It may still feel like summer outside, but fall's long, golden fingers are slowly drawing the shade down on long, lingering days. Here in Southern California you might not even notice the season changing without the Back to School and Labor Day sales. But at the Hollywood Farmers' Market (map) the fruits and vegetables tell a different story. Tables of nectarines, peaches and plums are slowly giving way to the cornucopia of fall treats like apples, asian pears, dates and grapes, while melons, green beans and berries try to hold on to summer like a teenager who doesn't want school to start.
The season's final hurrah will come next week, on September 7th, when the Hollywood Farmers' Market will host their Annual Peak of Summer Tomato Festival. Held when the tomato bounty is at its sweet and juicy apex, the Tomato Festival include free samples of more than 30 tomato varieties provided by the market's farmers, fresh Green Zebra tomato juices, cooking demonstrations, sun-drying demonstrations and a book signing with Amy Goldman, author of The Heirloom Tomato, From Garden to Table sponsored by the Cook's Library. I'm hoping Carmela Ice Cream will make their Heirloom Tomato Sorbet for the occasion.
In my end-of-summer daze I was surprised to find out the new crop of Gala apples from Carpenteria's Rancho Santa Cecilia has already started to arrive. Paso Roble's Fair Hills Farms' table was overflowing with organic Fuji and Gala apples. Small, firm and a little more tart than sweet, these early season apples are great for eating out of hand, making into buttery apple sauces or cooking into crisps, pies and savory dishes. As the season progresses Fair Hills will proffer other varieties like Pink Lady, Honeycrisp, Cameo, Braeburn, and Golden Delicious. Expect to see Jonagolds, Gravensteins and Granny Smiths around the market later in the season, too.
Dates are often called nature's candy and when you pop one of these delicate, sticky-sweet delights in your mouth you can see why. Juicy, sweet and syrupy, these fruits from the Date Palm, which originated in the Middle East, flourish in hot, dry climates like the California desert and Arizona. The Bautista Family Organic Date Ranch from Mecca, California (near the Salton Sea in Palm Desert) had four varieties of ripe dates on display. The sweetest were the well-known Medjools, followed by the caramel-colored and -flavored Halawy. The Khadrawy date tasted exactly like brown sugar and maple syrup, while the Honey Date had an earthy sweetness reminiscent of a sweet yam. All of the Bautista dates were rated #1 or #2 for texture. The #1s were creamier, sweeter and juicier, while the #2s were a bit firmer. Both Bautista and Dates by Davall from nearby Indio also had unripe Barhi dates on the branch that you could buy and watch turn golden and sweet. Mike Dinko at Davall suggested that you could use the unripe dates for cooking, though I couldn't find any recipes. They are pretty astringent in this stage, though I read you could minimize this by freezing and thawing the unripe dates before eating them. I love to eat dates on their own, but they're also great in chutneys, sweets or wrapped in bacon.
Also in Season
Between the tomatoes, apples and dates it's easy to put on your market blinders. But then you would miss out on all of the grapes. The Black, Flame, Malaga and Princes grapes beckon from Marik Baujikian Farms' stand. And there are Thompson's scattered about. Sweet and hot peppers from Peacock and Givens farms remind you how far we've come from humdrum green bells. There are purple, red, yellow and orange peppers and others that look like they've been painted with long, loose brushstrokes. Chop up or roast poblanos, serranos, anchos or jalepeños to add some kick to your meal. Or go all out and stuff a bell pepper with rice, ground meat and chopped chiles and sprinkle a little queso fresco on top for the ultimate pepper dish.
Figs, corn, okra and mushrooms are still growing strong. So don't forget to add them to your bag, too, before they're replaced by persimmons, quince, Brussels sprouts and artichokes.