As I step through the sliding doors of the San Diego Airport, the intense heat of the fall sun reminds me that San Diego is indeed a desert despite the numerous efforts to turn the ecosystem into one that is temperate and green. This is readily visible in any patch of land left to fend for itself without the aid of water and it plays into the seasonal abundance, or sometimes lack thereof, at the local Farmers Markets. Wherever I travel, I practice the burgeoning art of farmers market tourism. Each market reflects the pulse and flavor of the neighborhood it is in. Markets are places where people bond over food with spontaneous discussions and interactions without pretense. I’ve arrived in San Diego at the peak of the late summer harvest.
My first market is the North Park Farmers Market. It reflects a neighborhood which has become a trendy destination and boasts the most vegan restaurants per capita in San Diego. Goyo Rodriguez of JR Organics has a table teeming with produce. I purchase some tender wax beans, candy sweet strawberries and a provocative Frog Skin honeydew melon.
Next stop is Moncai Vegan. Donald Moncai tells me about the new vegan restaurant they are about to open around the corner as he plies me with samples of his vegan donuts and a thirst-quenching hibiscus iced tea.
Mel Lions, Wild Willow Farm mastermind and fearless leader, told me last time I was in town that they were selling produce from the community farm at the Imperial Beach Farmers Market. It was the only all vegetarian market I was aware of, abundant with plant-based vendors offering prepared foods. Since then, market management has changed and the direction with it. While the vendors who offered vegan foods are gone, there is now a significant organic produce presence anchored by the Wild Willow Farm. I am immediately drawn to the bright reddish-purple bunches of amaranth.
The location of this market is magical. It is on Imperial Beach right next to the pier. Whenever I’m here, I walk to the end of it where I frequently see schools of dolphins swimming and playing nearby.
The Little Italy Mercato is a must-visit market–a treasure trove of culinary gems located in one of the liveliest districts in downtown San Diego. The first farmer I speak with is Jeff Alves of Terra Bella Ranch, the go-to stall for fresh organic almonds, walnuts and ever-enticing red walnuts. It is easy to become spoiled by the quality of his nuts, I have never found anything that comes close. The news from Jeff is their new mail-order and Farm-to-Office service for their products. I am thrilled! This is a great way for me to get his extraordinary organic nuts and fruits in Michigan. Terra Bella also grows and prepares delicious unsulphured organic apricots, tangy sun dried tomatoes, fresh figs, avocados and a number of other crops.
I continue through the market keenly aware of the shimmering San Diego bay, swaying palm trees and nothing but blue skies smiling at me, not to mention the many wagging and sniffing dogs who are always welcome here. Mark of Happy Pantry: T.G.I.F. Thank God Its Fermented stops me to offer samples of raw krauts, pickles and kimchi. I opt for the Power Krautage, a super-green-food infused kraut with subtle notes and great flavor.
Suzie’s Farm can be found in markets throughout San Diego–always presenting a cornucopia of what the season is offering. Today’s stall is full of micro greens, peppers, beans, zucchini and an abundance of heirloom tomatoes.
The star of the day is their Indigo Rose tomato with a spicy plum-like flavor and a provocative dark color. To my delight, they also have Shishito peppers, a mild Japanese sauteing pepper with tender skin and the wonderful flavor of spicier chiles.
With my remarkable bounty in tow, I head over to the Wild Willow Farm in the the heart of the Tijuana estuary between the Mexican border and Imperial Beach. I have been visiting the farm and participating in events since its 2009 inception (see video here). I’ve enjoyed watching their progress over the years as the people of this community are dedicated and full of energy. I arrive just as a fundraising 5k fun run ends and the volunteers are making their way through the fields to attend to the farm’s needs.
It is a pastoral scene with goats being fed, roosters crowing and amaranth swaying with the cool ocean breeze. The Wild Willow Farm & Education Center works with five school systems throughout San Diego County to help children understand the connections between the land and the food they eat. San Diego is very fortunate to have them.
From here, I drive down the dusty lane to Suzie’s Farm on Sunset, a single 140 acre parcel. Suzie’s has been instrumental in bringing the culture of local organic food to the people of San Diego County. Ideally situated near Wild Willow Farm, Suzie’s has a stand selling produce picked that day from their fields. I stop by, chat and pick up some green beans, a small watermelon and a bottle of Jackie’s Cherry Bomb Jam created from the farm’s spicy cherry peppers–a delicious combination of sweet and hot!
This is the big farmer’s market day in San Diego County with lots of great ones to choose from. I decide on three of my favorites: Rancho Santa Fe Farmers Market, La Jolla Open Aire Farmers Market and Hillcrest Farmers Market. The Rancho Santa Fe Farmers Market is sponsored by the Helen Woodward Animal Shelter. Volunteers from the organization walk adorable and adoptable dogs through the market each week. It is a mellow market with understated elegance.
Market master Raquel Pena has assembled a foodie’s paradise of vendors. Akram Attie of Thyme of Essence makes fresh Manoushe sandwiches. He deftly toasts flatbread on a Mongolian-style grill and fills each sandwich with slices of Persian cucumbers, vine-ripened local tomatoes, his personal brand of za’atar and a touch of his self-harvested California extra virgin olive oil. I follow this culinary treat with Emilio’s Andalusian blended gazpacho. It is bursting with a rich tomato flavor and has undertones of olive oil and spicy garlic–one or two spoonfuls will not do as it is deliciously addictive.
I pick up a loaf of naturally fermented whole grain bread from the Prager Brothers Artisanal Bakery stall. Handcrafted the way bread is supposed to be, this alone would be worth the drive to the market.
From here, I drive down the coast past the vista of surf rolling against the bluffs of Torrey Pines to the La Jolla Open Aire Farmers Market. This market has greatly expanded since my cooking-demo days here. Nicolina Alves has nurtured the market into a wonderful community center full of dedicated farmers and delicious food from a variety of vendors. I find amazing Barhi dates from Futterman Farm which are dried right on the palm and taste like juicy caramel candy. Dennis Stowell of Tom King Farms is selling large, succulent figs and giant bulbs of strong and spicy Georgian garlic which are begging to be sautéed.
Next stop is the Hillcrest Farmers Market, which is the closest market to our home in Mission Hills and widely considered the go-to market in San Diego. People commonly compare it to the Santa Monica market and those of San Francisco. One of my favorite farmers, and certainly the liveliest, is Barry Koral of Koral’s Tropical Fruit Farm. This week the sweet-incense of guavas and vibrant deep red pomegranates attract people to his small, but formidable, stall.
The market is open from 9 to 2 and he talks the entire time with passion about the health and vitality his fruits and raw foods provide. I buy some Fallbrook macadamia nuts and set up a mail order shipment of his unparalleled Reed avocados.
The farmer’s markets of San Diego are festive and full. They are the new town centers, combining people and food into social sustenance. The market energy is transferred home because market day meals are the best and most inspired meal of the week.
Wild Yam Soba Noodles with Indigo Rose Tomatoes, Amaranth and Walnuts
1 cup yellow wax beans, cut in 1/2 inch pieces
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1/2 pimiento pepper, finely diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
2 cups red amaranth leaves, coarsely chopped
4 cups Indigo Rose tomatoes, cut in half
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 package (4 ounces) Eden Foods Wild Yam Soba noodles, cooked per instructions and drained
In a medium-sized sauce pan, bring 2 cups of water to a boil. Add wax beans and cook for approximately 30 seconds. Drain in strainer then rinse beans with cold water. Reserve. Heat large skillet on medium-high heat, add olive oil, garlic and crushed red pepper. When sizzling, add the wax beans, amaranth, tomatoes and sea salt. Saute until the tomatoes are tender and beginning to break down, then balsamic vinegar and oregano.
Place the noodles into a large serving bowl and gently stir in the tomato mixture. Serve immediately.
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
4 cups Shishito chiles, wash but don’t remove stems
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt
Heat a 6 to 9 inch skillet on medium high heat (a cast iron skillet works well). Add the oil, chiles and salt. Saute and turn the chiles until blistered. Serve immediately
Japanese Cucumber Salad
1 cup Japanese cucumber, sliced into thin half moons
1/2 cup tomatoes, diced
1/2 cup fresh figs, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
2 teaspoons red onion, finely minced
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons rice wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
Mix all ingredients in a bowl. Allow to rest for 15 minutes before serving.