The Hollywood Farmers' Market (at Ivar Avenue & Selma Avenue; map) looked like a gem show yesterday with hues of ruby, garnet, and citrine spilling across most farmers' tables. It's August and tomatoes are finally here, and their sweet, fruity, meaty perfume will spin you around like a child on a merry-go-round. Your mind surges with the possibilities: heirloom tomato tarts, gazpacho, caprese salads, tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and salt, tomatoes out of hand, tomatoes with ricotta and fresh herbs on crostini. Fortunately this bounty will continue unabated through September.
According to produce guru Russ Parsons, "scientists who study flavor chemistry have identified more than four hundred compounds that go into the taste of a ripe tomato. And more than thirty of those are regarded as essential." That means food scientists are still nowhere near artificially duplicating delicious tomatoey flavor (yippee!). Unfortunately most mega-mart tomatoes are picked long before they are actually ripe, then exposed to ethylene gas to change their color, which results in tomatoes that look ripe and taste like, well, nothing.
Biting into a fully ripe, heirloom variety tomato is like a religious experience. And the organically grown heirloom varieties—like those grown by Tutti Frutti Farms in Santa Barbara County, with romantic names like Cherokee Purple, Marvel Stripe, Golden Jubilee, Brandywine and Black Crimson—outshine their Roma, beefsteak, and grape brethren in sweetness, acidity balance, and subtle flavor undertones.
Try only to buy the tomatoes that you need—overripe ones develop a mealy texture and lose their flavor—and never refrigerate them! Tomatoes start to break down when the thermostat dips below 60°F, so leave them on your counter. When choosing tomatoes, pick heavy ones with firm skins, with no dents or nicks. And, unless you're cooking up fried green tomatoes, try to find ones that have little to no green.
With all the fresh tomatoes, it's easy to get market tunnel vision. But that would be a shame. Atascadero's Rocky Canyon Farms has sweet-smelling melons including small, tropical-like Charlynns, larger, full-flavored Sweet Ambrosia cantaloupes, Honeyloupes and Crenshaw melons. When asked how to tell if his melons were ripe, owner Greg replied, "If it's not ripe, it's not at the market."
Harry's Berries has delicious, sweet, but firm Saticoy cantaloupes that burst with juice. There are also watermelons, large and small, yellow and red-fleshed, seedless and seeded, everywhere you turn. Refreshing, great at a picnic or gussied up with fresh-chopped mint or a dusting of chile powder and crumbled ricotta fresca, watermelons are a quintessential late-summer fruit.
When choosing melons, they should be heavy for their size. Cantaloupes should be fragrant with deep scales and a golden color. Watermelons should sound hollow when thumped and honeydew varieties should have a creamy color and a waxy texture.
Fig fans rejoice! Southern California is now into their second fig crop, which means more figs than you can ever hope to eat. Our friend Greg at Avila & Sons has green-tinged Kadotas, with their pale, honey-sweet flesh, and lemon yellow Calimyrna figs, which are nutty and sweet. You'll also find Black Missions, Brown Turkeys, and, occasionally, the elusive Adriatic fig to spice up your table. Try squeezing a lemon over your fresh, chopped figs and piling them on bruschetta with homemade yogurt cheese and a drizzle of honeyyour friends will love you.
Figs are extremely delicate so don't worry too much about slight scrapes or bruises. Keep them in a cool place or in the refrigerator because they abhor heat once picked, and use them quickly. Ripe figs will be soft and wonderfully fragrant. Overripe figs will smell fermented.
Other Fruits and Vegetables
The market still has lots of raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries. There are also nectaplums, corn, lots of sweet peppers, summer squash, Kyoha grapes (these black grapes balance tannic bitterness and juicy sweetness better than any I've tasted), and late-summer Albion strawberries that consume you with waves of sweetness. So don't be shy. Let your baskets overflow with all the treats of summer. If you bust out your grandma's books on canning, you can help preserve the deliciousness of summer long after the thermometer dips below 70°F. It is Southern California, after all.
Summer Produce Guide
Melons Figs Tomatoes Corn Berries Nectaplums Sweet Peppers Kyoha grapes Summer squash Beets Green beans
Persimmons Walnuts Dates Apples Pears Mushrooms Broccoli Cauliflower