Here is what you can accomplish by doing your holiday shopping at the farmers’ market:
You can support small California farms.
You can check off persons on your list while at the same time purchasing holiday recipe items for yourself.
You can save time and gas by doing your shopping on foot.
You can avoid long, boring lines and instead enjoy short, intriguing lines full of persons like yourself who like to share recipes and ideas while waiting to be served.
You can get ideas about what to buy by watching what other people are buying. You can get the addresses of your favorite farmers while shopping at their stand should you decide to mail them a card, or you can hand deliver gifts to them if you have decided to do so.
You can create one of a kind gift baskets using some of the three-hundred plus items you find at the market each week.
You can partake of the true holiday spirit while actually enjoying the rush and crush of the shopping season.
And you can look forward to no post-holiday let down since you can do the same thing all over again next week, minus the gift list.
The holidays are a good time to take a closer look at what is on the farmers’ tables. Throughout the year, farmers from all over the state bring fresh, often unique produce items to market, but during the winter holidays in particular they take extra care to be inspired and creative in their offerings.
Many farmers make up gift packs that include a little bit of everything they grow.
You can splurge with a basket of giant, dark brown Medjool dates and pair them with some smaller, interesting dates such as the chewy Hadrawis and the sugar-spun soft Honeys. Dates make an excellent cookie replacement when they are pitted, dipped in chocolate, and stuffed with a half pecan or walnut.
If you want to focus on nuts, you can choose from other fresh harvested varieties like macadamias and pistachios. Many California nuts are harvested in September and October so they are at their peak of freshness in the late fall. A gift sampler of pistachios from Santa Barbara Pistachio can include a half-dozen roasted and flavored four-ounce bags or a Pistachio Pillow – three pounds of lightly salted nuts at an excellent savings. Air-dried macadamia nuts are an exceptional gift (or treat for yourself). I like to buy a $2 “snack pack” to munch on while I contemplate my larger purchases.
Whole, air-dried, (never roasted) macs from Russell Farms go great with dried persimmons as a dessert or a between meal pick-up. You can also buy macadamia meal or chopped macadamias for holiday cooking. The Russells have many recipes to share.
Jim Russell is also an accomplished gourd art practitioner who sells and displays gourds to purchase, either as gifts or for home projects.
Jams and jellies have been a staple item at farmers markets since the markets began, and Cook and Ladder, farmers from Santa Barbara, sell a very unique line of small-batch processed fresh fruit confitures. Cook Carolyn Beck and her retired fire-fighter husband grow a small amount of many different fruits that Carolyn turns into jam, jelly and marmalade within days of harvest. The preserves are packaged in cute, round jars and contain flavors of red wine, ginger and citrus. Many of the jams are produced in such small quantities that they sell out within days of harvest, but Carolyn is adept at arranging gift boxes that provide a wide range of flavors.
In addition, Cook and Ladder produces a limited amount of olive oil from several varieties of hand-harvested olives. Their olive oil is pressed within twenty-four hours of harvest and the Becks have adapted their recipe to include the mid-season olives, those that have turned from green to red on their way to black. These olives give the fruitiest, best-balanced flavor, as Carolyn discovered after a few years of early green, tangy-hot harvests. In 2004, Cook and Ladder won a gold medal in the Olive Oils of the World Competition, winning out over 324 competitors. Their olive oil is packaged in light-resistant dark blue glass bottles that help preserve the oil’s freshness, and Carolyn creates beautiful gift packs that combine blue bottles of oil with bright, jewel hued preserves.
Over the holidays you can indulge your creative side by making gift baskets using fresh produce, potted plants and anything else that strikes your wondering eye.
Casablanca Nursery comes to the Wednesday market for the month of December with the most varied display of poinsettias to be found anywhere. They have the red and white speckled Jingle Bells, a pale pink and cream Strawberries and Cream, a rosette-shaped Winter Rose, a dappled red Monet and a new, spotty pink one called Shimmer Pink. These come in small containers that can easily be added to a fruit basket.
Several farmers have tried their hand at making wreaths from dried flowers and various forms of foliage. Cheryl Conover from “It Began in the Garden” has beautiful dainty wreaths made entirely of perfectly preserved roses.
You can also pick up an herb or flower planter from Cheryl in a hand made crate that makes and excellent gift or decoration. For bright red dried chili ristras, visit Rutiz Farms at the Wednesday market.
Beeswax candles burn pleasantly, drip and smoke free, on the table or in guestrooms. Some farmers bring in slabs of beeswax that you can melt and shape for yourself. If you want to impress the folks back East, send them an entire box of sweet, seedless Satsuma Mandarins. Regier Farm sells a 40-pound box for $30 – a good price and a quantity that allows you to save some Satsumas for yourself.
And don’t forget those friends and co-workers who would be pleasantly surprised by receiving something fresh from the farmers’ market. This is a wonderful time of year to avoid the commercial rush and give a gift of the land.
Holiday Note: Chef and Author Suzanne Goin, owner of Lucques and AOC restaurants, will sign her new book, Sunday Suppers at Lucques, at the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers’ Market on Wednesday, December 21st at the Third Street Promenade at Arizona Avenue from 10 am – 1 pm.