Four Days, Seven Farmers Markets and Two Farms in San Diego

Imperial Beach Farmers Market

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.

Frog Skinned Honeydew Melon From JR Organics

Thursday

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.

Goyo Rodriguez of JR Organics

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.

Moncai Vegan

Friday 

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.

Red amaranth leaves from Wild Willow Farm

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.

Imperial Beach Pier

Saturday

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.

Jeff Alves of Terra Bella Ranch

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.

Happy Pantry Sauer Kraut

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.

Indigo Rose Tomatoes from Suzie's Farm

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.

Shishito 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.

Amaranth at Wild Willow Farm

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.

Wheel barrows for volunteers at Wild Willow Farm

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!

Suzie's Organic Farm Stan

Sunday

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.

San Diego 03 04 2012-9

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.

Akram Attie at the Rancho Santa Fe Farmers Market

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.

At Torrey Pines

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.

Tom King Farm Stall at the La Jolla Open Aire Market

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.

Pomegranates in San Diego

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.

Barry Koral's 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.

Soba noodles with amaranth, indigo rose tomatoes and

Wild Yam Soba Noodles with Indigo Rose Tomatoes, Amaranth and Walnuts

Serves 2

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.

Sauteed Shishito Chiles

Shishito Peppers

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 and Fresh Fig Salad

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.

 

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!

 

Farmers Market Indian Lunch


Lamb’s quarters is one of those pesky plants farmers have been trying to eradicate since the beginning of industrial farming.  Probably used as a potted plant in the Victorian era, the edible plant commonly sprints in sidewalks and gardens.  It was only a few years ago that I started seeing it sold at farmers markets.  Up to that point it was used as a tender spinach-like vegetable in traditional foods around the world by herbalists, wild-crafters and foragers.

My first  encounter with lamb’s quarters was in 1971 during a trip to Crete where my aunt was using it in place of spinach in Spanikoptia and in her delicious horta (boiled greens).  I immediately fell in love with the buttery texture of the leaves and looked for it in markets for years afterward.  The next time it was on my plate, a banana leaf plate at that, was in rural India at my friends Pranava and Vanamali’s home.  She had made an unforgettable spinach-style dish using it.  Eventually, I began seeing it in farm stalls at local markets and began using it extensively in rice, sags, shaks, palaks, savories, raitas, breads and dahls.

Two types of Lamb’s quarters are usually sold at the farmers markets; the first is a green variety which farmers routinely treat as weeds and the second is Magenta Spreen, originally from India and often found in heirloom seed catalogs.  They can be found at the markets near the amaranth, red orach and kale.  I have been buying it in San Diego from Suzies Farm, mostly at the Hillcrest Farmers Market and the Little Italy Mercato.  It is best to purchase certified organic because the lamb’s quarters the normally very positive nutrient absorption in this plant makes it a repository for chemicals and toxins leached from the soil.

 

Last week, I was inspired to create an Indian-style dinner with my Hillcrest Farmers Market bounty of vegetables and grains.  The menu included the  Bolivian Red Quinoa I had purchased from Michelle at Conscious Cookery,  Lamb’s Quarters and Coconut Subji and Asparagus, Carrot and Red Onion Curry–there were no left-overs!

Bolivian Red Quinoa

2 cups water
1 teaspoon coconut oil
1 bay leaf
¼ teaspoon turmeric
1 two-inch cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup Bolivian red quinoa, rinsed

In a 2 quart sauce pan on medium-high heat, cook water, oil, bay leaf, turmeric, cinnamon and sea salt until the water boils. Add the quinoa, bring to a boil, then turn down to a low simmer and cover.  Cook for 15 minutes, turn off the heat and reserve until ready to serve.

I wash the lambsquarters, carefully removing the larger stems.  Then peel the white spring onions assemble the remaining ingredients. One of the secrets for preparing Indian food is to assemble all the ingredients in little bowls and plates in order to cook with proper timing and technique. This subji has a buttery texture which is accentuated with the delicate crunch of cashew nuts.  Its enchanting mild flavor and texture wonderfully compliments the red quinoa.

 

Lamb’s Quarters and Coconut Subji

2 teaspoons coconut oil
½  teaspoon black mustard seeds
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon ginger root, minced
1 teaspoon green chile, minced
1 cup spring onions, chopped
1 cup raw whole cashews
4 cups lamb’s quarters, stemmed
1 ½ tablespoons lime juice
½ teaspoon sea salt
½ cup organic coconut milk

Heat oil in saute pan on medium-high heat.   Add mustard and cumin seeds and cook until the mustard seeds start to pop.  Stir in ginger root and chile, then add the onions and cover.  After 30 seconds, stir in the cashews and cook for 30 seconds.  Add the lamb’s quarters, lime juice and salt, cover and turn heat to low.  Cook until the lambs quarters are tender then add the coconut milk and cook for another minute.  Serve hot.

This week, Sage Mountain Farm had beautiful fresh asparagus, heirloom multi-colored carrots and sweet spring onions. Asparagus is another springtime super food.  With so many micro-nutrient infused foods available at this time of year, it is a boost Mother Nature gives us to re-energize the body after the winter dormancy.  This dish is full of color and beautifully enhanced by the energizing spices. Served with the Red Quinoa and Lamb’s quarters and Coconut Subji, it adds color and flavor to the meal.  Both dishes have onions, but they are different, stimulating and very mild this time of year.

Asparagus, Carrot and Red Onion Curry

1 teaspoon coconut oil
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 tablespoon ginger root, minced
¼ teaspoon turmeric powder
1 ½ cups red spring onions, diced
2 cups carrots, sliced into ¼ inch thick rounds
1 teaspoon curry powder
½ cup water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 cups asparagus cut into 2 inch sections
½ teaspoon sea salt
½ cup cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped 

In a 12 inch skillet on medium high heat, cook the oil and cumin seeds until they start to brown.  Add the red pepper, ginger root, turmeric, onions, carrots and curry then turn down to low heat and cover.  After 30 seconds, add the water.  Cook for 5 minutes until the water is cooked out.  Add the lemon, asparagus and sea salt then cover and cook for another 5 minutes until the asparagus is tender.   Add cilantro and serve right away.

 

 

Remembering Tea

May 18, 1996 – March 3, 2011

Animal friends make a tremendous difference in our lives.  Often, they opitimize what is selfless devotion and love.  For me, their unrestricted, pure actions help to define the gifts we have as humans.   Animal companions are frequently healers in our lives; they respond to our pains and do not expect sacrifice for our part.  They bond with our emotional state, bring us joy and offer selfless devotion even when neglected.  For many people whose warmth is buried deep in emotional armor, animal friends often coax the kindness from within.

Tea was not a member of our household from the beginning.  She and her sister Roo grew up in my sister-in-law’s home.  I first met Tea and Roo in 2000 while visiting California.  The girls were young and energetic German Shorthaired Pointers, head-strong and full of life.  We came to know them well in 2002 when their family moved to London and we became foster parents.  Upon arrival in Michigan the girls immediately revealed their pointer instincts and became obsessed with squirrels and possums; they especially enjoyed the cool Michigan weather and the perks of being a part of a restaurant family. Because Roo was nervous around people and Tea was nervous around other dogs, they limited our social life but at the same time added love and affection as only endearing canines can do.  This was the beginning of our unique bonding as foster parents and from that point on, we knew we always had to be part of their lives.

Their family returned from London ten months later and, because we had sold the restaurant, we took the opportunity to drive the girls across country to reunite them with their biological family.

They enjoyed seeing the sites and did the typical tourist things: sitting in Neil Armstrong’s space capsule in Wapakoneta, Ohio, chasing geese at the Parthenon in Nashville and piddling on either side of the Continental Divide.

Along with our parents, Sara and l moved to San Diego and, by coincidence, bought the house right across the street from the girls (and their family).  For several years we portioned our time between Michigan and San Diego and when we were here,  the girls would spend most days with us because their parents worked full time.  We spent countless days walking the old Mission Hills neighborhoods and got to know the homes, landscape and people while the girls would check for pee-mail.

At the age of 12, Roo suddenly developed a brain tumor and passed away shortly thereafter.  While everyone was greatly saddened by her departure, Tea, who apparently fantasized about being an only dog, blossomed.  No longer having to compete with her sister’s perfect style and form, she became a model companion.

Nearly three years ago, a baby moved into Tea’s house and shook up her quiet world with noise and sudden movements.  Always afraid to squeeze through small spaces and over-sized doggy doors, she began crawling under the fence to escape to our house on a very regular basis.  We’d pull in the driveway and she’d be standing on the porch patiently waiting for us to get home.  Sometimes, we’d hear a knock at the front door.  After looking through the peephole and seeing nothing, we’d open the door, look down and there would be little Tea Bird.  It didn’t take long for the entire family to get the message that she preferred our quiet life to the livelier one with a new-born.

The last couple of years she became our constant companion and my sous-chef in the kitchen.  She loved everything about food and stuck very close to me while I prepared it, catching the random item that might fall.  She’d then sit next to us at the table to enjoy her portion of the dishes we had made.  She had a discerning palate and her devotion to cooking reminded me that the power of food carries beyond nourishment and into the role of nurturing–even to the point that how and what we eat defines our existence and how we commune with the world.

Tea  appeared frequently in my YouTube videos and blog, always enjoying the spotlight.  Over the last year, she gradually lost her ability to walk distances, see, hear and keep her balance; however, we found she still enjoyed her life through food, the constant attention she received and the loving moments of affection.  She never lost her spirit, trust and good demeanor even down to her last moments before departing.

Losing our friends is always traumatic.  I realized a significant piece of my daily emotional make-up is gone, but there is so much more she left with me; most memorably her quiet, calm and kind personality and her notable passion for food.






The Secrets Are Out

After an organic process encompassing eight years, my cookbook Vegetarian Traditions: Favorite Recipes From My Years at the Legendary Inn Season Cafe is at last available.  While writing the book, I realized the story is much larger than just the favorite recipes from the restaurant.  In addition to my own culinary journey, it is a tale of an entire community which ultimately honed their definition of good food by what we served.   The secret behind our success turned out to be the local organic farmers and artisan vendors who made the delicious, energizing food possible.  They are the life-blood of the ongoing food revolution in this country, of which we have been eager participants.
Every year as spring progresses toward summer, the Royal Oak Farmers Market starts to fill the stalls with the bounty of Michigan’s fertile land; has been a ritual shared by the residents of South Oakland County since 1929.  I started going to the market in 1981 when we first opened the doors of Inn Season Cafe.  Over the years, the farmers and I came to know each other; we shared family stories, cooking tips and arduous tales of the fickle Michigan weather. this
Frequently, if there was something special grown or found, they would save it for me knowing how much I appreciated the rare gems of the Michigan soil.  When George Uhlianuk discovered a giant puff ball mushroom in the woods behind his farm, he would bring it to the market for me.  Those mushrooms were not a commercial variety and could grow eight or nine inches in a day.  They had to be consumed right away while still white or they would begin to age and develop a yellow hue around the edges, no longer fit to eat.  When prepared at the peak of freshness, these mushrooms are a delicacy.  Sliced and sauteed in olive oil with a touch of tamari, balsamic vinegar and fresh ground white pepper, puff balls satisfy a vegetarian’s rogue cravings for rich and meaty flavors.
In addition to fresh produce, the market was my primary source for planting and gardening materials.  I would fill my earthen plots with perennials from farmers and growers who found new and unusual varieties every year.  One spring, a farmer dove into his pond to gather Michigan irises for me.  They still show their bright yellow blooms in the secret garden pond at my old house across the street from Inn Season Cafe.
Saturday mornings at the market were a weekly festival of shopping, talking, sharing and laughing.  I developed many friendships over the years with like-minded folks who shared my passion for fresh food and market-inspired cooking.
After selling the restaurant, I began shopping at various markets throughout North America and found many of the experiences I had in Royal Oak to be part of a common thread.  Aside from the tremendous difference in quality between produce purchased from local farmers and that purchased in a grocery or warehouse, we benefit on a societal and economic level by renewing the connection between farmers and communities. This is the magic of farmers markets.
I now live in San Diego enjoying the year-round harvest in the farmers markets. Yet, I still miss the excitement and anticipation of spring at the Royal Oak Farmers Market.  Memories of full sensual immersion–the spring garlic shoots at Cinzori Farms, Randy Hampshire’s freshly-ground corn meal, Jim Burda’s succulent raspberries, Jim VanDenBerg’s sweet carrots, Don Van Houtte’s candy-like sugar snap peas, Maple Creek Farm’s nutrient-rich kale and Kate & Al Weilnau’s organic, hand-snipped asparagus.  I think of those crisp and cool mornings at the market and I can feel the cooking inspiration swell inside of me.
My desire to share my feelings about the connection between the earth, farm and table was one of my motivations in writing Vegetarian Traditions: Favorite Recipes From My Years At The Legendary Inn Season Cafe.  The book identifies the real heroes behind every great chef’s cuisine–the farmers.
The book has over 150 vegan recipes.  Elegant entrees, soups, salads and melt-in-your-mouth desserts are in an easy-to-follow format accompanied by beautiful color photos.
Each dish is packed with “super-foods”–energizing, healthy and delicious.  Signed copies are now available for a limited time through my store.   Just click on the “order now” button on this site.

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sound Vibrations

 

Food and music have always been intertwined, both reflecting vibrations of life.  Our quality of life, health and longevity are determined to a great extent by the food we choose as well as the music we listen to.  I am reminded of this every time I enter the Hillcrest Farmers Market.  Markets like this have been around since man first began living in communities–a social setting where people congregate to swap wares, stories and ideas. Indeed, democracy was founded in the marketplaces (agoras) of ancient Greece; they were the center of every village, town or city.

 

 

 

 

 

The sounds of the market contribute to the atmosphere that makes it so appealing.  People talking and farmers hawking their wares are a melodic background to procuring the fresh produce of the day. Often, markets will invite musicians to play, adding a festive tone.

In Hillcrest, one musician stands out among the many talented people I have seen perform.  He is Santiago Orozco, a native of Columbia who resides in San Diego and brings his thoughtful music to the markets of San Diego each week.  The positive message of his music intertwines with the market sounds in beautiful harmony, uplifting spirits and enticing people to return.  It is not uncommon to see people spontaneously break into a dance upon hearing his well-crafted Latin inspired rhythms.

Santiago’s views of music, life, food and community are full of compassion and generosity which are felt each time he strums his guitar and sings his songs.  His music complements my cuisine as it is full of flavor and vitality, at the same time re-assuring and comforting.

In his own words, Santiago talks about his life and music:

 

Santiago Todo Mundo…

“Life is music. The World is music. This story started in Colombian when I was 13 years old.  I started jamming with a old guitar that was in my home, without any expectations or intentions. Since that time life began to take me down the music path. One day I just woke up and realised my whole life was about walking, swimming and flying into the deep of the music ocean. With music, a passion  for travel started to light my heart. Learning about cultures, people, places, colors, flavors, and views, I started to find myself, and build music from the roots of my travels and experiences.

My music talks about life, the social situation,the people, the experiences, the feelings, love, moments, dreams, in fact, talks about the huge life of every person. It talks about the big World that every human carries inside himself. The beautiful song that everyone is in this short life. I am a singer, guitar player and songwriter. Drawing from reggae and Bossa nova, to Rumba, flamenco, Colombian Styles, ballads and a little bit of rock. Singing songs in French, Spanish, English and Portuguese. My music is a mix of styles from all around the world, soft and calm or full of energy.

I have worked many years in the music world, solo and with many bands. I am always mixing with the different rhythms of the world. I was born in Colombia, studied in Argentina, and have traveled in Brazil and the USA. I take music from every place and mix it to make a beautiful combination of flavors.


 



The most important reason I make music is to give a message, a positive message for the crazy and hard moments of this life . I express many ideas and feelings in songs.  I find it wonderful to share music with travelers and people from different countries, to change the moment for them in their journey, but also for the locals too, for sure! Anyway, every person is a traveler and a walker in some way.  It doesn’t matter if  they go to other places or not.  I think it’s beautiful to share with people from other cultures. I am a traveler also, so I decided to make music with this spirit.  I feel that when you travel, your music get richer, full of colors and flavors. Always learning about the places where you are walking. I make music like a little trip, like a voyage.


My project its called “Todo Mundo” which means all the World, and that is just how I feel about the music, like it is all the World together, a mix, one heart beating, one air, one wave.  Playing from the organic street to stages, acoustic or electric, solo or with a band, my music invites the listeners to travel, dance, feel and think. We are Todo Mundo. We are music, our life is the best song play ever, the radio is the World……”


Celebratory Cooking

Opportunities arise throughout the year to celebrate.  Some of the biggest challenges a vegetarian host faces is developing a menu which will satisfy everyone–the carnivores and vegetarians alike.  Generally speaking, vegetarians are very easy to please.  They tend to be so food-deprived at parties, that when they attend an event where they can trust everything that is served, they are grateful beyond measure.  Sometimes carnivorous attendees who are new to my cooking decide they aren’t going to like anything.  I often hear cracks like “we stopped at McDonald’s on the way over” or “guess my diet will begin tonight.”  I’m proud to say, I never hear those cracks on the return visits!

With every event, I begin to “meditate” on the menu as soon as I know a party is imminent.  This past Christmas dinner is a perfect example to use in understanding my type of planning.  Because of the type of celebration it was, I looked to “tradition.”  In cooking, this translates into looking at where the dish came from and understanding what the original cook(s) intent was.  Over the years, this historical vision became a passion for provenance and a journey to discover vegetarian traditions in every culture I came in touch with.  The obvious Greek influence which came primarily through my grandmother and my aunt Irene, who were both excellent cooks, gave me a taste for the Mediterranean palate.  In my late teens and early twenties, I had the good fortune to visit and spend time in India, where I learned to cook dishes with ancient stories and also where every ingredient was connected to a healthy result.  All of this influences my menu decisions.  Even life changing events can play a part in menu planning.  My father passed away shortly before Christmas this year.  For me, he was a partner in celebration, always engaging and enjoying family gatherings.  I wanted to prepare a few things he would have enjoyed.

Once my menu and schedule for preparation is set, I prepare a shopping list to ensure I am not sending someone out for ingredients constantly, and then the cooking begins.  I began with the bread baking.  I made two different batches and proofed them together.  The first was a four grain loaf with oats, cracked wheat, quinoa and millet.   The second was a Tuscan baguette with home harvested fennel and corn meal which I sliced and used for a canapé base.

The next preparation was Eggplant bharta canapé.  A traditional Indian fire-roasted eggplant dip to which I added chilles, red amaranth leaves and lime. I served it on the sliced Tuscan baguette discs.

The centerpiece entrée was an Eggplant and Zucchini Parmesan with Cavolo Nero (Lacinato Kale) and an almond ricotta.  I made it the previous morning to allow the flavors to meld and make cooking dinner on Christmas day a simple affair.

The other entrée was Asparagus Strudel and was baked just before serving.  Ten layers of phyllo dough were coated with a red pepper oil and maple syrup mixture and enveloped around fresh asparagus with a caramelized shallot and cashew nut puree.  I served it with roasted red pepper sauce.

On the side, I made some choices that would balance the meal through flavor, texture and visual appeal.

Muli Kofta, traditional Indian gram flour cakes made with grated daikon radish and greens.  Garnished with bundi and sweet pepper relish.

Organic Rigatoni pasta salad with pistachio-lacinato pesto.

Swiss Chard horta, Cretan boiled greens with extra virgin olive oil and lemon dressing.

Fresh tomato salad drizzled with balsamic reduction (see first picture).

To add a sweet finish to the meal, Sara baked my vegan Pecan Tart recipe  (She never cooked before last year, when I had to leave her to help take care of my father.).   The tarts were delicious with the right amount of sweetness and without the fatty finish.  When the meal was over, everyone relaxed, shared gifts and spent the evening in a state of joyful satiation—as my father would have liked.

The Theory of Vegolution

Balboa Park 2009-14

It was another beautiful day in San Diego and we decided to go to Nature’s Express for lunch.  Just a block away from Balboa Park it is a perfect location for a light meal after a stroll through the beautiful park.   In spite of a variety of past experiences restaurants here, we had a good feeling about it.

Natures express

The location has had many incarnations in the last 20 years.  First, there was the iconic Kung Food, next, The Vegetarian Zone, then an empty building.  After a number of years,

seemingly as an answer to the whispered cocktail wishes of San Diegan vegetarians, Eatopia in OB moved into the space to resurrect the name Kung Food and proselytize their brand of veganism.  Heavy in soy based meat substitutes they served in an egalitarian format that removed service and placed all the food equally in hot and cold steam table bins.  We tried to forgo our culinary and societal egos each time, but it was difficult.  The hot food was not color-coded and, instead of presenting the food at the table, they had someone dish it out mess-hall style with the not so enthusiastic line of “what do ya want?” often difficult to hear through the blaring reggae music.  We would then trudge with tray in hand to the counter, place our plate on a scale and get financially judged for the amount of food we were about to eat.  They even opened a fast food drive-up window on the side of the building to serve a burger-and-fries style fast food.  This was an exciting alternative to try out.  Time and time again, we drove up to the window and had to park for 20 minutes before receiving our “fast food” order.  At that point, our undercooked fries and sit-in-your stomach burgers were anti-climatic.  We tried–really tried, but to no avail.  I do give them credit for giving it a go.  From my own experience I understand how much effort it takes to pull off a good restaurant.  Apparently there was some managerial disagreement with the owner and they left the location in a huff.  The next incarnation was a non-descript lacto-veg restaurant with table service.  It was just ok, with mediocre food and a heavy dose of dairy products.  Not our cup of tea.

Natures express menu

A number of months ago, it was a pleasant surprise to discover Natures Express entered the picture and was entirely vegan.  I was particularly interested and managed to drag others to try it.  We started with the fast food window.  It was dressed up Boca burgers, wraps and fries that were passable.  Our 13 year old companion tea-bird (with her discerning palate) particularly enjoyed the fries.

The other day, we worked up the courage to enter the main restaurant.  It was nice inside, with a good aroma and enthusiastic people.  They still had the steam tables, but it was self serve and the food looked pretty good.  First was a simple, but very fresh looking salad bar, next was the cold raw food bar with eight or nine different preparations and the final bar was hot food with another eight or nine dishes.  All the food was colorful, identifiable (very important!) and well labeled.  I could also tell they use good ingredients on par with some of the best vegetarian restaurants.  The pricing was set up by the plate, which allowed light and heavy eaters to pay the same price and not feel embarrassment for copious helpings.  In addition to the food bars, a cooler with prepared sandwiches was nearby as well as the full menu from the drive through.  They also serve pizzas in the evenings.  The servers were enthusiastic, helpful and available.  “Mundo” especially went out of his way.  Our expectations were low, but the food was well prepared, nicely spiced and good to eat.  It was still egalitarian vegetarian, but they have done it right.

As a final note, noticed the Nature’s Express sign was painted over and the San Diego location has been removed from the Natures Express website.  Are we about to experience another incarnation?  A call to the restaurant confirmed they are indeed changing the name to Vegolution.  If the food stays this good, they could name it whatever they want and it would still be all right with me.

July 2010 Update:

The restaurant has evolved into the  fittingly titled Evolution Fast Food.   They help to fill a void in San Diego, which trails behind many other cites in dedicated vegan restaurants.

Georgia on my Mind

Pomegranate is a neighborhood style restaurant at the edge of University Heights.  As a change of pace, we decided to have a dinner out to celebrate the last day of my son Spyros’ visit.  Entering the restaurant, we stepped into another world, chock-full of a spirit and hospitality unique to Russia’s feisty neighbor, Georgia.

11 2009 004

In ancient times, Georgians were the fabled Scythians Herodotus wrote about.  In modern times, most of what we hear about is strife and unfortunate news.  Some of the cultures in the area are renowned for their unusual longevity, such as the Abkazians,who have been victims of recent political power struggles, thus threatening the lifestyle which has made them a rare example on the planet.  But, what we rarely hear about is the strength of the people and the amazing cuisine that makes them that way.  As John Robbins points out in his book Healthy At 100, this cuisine is full of foraged wild greens, mushrooms, roots and tubers, along with seasonal cultivated vegetable crops and preserved foods.

The menu at Pomegranate starts with a warning of the experience to come:

“Once upon a time in the West … on the corner of El Cajon Boulevard and Louisiana Street, there appeared a Russian-Georgian restaurant.  Our food is robust, for heroes of the table, as our motto amply testifies: “Borscht by the bucket, vodka by the inch.” Our service is “Allegro ma non troppo!” As for parking, it is positively Darwinian:  survival of the fittest.”

11 2009 005

Our experience at the restaurant did not disappoint as the food is flavorful and very generous in portions.  The walls are covered with graffiti by happy customers in languages from around the world.  One can imagine many of those scrawled quips were created under the influence of copious servings of vodka, Georgian beer or the special wines made from indigenous Georgian grapes.  The menu boasted 20 vegetarian items so we started with beautifully prepared vegan borscht, full of zest and a good texture.  Next, we grazed a salad sampler plate with a red cabbage slaw, a carrot slaw, a potato salad, a red bean salad and a green bean salad—all tasty.  We finished with a vegetable stroganoff and an eggplant “ratatouille” called Ajap Sandhali.  Both were outstanding.  Perhaps it was the spirit of the place that made everything so good, reminiscent of the family feasts I would enjoy in Crete with long tables of relatives.  Or, it could have been the feeling of authenticity–that we were in the midst of Georgians, celebrating their culture as participants, not just observers.  Whichever way I recall, it was a memorable dinner, for the food and the people.  I even took the opportunity to scrawl my own message, in honor of my father who loved this place.    On the way out, the owner and waitress both enthusiastically invited us to their Thanksgiving dinner, noting it will be home-style–family, friends and great food.

From About Georgia:

“Georgia is an amazing cluster of cultures, religions, fascinating landscapes and ancient history. The country where everyone can find something to his liking – from snowy peaks to subtropical shores, from deserts to lush forests, from cities to enchanting villages. Ethnic Georgians constitute a majority of the population. The official language is Georgian, one of the oldest languages in the world. Tbilisi is the capital and by far the largest city.”

“Georgian cuisine uses well familiar products but due to varying proportions of its obligatory ingredients such as walnut, aromatic herbs, garlic, vinegar, red pepper, pomegranate grains, barberries and other spices combined with the traditional secrets of the chef ‘s art the common products do acquire a special taste and aroma, which make Georgian cuisine very popular and unique.”

“The Georgian table is conducted in a wise manner in accordance with the ancient ritual. The head of the table “tamada” is elected as proposed by the host. The tamada must be a man of humour with an ability for improvisation and a philosopher’s wisdom. If there are many guests at the table he appoints assistants who in Georgian are called “tolumbashis”. The tamada’s toasts follow one another in a strict never violated order. The guest is obliged to listen attentively to each toast and appreciate the beauty of style and the purpot of the worlds said. If is not allowed to interrupt the tamada when he is saying the toats. The tamada’s assistants and other guests may only add something to the toast or develop its ideas. If you wish to say a toast, you must by all means have the tamada’s consent or else you will find yourself in an awkward position. This table ritual does not put restraints on the guests but maintains discipline at the table. The feast proceeds among jokes and is accompanied by a dance competition, table songs and music, quotations and aphorisms from the works of poets and writers.”