Peak of the Harvest San Diego Market Tour

When summer begins to wane and the autumn leaves begin their transition, the tables at the farmers markets explode with color. Whether it is San Diego or Detroit, the September harvest is a magnificent time to be in our local farmers markets which have become our community centers, weekend playgrounds and the instigators of culinary foreplay for foodies across the country.

While visiting San Diego recently, I went to five farmers markets and a community farm.  One of my favorites, the Little Italy Mercato, is the jewel of the San Diego urban markets.  Overlooking the breathtaking harbor, the five blocks of booths offer local crafts, delicious prepared foods, stunning colorful fruits & vegetables and some of the best street music in the area.  One of my favorite vendors, Sage Mountain Farm, told me the Armenian cucumbers were a big hit the day I was there while the Rose apples and prickly pear fruit were selling fast at Rancho Lindo Mexico’s booth.  As always, a parade of canine friends, sniffing for samples, create a friendly atmosphere unlike any of the other markets.

I was pleased to see that the North Park Farmers Market is finally starting to blossom, thanks in part to the addition of food trucks and certified organic farms such as Suzie’s Farm and JR Organics.  Moncai Foods, a wholesale vegan dessert company, is now there selling deliciously crafted vegan entrees and desserts.

I headed toward the Mexican border to visit the Wild Willow Community Farm near Imperial Beach.  Over the last three years this farm has grown into an amazing educational center and gathering place for the local community. Director Mel Lions told me the farm is thriving and finally able to distribute produce to the local markets.  They have a potluck and open house every third Saturday of the month–providing volunteers and the greater community an opportunity to reflect, celebrate and appreciate the gifts of the soil. It is a wonderful event which I highly recommend.

Little Italy Mercato’s Market Maestra, Catt White, gave me a tour of the new San Diego Public Market on National Avenue.  It is a two acre site where an old machine factory once stood.  Soon it will serve as an indoor/outdoor year-round marketplace.  The plan includes incubator kitchens, permanent food stalls and a home base for food trucks.  It is very ambitious, but I have no doubt Catt can achieve her goal after seeing firsthand what she has done with markets around San Diego. Wednesday and Sunday markets have already begun in this location, which I look forward to visiting the next time I’m in San Diego.

Even though it is a smaller boutique market, Rancho Santa Fe Farmers Market is also one of my favorites.  Each week, market master Raquel Pena transforms a shopping center parking lot into a magical place filled with beautiful music, delicious food, fruits, vegetables and artisans. I find these intimate and cozy markets a refreshing change from the crush of the crowds at some of the more popular ones. My good friend Akram Attie is front and center here in his Thyme of Essence booth.  He not only sells the freshest harvest of California olive oil and custom Zaatar spice blends, but sumptuous, out-of-this-world Manoushe & Falafel sandwiches toasted on a Mongolian-style grill.

Nicolina Alves of Terra Bella Ranch took over the vibrant La Jolla Open Aire Market last year. The word is out and it has become a destination place for anyone in or near La Jolla on any given Sunday.  There are a large variety of food stalls, a plethora of vegetable & fruit farmers and a dizzying array of crafts and artists.

The market is on the verge of adding thirty percent more space and it is only going to get better.  Of course, Terra Bella Ranch is an anchor vendor and has always been one of my favorite organic farms.  They specialize in walnuts, almonds, avocados and dried fruits.

I enjoyed visiting with Dennis Stowell of Tom King Farms and tasting his giant football-shaped Uzbeki melons–sweet and succulent! Some of the best melons I’ve ever had.

The Grande Dame of San Diego markets is the Hillcrest Farmers Market, where most chefs and foodies shop.  I could not resist buying the giant figs, perfectly ripe passion fruit and the voluptuous Reed avocados from Ryan at Creekside Tropicals.

I sampled fresh harvested, dried on the palm Morocco Gold Medjool dates.  They taste like a melt-in-the-mouth caramel, addictive and delicious. I ordered a variety of heirloom beans to be shipped by Michelle Larson Sadler’s Conscious Cookery–Colorado River, Anasazi, Mortgage Lifter and Borlotti beans.

Market days are not just days to stock up on fresh and exciting ingredients.  They are a rejuvenating experience, an opportunity to reconnect with friends and awaken culinary creativity.  I used the passion fruits from Creekside Tropicals to create this recipe.

Passion-Almond Creme Brulee

Serves 4

Passion fruit

4 passion fruits

1/4 cup evaporated cane juice

Slice the passion fruits in half and scoop the fruit into a fine strainer placed over a bowl. Use a rubber spatula push the fruit against the strainer, working the juice from the seeds. Place the juice into a small sauce pan on medium-low heat.  Stir in the sugar. Simmer for 20 to 30 minutes until it becomes a syrup-like consistency. Reserve.

Almond Creme

1 cup plain almond or soy milk

1 vanilla bean, scraped or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/3 cup evaporated cane juice

1/2 cup blanched almond flour

1 tablespoon unbleached wheat flour or 1-1/2 teaspoons arrowroot powder

Whisk all ingredients together in a double boiler on medium heat. Cook for 40 minutes, whisking occasionally, until thick.

Transfer evenly into 4 shallow ramekins (small souffle dishes).

Assembly

4 tablespoons evaporated cane juice

Sprinkle 1 tablespoon evaporated cane juice on top of each ramekin. Using a cooking torch, carefully caramelize the sugar until golden brown. Dress each ramekin with a swirl of passion fruit syrup. Serve immediately.

Note: Many of the highlighted links above will ship!

 

A Visit To Sage Mountain Farm

It was a sunny Wednesday morning when I set out to visit one of Phil Noble’s three properties, known as Sage Mountain Farm.  The Stardust Ranch, which used to be part of an western ranch and a stagecoach stop on the way to Temecula, is 740 acres. Driving by the rolling hills and dramatic rocky outcrops of North County San Diego, I am impressed with the fact that Phil makes this trek a few times every week to Whole Foods and Hillcrest Market–an hour and a half drive each way. Today, in the wide expanse of the valley, the bright white dome of the Mt. Palomar observatory is visible over the ridge a few miles away.  At this farm, Phil grows onions, leeks, cucumbers, melons, eggplants, potatoes and corn. He will harvest about 50,000 pounds of onions, not to mention the rest of the crops.
As I drive through the gates and gaze upon the vast fields, Phil and his crew of six workers look like tiny specks.  They are harvesting row after row of sweet yellow onions; the pungent aroma wafts through the air in the 80 degree heat, a cool day in these parts.  They loosen the onions with a conveyor attachment on a tractor and then slowly work their way through the rows filling plastic lugs, which in turn are emptied onto a trailer hooked to Phil’s truck.  Periodically, the truck is backed down the row, little by little until the trailer is full.  Next, they drive the truck down the road to unload the onions beneath a tree to dry out and await trimming to become the round shiny yellow bulb we see at the stores.
It is a tremendous amount of work and reminds me how hard it is to produce high quality organic produce for local markets.  No combines and industrial size harvesters here, just the touch and sweat of hands as the bulbs are removed from the sun-drenched earth, shaken free of dirt and carefully placed with the others.
Phil and I walk along discussing the local food movement.  With local foods all the rage in the restaurant world, distributors have started to stock a few local products for their chef clients.  Phil explained these products are often chosen selectively and the big non-local producers make up the bulk of what is sold to chefs.  This means that unless a chef goes to the local farmers market to get his produce, or buys in quantity from a farm, his restaurant is probably not using local products to any great extent.
Phil tells me that he starts his day at five in the morning and ends it around ten at night.  Good help is hard to find and only a few people stay from year to year, which translates into a good amount of in-the-field training.  An urban dweller may think this is non-skilled work, but there is a lot more to planting and harvesting than we may think.  It only takes a few mishaps or improper methods to turn a row of 10,000 onions into compost.
Still, when the weather cooperates and the water flows, the land yields its bounty and the rewards are great.  Not only does the farmer and family survive until the next year, but there is communion with the organic life in the soil resulting in a fulfilling lifestyle synchronized with the cyclic rhythms of the earth.  I asked Phil if he had any regrets about leaving the security of the corporate world to become a farmer and he responded without hesitation  “No, it’s a good life.”


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Summer Surfing at the Markets

 

Friday at the Mission Hills Market
My home is in Mission Hills, a gorgeous area of San Diego founded by early 20th Century visionaries in the Arts and Crafts tradition with charming historic homes, parks full of spectacular foliage and a strong community presence.  I was thrilled when a farmers market sprang up in the middle of the tiny downtown several Fridays ago.  There are a number of good vendors in the one city block which comprises the market.  This Friday market kicks off my weekends with fresh, organic ingredients.
I have been buying sweet and plump blueberries at Smit Orchards stall for the last few weeks.   Their radiant blues and purples have been a colorful addition to morning oatmeal, smoothies, cobblers and pies.
Pepper season heated up in the last month.  The Padron Peppers from Suzie’s Farm have been an exciting side dish when I saute them a skillet with a little olive oil and coarse sea salt.  Robin, the owner, described how the peppers start off mild and become hotter as the vines get older.  He plants them at intervals to make sure he’s able to harvest the sweet young peppers at their prime.
When Suzies Farm has the historic Italian Jimmy Nardello peppers, buy them! I prepared them the same way as the Padrones.  They have a sweet flavor and melt-in-your-mouth texture.
Tender baby-beet greens from Maggie’s Farm went into my summer squash with coconut curry dish.  They also had a variety of heirloom potatoes which I used for a roasted potato chole and baby romaine heads which I cut in half, browned in a skillet and served as an antipasti plate garnish.
Saturday at the Little Italy Mercato
Saturday mornings are in full swing at the Mercato in the heart of Little Italy.  Each market is defined by the neighborhood it is in and this three block market has an Old World Italian flavor with modern urban chic.
Justin Noble of Sage Mountain Farm grows starship zucchini, a type of patti pan squash which I steamed and served with a lemon-dijon sauce.  He also grows Armenian cucumbers which are not really cucumbers, but a member of the melon family. They are a refreshing and crunchy addition to salads along with heirloom tomatoes, which are starting to flood the markets.
The founder of La Milpa Organica, Oasis Benson,  moved north and entered the organic olive business.  Good Faith Farm sells two kinds of raw, organic olives– Sevillanos and Kalamata–along with their delicious olive oil, which is so fresh it must be refrigerated.  These delicious olives are cured with first quality ingredients (brown rice vinegar) and are probably the healthiest olives one will ever encounter.
There are several musicians throughout the market.  Santiago Orozco and his band Todo Mundo often play in the amphitheater at the top, east end of the market.  The upbeat Latin rhythms and positive message of his music enhance the festive atmosphere.

Sunday at Hillcrest Farmers Market
Mariella Balbi of Guanni Chocolates is located in the center of the Hillcrest Market and always greets me with her beautiful smile.  Her vegan Wari Bars made from 100% Peruvian Criollo cacao are a chocolate lover’s delight.
La Milpa Organica is the gold standard of market stalls in San Diego.  This week I purchased amaranth, Swiss chard and magenta spreen lamb’s quarters to make tarts, pies, tortes and simple seared greens with garlic, hot red pepper and coarse sea salt.
Karen at Archis Acres picked out a giant head of red leaf lettuce for me.  I made lettuce wraps filled with Haas avocados, Cherokee red tomatoes and pepita, cilantro and lime pesto.
At Michelle Larson-Sadler’s booth, the Conscious Cookery, I found organic Anasazi beans grown in the Four-Corners area and smoked New Mexican chipotle and pasilla chiles.  These ingredients will become a mole.
Phil of Sage Mountain Farm had Italian torpedo onions, cherry tomatoes, hard-neck garlic and fresh basil with the root–the perfect ingredients for a fresh heirloom tomato, basil, red onion and rubbed garlic crostini.
Matt of Lone Oak Ranch supplied me with some of his very best white and yellow nectarines, white and yellow peaches and candy-like pluots which I am using for grilled fruit salsas this week.
If you have been keeping up with my blog, you will have noticed me waxing poetic about red walnuts from Terra Bella Ranch.  The season is over, but Jeff and Nicolina’s excellent Chandler walnuts are still available, as well as their beautiful dried apricots, raw almonds and sun-dried tomatoes, all of which I use regularly.  I toast the walnuts and almonds for approximately 12 minutes at 325 F degrees and keep them available for snacks, salads and garnish.  Because of the healthy volatile oils in nuts, they can become rancid.  I store untoasted nuts in the freezer.
The small Poblano chiles from Sage Mountain Farm are delightful.  I cut off the tops, scoop out the seeds and fill them with a corn tamal-style filling or a thick and creamy walnut filling, reminiscent of an Oaxacan walnut sauce which Frida Kahlo used to make at her Blue House.  Next I put them onto a chili roasting rack which goes directly on the grill.  I can never make enough of these!
I found Palestinian sweet limes, sweet cocktail grapefruit and Reed avocados at the Rancho Mexico Lindo Farm booth.  She also had red, pink and green prickley pear fruit, which are considered a health tonic.
San Diego farmer’s markets are a treasure trove of exciting, fresh and organic ingredients.   Markets like this can be found across the country in every community.

 

Making Every Day Earth Day

In honor of Earth Day, I chose a collection of previous blog posts as a tribute to the connection we all have with the planet.  A small reminder that everything we do can be a celebration of the earth.

 

How to Shop at the Farmers Market

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Locavores Do It Fresher

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Topsoil Tales …or Nourishing From the Ground Up

 

 

 

 

 

 

A New Victory Garden

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cooking Inspiration From Sage Mountain Farm

Last Sunday at the Hillcrest Farmer’s Market in San Diego, Phil Noble of Sage Mountain Farm was showing passersby a large shoot of elephant garlic. He was explaining the colossal versatility of the leek look-alike which is only available a few weeks in the Spring when the shoots are young and tender. The mature oversized bulb is usually found in stores labeled as a mild alternative to the traditional garlic bulb. Phil said that every part of the shoot can be used in cooking–from the tentacle-like roots to the top of the dark green shoots.

Back at home, I began lunch preparation, anxious to incorporate my latest find. Since it is mild, elephant garlic can be used in greater quantity without the fear of being the “stinking rose.” I thinly sliced the white portion of the elephant garlic and braised it with some baby beets (also from Sage Mountain Farm), a little extra virgin olive oil, a small amount of water and then I covered and simmered it for about 20 minutes. The tiny beets became tender morsels still attached to the buttery soft beet greens.

I also prepared elephant garlic-herb tofu by sautéing firm tofu with a little extra virgin olive oil. As the tofu turned golden brown, I added dried basil, elephant garlic roots and premium tamari (Nama Shoyu from Goldmine Natural Foods). To serve, I garnished it with slivers of the green top of the garlic shoot. The firm meatiness of the tofu was nicely complemented by the seared herb flavor and the slight pungency of the garlic. The tender roots retained a slight crunch, enhancing the texteral landscape of the dish.

As a third dish, I prepared sautéed red amaranth from La Milpa Organica with minced white elephant garlic, crushed red pepper and coarse sea salt. As the amaranth wilted, I added the Sage Mountain asparagus, covered the pan and turned the heat down to a simmer. Served with freshly baked bread, a Fuerte avocado from our tree and a beautiful salad of Sun Grown Organic sprouts, the meal was at once delightful and energizing.

Vegetarian traditions are as old as humanity and are the key to longevity in cultures where disease is diminished. Central to these traditions are local, fresh and organic foods. By supporting local markets, we bolster our health while sustaining the planet for future generations.

Sage Mountain Farm

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A great joy of farmers markets are the short, yet meaningful exchanges between farmers and patrons. Often educational for the shopper, discussions range from the nature of vegetables to preparation of recipes and invariably the weather with its adverse affects. On a recent trek to the Hillcrest Market, Phil, the owner of Sage Mountain Farms described his frustrations and ultimate success in dealing with coyotes. Not just a nuisance with small animals, they also like a good watermelon! With patience, he described the different humane techniques employed to keep the wily gourmands out of the patch. Then, with a proud air of accomplishment, he described the details of his success: LED lights that flashed. Apparently the coyotes mistake the lights for reflections of predators’ eyes and no longer dare to take succulent bites from the sweet melons. His watermelons were darn good this year, made better with the accompanying stories.

This week, I picked up bunches of baby beets which I cooked whole, greens and all, dressing them with lemon from our tree and extra virgin olive oil from northern Crete. Sage Mountain Farm also had mizuna mustard greens, three kinds of radishes and an assortment of baby Italian, Chinese and Japanese eggplants. The mizuna and radishes were part of a soba noodle bowl lunch with tofu, red miso and toasted sesame. The eggplants were prepared for dinner in a ratatouille style pasta dish dressed with a shallot almond sauce.

 

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                                                 Rowan with radishes

Sage Mountain Farm is 100% certified organic, participates in local Slow Food events and has an excellent CSA program. They are at the Hillcrest Farmers Market and www.sagemountainfarm.com.