May Featured Produce: Strawberries
RECIPES: Balsamic Grilled Strawberries and Little Gem Salad with Creamy Mint Dressing, Strawberry Spinach Salad, Strawberry-Wine Sorbet, Strawberry Infused Vinegar, Strawberry Vinaigrette, Savory Strawberry Tostada, Strawberry Rhubarb Cobbler, Strawberry Rhubarb Limeade, Strawberry Lemonade, Strawberry Freezer Jam, Strawberry Caprese with Basil Syrup, Fluffy French Toast with Strawberries and Orange Syrup, Slow Roasted Strawberries, Vanilla Orange Pain Perdu with Balsamic Strawberries and Cream, Berry Tiramisu
Everyone seems to know that tomatoes, potatoes, chilies, corn, squash (and more) all came from the New World — but did you know that the modern strawberry, as we know it, is a result of the New World as well? What are called “garden strawberries” resulted from an accidental cross of an East Coast berry with a Chilean berry in Brittany, France in the 1750s. Before that, all strawberries were transplanted from forests and were much smaller and differently shaped. In the 1300s strawberries were used to treat depression. It was believed that the aroma of ripe strawberries was good for lifting spirits.
When it comes to modern strawberries, the USA leads world production by a long shot, with consumption steadily increasing over the last couple decades. Strawberries are one of the most valuable crops in the state. California accounts for about 80% of total strawberry production in the US, with Watsonville and Salinas producing around half of that.
Organic strawberries only account for about 4% of total commercial growing, sadly enough. Growing organic strawberries requires far more work than commercial growing practices (which also requires a lot of work, from prepping fields to planting to hand harvesting). However, organic strawberry production additionally requires crop rotation (and leaving previous growing fields fallow for a period of time) to avoid using all the plastic, fumigants and pesticides that are normally used in commercial strawberry production. Remember this when you pay more for organic strawberries free of pesticide residue.
The arguments surrounding the strawberry industry and the growing practices are manifold, but consider this — one statistic shows California uses the most methyl bromide (the fumigant that is supposed to be phased out and is banned some places) of any state, with the strawberry industry using the majority of it.
Strawberries grow almost year-round in California, with different areas having different seasonal peaks from various cultivars. Swanton Berry Farm was the first strawberry farm to be certified organic in the state in 1983, and the predominant berry that they plant is the Chandler. Chandlers are an older variety of strawberry with stellar flavor, but you need to eat them within a couple days of purchase. The other berry Swanton grows is the Seascape, named for the part of the Monterey Bay where it was developed.
You will also find Albions at the farmers market available from Vasquez Farms, Cortez Farms B, and P & K Farms. Albions thrive here, and although they produce less than some types, they produce year-round for 4-5 years. Albions are considered some of the sweetest berries, and they are fairly sturdy.
How to Choose Berries
- When it comes to picking strawberries, look for plump looking berries with a shine to them. No wrinkling should be visible, and the calyx should be bright green and not drooping.
- If you are choosing between baskets, remember that darker berries are riper than lighter ones.
- Do not rely on looks alone-use your nose! Give the berries a sniff. They should smell, and smell good. If a berry looks good but has no smell, they may not have a lot of flavor. I’ll choose misshapen and fragrant over pretty and smell-less any day.
How to Store Strawberries
- Take strawberries out the plastic bag and put them in a paper towel lined box with a tight lid and store in the refrigerator if you won’t be eating them right away. Leaving them in plastic allows water to condense in the bag and will start the berries molding, while leaving them in the refrigerator uncovered will dry them out quickly.
- If you have some that are still a little firm, leave them on a towel lined baking sheet on the counter overnight to ripen and soften a little more. Give berries a quick rinse just before eating and roll them in a clean towel to dry them.
- If you find you have a surfeit of berries and they are getting tired, remove the calyx and freeze them in a flat layer before transferring them to a bag. Use these straight from the freezer for smoothies or sauces, or use the frozen berries for jams and ice cream toppings.
Organic strawberries are good for the environment and good for you. They taste great too. Support organic strawberry farming and look for them at Bar-D Ranch, Cortez Farms B, P & K Farms, Swanton Berry Farms (especially for huge long stemmed berries), T & L Coke, Vasquez Farms, and Windmill Farms.
April Featured Produce: Asparagus
RECIPES: Basic Grilled Asparagus, How to Cook Asparagus, Salad of Asparagus “Carpaccio”, Prosciutto, and Romano Cheese, Poached Eggs with Asparagus and Healthier Meyer Lemon Hollandaise, Asparagus and Crab Hollandaise, Asparagus, Brie, and Oyster Mushroom Bread Pudding, Asparagus, Spinach, and Green Garlic Strata, Diary Free Creamy Asparagus Soup, Cream of Asparagus Soup, Easy Creamy Orzo with Asparagus and Parmesan, Roasted Portobello Mushrooms and Asparagus, Roasted Baby Artichokes and Asparagus with Lemon-Oregano Aioli, Sauté of Thick Asparagus and Oyster Mushrooms, Primavera Braise with Asparagus, Sugar Snap Peas, Fava, Leeks, and Artichokes
nce, asparagus was a member of the lily family, along with leeks, onions, and garlic. Recently it was made into its own family, the Asparagaceae, but that has not changed its status as THE harbinger of spring for some, nor does that diminish its appeal and wonderful flavor. Asparagus, like fava beans, artichokes, and fresh peas, has a uniquely “green” taste to it that is hard to put into words, but when tasted can evoke so many thoughts and feelings related to fresh growth and springtime.
Although China and Peru now make it possible to get asparagus year round, our local season runs from about March through May or June, and April is prime-time when it is at its peak. Grocery store asparagus, even the stuff from California (which produces around 70% of the asparagus grown in the USA), just does not have the same flavor as the spears you will find at the farmers markets, nor will you usually find the variety of colors and sizes you can find as well.
From hefty spears the size of a Churchill cigar to delicate pencil thin ones, asparagus comes in the usual green as well as purple-which ranges from a delicate blush to a deep night-like shade, to white. You won’t find white at this market, but the other shades as well as the sizes are all here. White asparagus is a type that turns green except that dirt or sand is mounded up to keep the spears in the dark as they grow, a technique that takes a lot of labor as some asparagus can grow as much as 10 inches in 24 hours.
When selecting asparagus, consider what role they will play on the table as some sizes are better suited to different dishes and can be prepped in different ways. Spears need nothing more than to be snapped at the natural break point and will take well to blanching, steaming, sautéing, and are best for baking with, as in a quiche or frittata, as they are thin enough to cook all the way through and will not exude so much liquid that it waters down the dish.
Thin spears tend to be drier textured and have a flavor that is “more” — a little more intense, green, grassy, with hints of bitter.
Medium sized spears are versatile, and can be cooked all of the above ways-provided you cut the asparagus for baking- as well as roasting and grilling. They can be shaved raw for salads as well. Although you can snap the stems for prep, you will get a bigger yield if you slice off the bottom and then use a peeler to take off the bottom 2-3 inches of skin.
The fattest spears may be blanched, but really shine when roasted, grilled, or sautéed. They are also excellent raw as they tend to be quite succulent and sweeter, especially if they are the purple variety. They even take well to marinating. These you definitely want to trim the bottom inch or so and peel until the skin is tender.
Although asparagus is perfect on its own with just a little embellishment such as oil, butter, lemon, or mayonnaise, asparagus plays well with other vegetables, especially the other “green” tasting ones such as favas, peas, and artichokes. They also work beautifully with mushrooms, especially King oyster, regular oyster, and morels-, leeks, and potatoes, and green garlic. Other flavors to consider are nuts — hazels, almonds, and pine. Citrus flavors such as lemon, mandarin or blood orange, and the richness of eggs are classic too. Think of Sauce Hollandaise, Maltaise, or poached or fried eggs. Grated hard-boiled eggs (known as Mimosa in French cuisine) are also used.
An ideal way to greet spring with asparagus would be a gentle braise of different color asparagus of various thicknesses simmered in stock with leeks, green garlic, sugar snap peas, slivers of baby artichokes, and if they have shown up this week, young fava beans and small new potatoes.
When buying asparagus and thinking it is pricy, keep in mind it takes three years before the plants start to produce. Each spear has to be hand cut, and each plant only produces for 5 to 7 weeks.
Look for green asparagus, from thick to thin at the Hog Farm stand. For the really thick spears, you have to ask as they are at the back. For purple asparagus, you can sometimes find it at T & L Coke Farm booth, but you need to be there early as it sells out fast.
March Featured Produce: Avocados
RECIPES: Yolkless Devilled Eggs, Crispbreads with Smoked Salmon, Avocado, Lemon and Capers, California Club Sandwich, Avocado "Mayonnaise", Shrimp Avocado and Mango Salad, Sweet Potato and Avocado Sandwich, Stacked Beet, Avocado, and Mixed Microgreens Salad, Chilled Cucumber and Avocado Soup, Sweet and Spicy Avocado Soup, Avocado Shake
As Californians, we have so many things to be thankful for when it comes to fresh food. Avocados are certainly one of those things, and at our farmers market, we have three vendors supplying us with these sublime fruits. Given that California produces 95% of the avocados in the USA, this is not surprising. The Haas avocado is the most widely grown, as it is worldwide. Overall, the Haas accounts for 80% of avocados grown. At one time, there was something like 100 varieties grown in California, with the majority of them in the Santa Barbara/Ventura area and further south. Things like ease of growing and shipping account for the diminishing numbers, but also some of the older varieties have been eclipsed because their flavor is simply not as tasty as the Haas, Bacon, Fuerte, Gwen, and Reed varieties seen most commonly.
When it comes to avocados, the flavors range from nutty to fruity, but the descriptor that almost always comes to mind is buttery. Oil content of avocados ranges from 3 to 30%, with the Haas at 19%. Sometimes an avocado will seem wet or watery, where some are buttery. The great thing about getting avocados at the farmers market is that there will be several varieties from different areas so you can be assured of getting them at their peak. That is one of the keys to great flavor from avocados. Avocados have different seasons, although the Haas (again…) produces year round.
Avocados mature on the tree, but only ripen after picking. Some growers, like Old Creek Ranch, will “store” their avocados on the trees for several months, allowing them to continue maturing longer, while some farmers will harvest the avocados and store them at a chilly 40°F until they are needed and then move them out. Commercial farms will cold store the avocados hard, and then subject them to ethylene gas to start ripening them on the way to the store.
There is evidence of people eating avocados dating back to around 10,000 BC. To early humans, the buttery quality of avocados must have been a treat. Avocados hail from the same area as chilis, and the fat of the avocado is a great foil for the heat of the chili.
When thinking of ways to use avocados, remember that acids such as vinegar and tart fruits like citrus and pineapple bring out the richness, and salt brings out the buttery quality. Avocados are also a perfect foil for spicy chilis and earthy beets. The mild flavor of avocados couples well with seafood. Avocados are also delicious in milkshakes — in Morocco, avocados are blended with orange flower and rose water and cardamom. In Southeast Asia, avocado shakes are made with sweetened condensed milk and chocolate syrup.
When selecting avocados, a few things are key:
- Look for avocados that are not bruised or cut.
- It should feel heavy and the pit should not be rattling around inside.
- To check for ripeness, gently use the pad of the thumb or the palm to gently press on the avocado. It should have a little give to it when ripe.
- Checking the stem to see if it wiggles really doesn’t work as means to check for ripeness. It will only tell you that the stem area is ripe. However, it is a good idea to check that the stem stub is present as it prevents things from getting into the avo which might start it on the path to rot.
Once cut and smashed, avocados are subject to enzymatic browning, which can be retarded by applying lemon or lime juice. Unfortunately, leaving the pits in the guacamole or avocado is an old wive’s tale and will not prevent browning. Should you have an avocado that does have the browning, simply skim it off. It will not hurt the avocado or you if this has happened. Patience and gentleness are good for avocados. Handle them gently, and if they are hard, you just have to be patient. Place them in a paper sack and leave on the counter to ripen. To speed the process, put them near an apple or banana which produce ethylene gas. Once ripe, you might let them go a day longer to be sure, then store in the refrigerator.
At the market, look for avocados from Brokaw Ranch Company and certified organic avocados from Four Sisters Farm and Old Creek Ranch. Old Creek Ranch brings Haas and Bacon varieties, with some Gwen’s as well. Four Sisters Farm offers Bacon avocados. Brokaw brings Haas, (of course!), Fuerte, Reeds, Gwen’s, and a new variety called the Gillogly. I say “of course” because it was Will’s great uncle who contracted with Rudolph Haas, the guy who developed the Haas, to propagate the trees so they could become commercially viable. Buying a Haas from Brokaw involves you in a little agricultural history. By the way, you pronounce “Haas” as in "glass" — not as in Hoss from Bonanza.
February Featured Product: Pastured Pork
RECIPES: Cooking Tips for Pasture Raised Pork, Pork Leg Steak with Apples, Pork Steak with Mushroom Cream Sauce, Pork Steak with Mushroom Cream Sauce, Maple Balsamic Pork Tenderloin, Smoky Ham Hock, Lentils and Chard, Fennel Braised Pork Loin, Grandpa's Sauerkraut and Dumplings, Chili Verde, Slow Roasted, Long Cured Old Creek Ranch Pork Belly
We are lucky to have not one, but two vendors who raise and sell pasture-raised pork at our farmers market. Years ago when pork came under fire for being “bad for you” because of cholesterol and fat, the pork folks came up with the slogan, “Pork, the other white meat,” and farmers started to breed pork for that mark. The new leaner pork was so lean that customers complained that it dried out and didn’t taste good. So the pork industry responded by forcing liquid into the meat (sometimes water, sometimes other solutions with salt or other additives) so it would not dry out when cooked. However, this did nothing to improve or enhance the bland flavor. All this breeding for lean pork achieved was to take the flavor out of a meat that was known world-wide for being succulent and sweet tasting. Furthermore, since most commercially-raised animals are confined and fed very differently than they would eat in a natural environment, this significantly contributed to the altered flavor and texture of the meat. All of these factors resulted in a pork chop that tastes a lot different today than it did 20 odd years ago.
If you try the pork from Old Creek Ranch and Fogline Farm, you will be pleased to find a flavor like you used to know, or will find something new, depending on your age. “Pasture-raised” means the animals are in their natural environment, eating diverse things such as acorns (Old Creek hogs forage in oak woodlands), apples (Fogline hogs spend time in apple orchards), bugs, grass, roots, etc. Both farms supplement with organic pellets to ensure a balanced diet for the animals. Along with feed diversity, foraging means sunshine and exercise for the hogs. Exercise means the muscles of the hogs get used, so overcooking can be an issue. However, the meat is marbled which helps offset that risk and adds big flavor. Pasture-raised hogs also means higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, and other good nutrients as compared to hogs raised in confinement. Besides better taste and nutrition, this method of farming is more humane and better for the environment. In addition to being pasture-raised, Old Creek Ranch animals are certified organic as well.
Heritage breeds are hip right now, and foodies tout “Kurobuta” pork as the best. Kurobuta are Berkshire pigs that were gifted to the Japanese by the English in the 1800s and are one of the breeds raised at both farms. Old Creek Ranch and Fogline Farm also have Tamworth and Black Spot pigs that are bred with Berkshire boars. Although purebred Berkshires might be nice, these crossbreeds are better suited for their environment and the management practices of each farm as well as tasting great.
When it comes to cooking pastured pork, slow and easy works for thicker cuts, and for thin ones, just keep it quick and don’t crank the heat all the way up.
With a cut that you are going to grill or sauté, take it out of the refrigerator early and allow it to come to room temperature before cooking. Heat your pan up, then heat oil, and then add the meat. For thin cuts, sear both sides for 3-4 minutes before flipping and repeat. If the chop is an inch or more, brown it on both sides and then finish it in a 350°F oven for around 7 minutes for 1 to 1½-inch chops.
For braising, gently brown the meat and add liquid and cook it at a lower temperature for longer time, rather than trying to get it done quickly. This ensures good flavor, tender meat, and avoids a lot of shrinkage.
If you want to barbeque pastured pork, make sure you have part of the grill at a low temperature to finish after searing, or grill thinner cuts. Although this meat has plenty of flavor, marinating or brining is always a good way to add flavor and help with adding a crust. Pastes and juices are great for this.
For cooking sausages, start them in cold water to cover, and once the water boils, drain and rinse, then rub with oil and sauté or grill. This allows you to cook them without burning the outside trying to cook it through. The temperature the USDA now recommends is 145°F. Information shows that trichinosis dies at 138°F after 2 minutes. Remember — when you take a temperature of something that has been cooking, there is carry-over. Typically, if a meat thermometer says 140°F, while the meat rests the temp will climb 5° more to 145°F. So, a little pink in the middle is a good thing for pork now. Letting meat rest after cooking is important as it allows juices to redistribute evenly and the muscle fibers to relax, yielding tender meat.
With the exception of slaughtering (due to legalities), both Old Creek and Fogline do it all. You can find a range of products at both stalls, from bacon, sausages, and ham, to all sorts of mainstream cuts as well as what are called “secondary” cuts. Secondary cuts are things like shanks, belly, cheeks, and organ meats, all of which are great for your Inner Chef to play with.
Also, try using lard for things like confit, tamales, and pie-crusts. Many people swear by lard for crusts that are tender and crumbly rather than tough. If you aren’t sure what to get, ask the folks at the booth what they recommend for your next meal. Remember, not only does this pork taste great, it is good for the environment as well.
January Featured Produce: Cauliflower
RECIPES: Gobi (Cauliflower) Manchurian, Creamy Roasted Cauliflower and Garlic Soup, Cheesy Cauliflower Gratin, Cauliflower with Orange Glaze and Toasted Pinenuts, Indian Cauliflower and Potato Curry, Indian Spice Roasted Cauliflower, Cauliflower Apple Purée, Broccoli and Cauliflower Brunch Casserole, Spicy Indian Cauliflower
Like Brussels sprouts, cauliflower is one of those vegetables that many people, especially children, feel antipathy towards. Actually, this aversion is shared by many toward most of the brassicas, and the reason is simple: Too many people have over-cooked these vegetables and then foisted them off on family members as “being good for you” while stinking up the house. Cauliflower seems more prone to this mishap than the rest of the brassicas, but with a little “magic” in the form of close attention to cooking, cauliflower — like Cinderella — becomes the belle of the ball. In other countries, cauliflower is cherished for its dual nature. It can taste delicate and nuanced, or be robust and sweetly nutty flavored. Textures run from silky smooth, to lightly crumbly when raw, to toothsome and even pleasantly leathery roasted. It pairs well with subtler flavors such as wine and herbs, and is great in cheesy gratins or garlicky pastas. It’s wonderful with Indian and Middle-Eastern spices as well. It’s all in how you cook it.