Take a tour through your local farmers’ market in early February and you will see lots of newly emerged plants, coming to market as if through the blanketing snows of winter. The mild climate of California, especially in the southern regions, make the idea of snow that is neither trucked in nor artificially produced for local skiing basically moot. But I remember the magical days of my early childhood in Ohio when the first delicate snow drops would emerge from a crusty layer of snow on the first warm late winter day, or when fantastic daffodils would pop up in cheery yellow clumps from the barely thawed earth. Such was the impression I got last week while going through the market.McGrath Family Farm’s usual display of root-forward beets, turnips and radishes sported their usual jewel-like presence, but stacked alongside them, right at eye level, were thread-thin bunches of baby red and yellow onions. Scarcely bigger than chives, these extremely small spring onions are ready to eat whole or lightly braised for hot dishes. Just down the way, James Birch’s Flora Bella Farm is bringing in baby rutabagas. These young, pale orange roots are perfect for oven roasting whole with an inch of greens attached and adding to the plate as a sideline to roasted meats or winter vegetable medleys. Further along, Tutti Frutti Farm has piles of small red, orange and green peppers that are perfect for stuffing. The peppers are extra flavorful for having survived some nippy nights, and their sweetness pairs perfectly with any mélange of fruit, rice, bean or meat fillings. February is also the time for black truffles. These rarer-than-rare delicacies are harvested in Northern California’s state forests, and shipped by air to the market on an almost daily basis. The truffles, available from Clearwater Farms, are kept on ice and displayed like jewels. Their appearance at the local farmers’ market signals a rite of passage on Mother Nature’s calendar. Home cooks and professional chefs greet the truffles with respect and creativity, expertly extracting their earthy, sublime essence through a number of inspired dishes. Keep your eyes and noses peeled for the appearance of winter blooms, including Heritage Gardens’ bright, cheery primroses. These low-growing, shade-loving bright lights come in blue, yellow, red, orange and white, and are always planted on my front porch before Valentine’s Day. Flora Bella Farm was featuring some tiny, six-inch tall daffodils that exuded a wonderful spring fragrance. Bunches of these, plentiful and tightly packed, would create a beautiful effect in any room of the house. And tall, graceful tulips from Tom Turner’s Seaside Gardens and Skyline Ranch open slowly throughout the week, maintaining their perfect, fully opened shapes for days. Tulips, with their gorgeous pastel hues of lavender, pink and yellow are a beautiful harbinger of Spring. California’s orchids are coming into their prime season now as well. Orchid breeder Cathy Cosgrove from San Diego County specializes in exotic orchid plants that come to market loaded with delicate sprays of blooms. The plants remain in bloom for several weeks, and the plants, in spite of their delicate appearance, are quite easy to maintain for perennial flowering. In February, California strawberries begin their official harvest season. Although California growers have perfected the art of harvesting strawberries practically year round, the February plants, which have been properly chilled and transplanted in late fall, bring forth extremely flavorful and delicious berries. I can go weeks without buying strawberries, and I always wonder why as soon as I taste a perfectly ripe, red one. Whether dipped in chocolate for Valentine’s Day or smothered in cream and eaten by the bowlful, the “return” of the strawberries is always a good time of year. California’s year-round season of agricultural plenty deserves a nice, close look in early February so even a careful Market patron can find something new peeking out to surprise them.
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