My name is Leah and I am a summer fruit junkie. It's not easy to admit in this land of plenty, but from the moment strawberries first hit the farmers' market stands here in late February, I start jonesing for cherries, particularly the Raniers, which look like perfect miniature Fuji apples with their blushing skins. I imagine biting into peaches that look like they've come from outerspace and pluots that resemble apricots dipped in ink.
Summer fruit excites me so much, in fact, that amid the blueberries and blackberries and Snow Queen nectarines, the veggies of summer often play second fiddle. That's why this week at the enormous Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers' Market (map) I decided to devote the first half of my morning to the savory side of summer.
Smoked Tomatoes & Garlic
Bill and Barbara Spencer, owners of Windrose Farm, have something of a cult following among farmers' market enthusiasts. Their farm in Paso Robles in certified organic and in the process of transitioning to biodynamic, and their producefrom antique varieties of apples to heirloom tomatoes and melonscan be found on the menus of the best Los Angeles restaurants, including Lucques, Melisse and Campanile.
As a regular at the Hollywood Farmers' Market, I tend to miss out on their unique produce (they are only at the Wednesday Santa Monica market and Saturday Santa Barbara markets). Right now they have their famous smoked, oven-dried tomatoes—they look a lot like sundried tomatoes but have a distinctly meatier edge and firmer chew to them. And if, like me, you're holding out until mid-July when the fresh tomatoes have finally developed their fullest flavors, they are a must have for intense tomatoey flavor.
Barbara adds them to a "Beans, Greens and Pork Stew." At Full of Life Flatbread in Los Alamos, they are used in an oven-smoked tomato fennel soup with wild nettle pesto and Valerie Gordon of Valerie Confections adds them to her onion marmalade, which also uses Weiser Farms Bermuda onions.
Last week I roasted an entire bulb of Tutti Frutti Farms elephant garlic and smeared the sweet-spicy softened fat cloves across homemade bread. And it's a good thing I used it all up, because Windrose was also teeming with softneck garlic varieties I'd never heard of: Applegate, Sonora, Kettle River, Rancho Grande and Inchelium Red, to name a few. Each variety has differently shaped and layered cloves, varying levels of spiciness and different uses.
I brought home some Inchelium Red, an endangered variety said to be the oldest garlic variety grown in North America and one of the only American varieties to make the Slow Food "Ark of Taste." It's great for eating raw and, along with the Kettle River, is good for braiding and roasting.
While I prefer the meditative simplicity of sitting in the afternoon sun, shelling my own beans for supper, the fresh, out-of-the-pod Tongue of Fire and Flageolet beans from the Fairview Gardens Urban Farm in Santa Barbara should not be missed.
Already shelled beans will keep in your fridge for about a week uncooked, and in their liqueur for another week or two after cooking (and they'll only get better). Green flageolets, originally a New World bean, have long been cultivated in France and are great for salads and cassoulet. A relative of Italy's borlotti, or cranberry, bean, the Tongue of Fire looks like a crimson and white speckled egg, and is very hearty.
Erik Stenberg, chef and surfer who was working the Fairview stand suggested bringing them to boil in cold water with garlic, fresh herbs, potato (it helps keep the skins soft) and cooking until tender. The beans could be used in a roasted corn and mushroom ragout, or tossed with steamed clams and chorizo.
If you've never strayed beyond the familiar Japanese and Italian eggplant varieties, you're in for a treat. Weiser grows three different kinds of eggplant: violet-streaked Calliopes, pale, creamy and mild-flavored Green Apples and classic Black Bells. Buy a mix and use them for a summery grilled ratatouille or eggplant parmesan with some of those Windrose smoked tomatoes or, marinate them with balsamic, tamari, garlic and pepper and toss them in a salad with olives and feta, like in this recipe from Alex Weiser last summer.
Now, onto the fruits...
If you grew up in Southern California, you're probably familiar with Knotts Berry Farm's boysenberry jams and syrups, but those confections are nothing compared to the slightly floral, earthy-sweet, finger-staining tangy real things. Case in point, while I was visiting with Rob Poole of Kincaid Farms (Redlands, California), famed Spago pastry chef Sherry Yard came to pick up a flat to incorporate in the week's desserts.
The season for boysenberries, which "Fruit Detective" David Karp explains are hybrid of the raspberry and three kinds of blackberry, is very short (May to mid-July, depending on the weather). The fruits are also extremely delicate, which limits their shelf life, so if you see them, snag a basket. You can use them in ice cream, cakes or jams, if you don't eat them all before you get home.
Blenheims & Elderberries
Of all the apricot varieties, the Blenheim is the most prized. Also in the Slow Food Ark of Taste, the Blenheim often gets overlooked for its small size and freckly skin. But those freckles are harbingers of one of summer's sweetest treats. Forcefield Farm in Santa Paula dry farms their orchards, which further concentrates the flavors of these golfball-sized goodies. Their firm texture makes them good for eating out of hand, and also for putting up in pickles and jams or baking into tarts for dessert.
Forcefield also recently started bringing in snappy dark purple elderberries that burst on your tongue like sour Pop Rocks. (You don't want to eat red elderberries, those are poisonous). Touted for their antioxidant propertiesthey're very high in vitamin cbut are slightly astringent, which is why they're generally cooked into things. Common preparations include jams, jellies, pies and wine. You can also batter and fry the flowers, which are quite flavorful.
Garlic Shell Beans Arugula Eggplants Apricots Peaches Nectarines Plums Pluots Boysenberries Cherries Blackberries Elderberries Bermuda Onions
Tomatoes Melons Mulberries Corn Cucumbers
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