would be complete without a trip to, well, the coast, so this afternoon we concluded our trip with a cruise down 17-Mile Drive.

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Between the smell of the surf, and the sound of the waves, I don’t ever want to leave!

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Alas…I must. I’ve had a blast here in Monterey and cannot wait to return to this beautiful part of the country someday. Thank you so much, Dole!

With that, it’s back to regularly scheduled programming tomorrow! I hope you’ve had a great week so far! : )