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FARMERS MARKET: Winter Wonderland: Laura Avery

Yes, it is winter – barely three weeks past the winter solstice – and the farmers’ markets are replete with wonderful things to eat and look at.

Weiser Family Farms’ Trompetta squashes have assumed their final, contorted positions of maturity and they adorn the table in corkscrews and curlicues. The trompetta is a summer squash that, when left on the vine, becomes a large, dun colored, long-necked wonder that can be cooked like any other winter squash. It has a very small seed cavity in its small, bulbed bottom and it yields a surprisingly bountiful amount of edible flesh from its slim, curvy neck.

Other hard shell winter squashes at the market that continue to delight are the Spaghetti and Butternut – both delicious in numerous dishes. Soft skin Kabochas and various other eating pumpkins abound as well.

Pastel cauliflower has hit its season now, and you can find pale orange and true purple cauliflower heads on more and more tables, in addition to the familiar snowy white ones. The purple and orange cauliflower keeps its color when cooked, and can be made into lovely velvety soups or oven roasted as a complement to other winter vegetables. There is very little variation in flavor among the different varieties, so they can be used in any cauliflower recipe.

A cousin of the cauliflower, the fantastically turreted Romanesco, is also at markets now. This winter vegetable with cauliflower-like florets that twist and spiral into points is also a beautiful chartreuse color that adds interest to any dish, hot or cold. Its flavor is a little more concentrated than the cauliflower’s, and while its appearance is not often masked by creaming it in soup, it is a wonderful addition to almost any other hearty winter dish.

The recent rains brought out a few domestic Chanterelle mushrooms recently, too. This mushroom is not cultivated, but has appeared along riverbanks at Tutti Frutti Farm in Lompoc. Chanterelles are large, fan-shaped bright yellow mushrooms that have a wonderful woodsy aroma and take well to all sorts of preparations.

Tutti Frutti Farm is also featuring mature (meaning really big) yellow carrots, which are still sweet and crisp for roasting or pureeing. You can also pick up some of their red carrots – but beware when making vegetable stock, these carrots turned my stock bright pink.

Coleman Farm brings in small amounts of passion fruit and sapote, and these should be sampled if found. Passion fruit is usually sold as juice, but this little round purple, leathery-skinned marvel must be eaten fresh to be appreciated. When you cut the fruit in half, the inside is nothing more than clusters of black seeds suspended on fleshy yellow stalks attached to the inner wall.

The preferred eating method is to scoop everything out in one or two bites per half of the fruit and crunch away on the seeds and pulp. The flavor is sweet, fruity and intense, and Delia Coleman occasionally treats her customers with passion fruit creations that contain the essence of this tropical wonder.

Sapote, also referred to as “custard apple” is an incredibly thin-skinned yellow fruit with a creamy white flesh that must be eaten with a spoon or a good supply of paper towels. Its soft skin is easily bruised or rubbed completely off, so ripe specimens must be handled with extreme care. Sapotes are an exotic, tropical treat virtually unavailable at commercial markets due to their fragility.

Bill Coleman brings them down just a shade short of fully ripe so they can be handled, but if you find a random, fully ripe one, do not hesitate to buy it and consume it on the spot.

Asparagus has taken a few weeks off while the farmer, Phil Green and his extensive fields gear up for the winter harvest. Phil has perfected the art of asparagus production so he is able to provide fresh asparagus to many Southland farmers markets virtually year round. Asparagus is a perennial crop whose plants can last up to fifteen years, but it goes through a seeding cycle that takes it out of production once a year. Due to Phil’s dedication to this delightful vegetable, Californians are treated to fresh asparagus eleven months out of each year. Green Farms also brings in brussels sprouts and artichokes, fascinating, flavorful vegetables that have become staples thanks to farmers’ market suppliers.

Don’t miss out on the fall harvest of raisins. Really good flame and ruby seedless grapes make fine, plump, chewy raisins to enjoy all winter long. Irene Burkart is back at the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers’ Market with her winter navels and some wonderful raisins made from her organic grapes. Raisins are full of iron, they cook well, and fresh raisins made from red grapes are miles ahead of the commercial Thompson seedless varieties. Dried fruit is one way to extend the pleasures of summer’s harvest, and farmers who specialize in dried fruit such as Ken and Betty Kennedy offer both a sulphured and unsulphured line of dried fruit, including their most exotic varieties of plums, nectarines and peaches. Dried fruit is generally dried at the absolute peak of ripeness, so the flavor of each fruit is at a maximum. While dried fruit was in high demand for all the holiday baking, it is still a good thing to pick up to add to salads, oatmeal or homemade trail mix.

Pomegranates are pretty much gone from the farmers’ tables by now, but pure pomegranate juice is available from several farmers. Pomegranate juice is highly touted for its beneficial health properties, such as high iron content, and it makes an excellent jelly all by itself due to its high pectin content. Some farmers juice the whole fruit, which adds a note of bitterness to the product, and some painstakingly juice the seedy pulp only. Either way, pure pomegranate juice is a market specialty we are happy to find.

So make the most of the long, dark winter’s night and visit your local farmers’ market for a dose of good cheer.

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