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FARMER’S MARKET REPORT: Getting To Know You:

Or … things I never knew before I started coming to the farmers’ market on a regular basis. And … you mean I can eat that? Or simply … tales of many encounters over the years that have increased my general knowledge of California’s edible plants.

All of the above are reasons why thousands of Angelenos travel each week to their local farmers’ market, and why markets continue to attract newcomers — farmers as well as customers. The word about farmers’ markets keeps getting out. Few other institutions receive as much press as farmers’ markets. Recent articles in Los Angeles papers have included stories on nutrition awareness at Los Angeles high schools and in-depth reports about an Italian specialty green called spigorello and the pursuit of wild mushrooms, which are available primarily at farmers’ markets. We come to the farmers’ market to shop, but also to come away a little more edified than when we arrived.

As someone who has been a regular at the Wednesday Santa Monica farmers’ market since 1982, I have come to expect to learn something new each week. I can’t resist talking to farmers about their drives down, or about how weather conditions have affected their crops, or about new items on their tables. Customers who frequent farmers’ markets are well-versed in the concept of seasonal produce.

They do not expect to find a cantaloupe in February or bell peppers in March. They have learned, however, that asparagus is practically a year-round crop thanks to the efforts of Phil Green, who sells asparagus at a dozen southern California markets each week twelve months a year. Phil is usually on the go and hard to catch up with, but even he has experienced difficulties in harvesting due to the recent heavy rains. I can tell by the uniformly small sized asparagus on his table and the dearth of broccoli and cauliflower that normally accompany it.

Recently, however, Gloria Tamai had no fewer than four strawberry varieties on her table. Strawberries are very susceptible to rain damage and only those that turned red between the rainstorms were able to be harvested. The sturdy Camarosa, which was developed to be hardy and early to market, is damaged during the blossom phase, causing the hollow “Parrot Beak” shaped berries that are rejected by wholesalers. Gloria’s new variety, called Ventana, is a delicious early berry that is not susceptible to parrot beak and was a dependable producer in this rainy period. I tried some of each of her berries – the Gaviotas and Seascapes as well as Camarosas and Ventanas, and the Ventanas tasted best. Over at Glenn Tanaka’s stand, the Camarosas tasted just fine, and Phil McGrath’s few Seascapes were delicious as well. It’s fun to be a berry connoisseur, thanks to the tutelage of the farmers.

With or without a shopping list, I am always open to new suggestions as to what to buy and how to cook it. Winchester Cheese, the raw milk farmstead Gouda makers, sometimes brings in a “Swiss style” cheese that undergoes a slightly different process, resulting in a unique flavor. In early Spring, farmers bring in a variety of young onions, garlic, leeks and shallots that used to be cast off as thinnings, but which are now a valued cash crop. Farmers experiment with bringing in younger and younger plants. Maryanne Carpenter’s baby fennel, which can be roasted whole, is sheer delight. On the other hand, Zuckerman Farm brings in jumbo asparagus, which has inch-thick stems but retains the tenderness and sweetness of smaller asparagus, and makes for an interesting presentation on the plate.

Recently I discovered a new “I didn’t know that” item that I will call “Skins I didn’t realize were edible.” While chatting on the subject of spring fava beans with Julie, the new farmers’ market manager for Fairview Gardens Farm in Goleta, she mentioned that the outer pods of young fava beans were edible. I cooked some up according to the Mexican recipe she recounted, and they did turn out to be delicious – slightly bitter, but tender and good. Fava beans are a spring favorite and it’s a real labor of love to first shell, then boil and remove the inner skin before they are ready for final preparation. The large outer husk is eighty percent of the bean, so it was wonderful to discover a way to cook and eat it. I did discard all the pods that were more than eight inches long, however — they just looked too tough to eat.

And let’s not forget the new varietal olive oils that are coming to market from small producers in the Ojai and Santa Barbara areas. California’s Mediterranean climate is very hospitable to olive trees, some of which are in century-old plantings. Customers can find out just by asking at what stage the olives were harvested, whether or not they are single varieties or blends, and then taste them to decide which one they prefer. I was very pleased to see that Santa Barbara Pistachio is now bringing pistachio meal and a very limited amount of pistachio oil into the market. I am half convinced to substitute almond meal with pistachio meal in a cake I am going to attempt to bake soon. What a treat that will be if it all turns out OK.

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