Shop Local: Palo Alto Farmers’ Market

May 27, 2014 § 1 Comment

The Downtown Farmers’ Market in Palo Alto is one of my favorite weekend markets in the 650. It’s a small market, but with an abundant selection of local produce and hand-crafted foods. For many years it was my go-to market on Saturday mornings from spring through late fall. During the Gâteau et Ganache years, my first stop was always Full Belly Farm for organic lemon verbena and peppermint for Gâteau et Ganache’s spring/summer collection bonbons, and then Green Oaks Creek Farm for sweet, juicy strawberries. If there was time, I’d run by Blue Heron for baby lettuces and broccoli, just to be sure that I had some fresh dinner food for the week.

Checking out what's fresh at the PA Saturday Farmers' Market

Checking out what’s fresh at the PA Saturday Farmers’ Market

Now that I’m getting a regular CSA delivery, and my little garden is starting to flourish, fresh food is basically on my doorstep. I don’t need to get out to farmers’ markets as often, and yet, that’s still where I want to be on a weekend morning. There’s something about a sunny spring or summer weekend morning that just about requires spending some time at a farmers’ market — admiring beautiful, fresh produce, chatting with food producers, and fantasizing about new dishes to make at home. Maybe farmers’ markets are for cooks what music stores are to musicians: a place full of possibilities.

This past Saturday I was up at the crack-of-way-too-early-for-a-holiday-weekend, but with good reason: I was waiting for the delivery of my new dishwasher. (Yay, no more resetting the breaker to make the machine go! No more re-washing dishes that didn’t get clean the first time!) Fortunately, the delivery guys arrived on time and completed the installation by mid-morning. Perfect timing to head to Palo Alto to get my market fix. With no shopping list and no schedule, I was able to just wander the market, enjoying the experience. Here are some of the highlights.

Eat the Rainbow
Color was everywhere — fruits, vegetables, flowers — and it felt like summer already! Full Belly had a pretty display of lettuces, rainbow chard, and kale. Gorgeous? Sure — and good for you, too. If you need any incentive to eat more veggies, here ya go:

Colorful organic greens from Full Belly Farms

Colorful organic greens from Full Belly Farm

Herbalicious
Fresh herbs can make the difference between an ok dish and something really flavorful and special. Lemon verbena (one of my favorites!), rosemary, oregano, and chives — just for starters — are plentiful right now. Full Belly and Coke Farm had good assortments of fresh, organic herbs.

Fresh herbs from Full Belly Farms

Fresh herbs from Full Belly Farm: Lemon verbena front and center

There’s a Mulberry Guy
The Mulberry Guy has taken over the spot where Green Oaks Creek used to be. *sigh* I really miss those strawberries, but hey… mulberries? That’s new and intriguing. Unfortunately, I arrived after the mulberries had already sold out (turns out they’re really popular and had sold out within the first hour or so of the market opening), but stayed to chat with business owner Kevin Lynch. I love the story of this business: the mulberries are grown locally — within a mile of the market location — and like most small food businesses, it’s a labor of love. Talk about Grow Local — Buy Local — Eat local! If you’re a fan of mulberries or just want to know more, clicky on over to themulberryguy.com.

The Mulberry Guy: locally grown mulberries (as in: a mile from the market)

The Mulberry Guy: Palo Alto-grown mulberries, jam, and honey

Hail Her Coconess
One of the cool things (for me) about spending time at the Palo Alto Farmer’s Market is getting to visit with other artisan food producers. I met Shelly Seward, creator-owner of Her Coconess Confections, several years ago at the San Francisco International Chocolate Salon, when we were both exhibiting at the show. Shelly hand-produces award-winning, classic treats such as Rocky Road and Salted Caramels in a facility in Belmont and sells them throughout the Bay Area. (Yep, that’s right — Her Coconess is home-grown in the 650!)  In case you’re wondering: yes, there are samples. Be sure to try ’em. Want to know more about Her Coconess? Check out the website.

Shelly Seward: Owner/confectioner/creator of Her Coconess, award-winning confections

Shelly Seward: Owner/confectioner/creator of Her Coconess, award-winning confections

Aw, Nuts!
After some sweet samples and catching up with Shelly, I stepped “next-door” to visit Nut ‘n Bean to try something more savory. Nut ‘n Bean is a young Hayward-based business making nut butters, dips, and spreads. While chatting with co-owner Katie Griffin, I tried the Blueberry Almond and Orange Honey Cashew nut butters. Both were delish, with a nice balance between the toasted nut and fresh fruit flavors, without being too sweet (Katie says the nut butters have very little added sugar). Knowing that I still had a few nut other butters in the fridge at home, I moved on to  try the Chipotle Lime Almond Dip and the Jalepeno Cilantro Cashew Cheese. Oh. My. Yes, please!

Katie of Nut n' Bean nut butters, dips, and spreads

Katie Griffin of Nut ‘n Bean with the goods: nut butters, dips, and spreads

The Chipotle Lime Almond Dip has the consistency of a whipped cream cheese, with a nice nutty, smoked-pepper flavor that’s got just the right amount of spice. It’s perfect with rice crackers and sweet potato corn chips (or, erm, a spoon, right out of the container). The Jalepeno Cilantro Cashew Cheese has a softer, more sauce-like consistency, and while it works as a dip, is fabulous as a sauce on grilled wild salmon (or seared tofu or baked chicken or…). Nut ‘n Bean has a serious product line, and something for every taste and diet. Vegan? Paleo? Gluten-free? You’ll love Nut ‘n Bean. Check ’em out at the market or online.

Nut n'Bean: Cashew Jalepeno-Cilantro Dip and Almond Chipotle-Lime spread

Nut ‘n Bean: Cashew Jalepeno-Cilantro Dip and Almond Chipotle-Lime spread

Overall, a fun trip to the market. And yes, I came home with enough food to make plenty of dirty dishes and try out my new dishwasher — booyah!

Details
What: Downtown Palo Alto Farmers’ Market
Where: Gilman Street & Hamilton Avenue
Directions: Downtown Palo Alto Farmers’ Market website
Saturdays, mid-May through mid-December: 8am-12pm
Parking: Street and nearby lots

My Spring Fling with Swiss Chard

April 4, 2014 § 6 Comments

Swiss chard is one of those vegetables that I keep meaning to try; it seems so interesting, with those colorful stems and strong green leaves. What can I say? I’m a sucker for a good-looking, seasonal organic vegetable.Swiss chardLately I’ve been checking it out at the farmer’s market and thinking “maybe, someday…” but always end up going home with my tried-and-true broccoli or beets.

It’s not that I’m afraid of new foods — not at all. In the past few weeks I’ve eaten sweetbreads (that’s right: BRAAAAINS!) and uni on a ‪chicharrón‬ (oh yes, I did!). I just wasn’t sure Swiss chard would be a good match. Would it be bitter or too earthy? Would the right cooking technique unlock a certain sweetness that wasn’t evident from its appearance? I was intrigued, but shy when it came to Swiss chard.

And then yesterday morning, guess what turned up on my doorstep, front and center in my CSA box? That’s right — helloooo, Swiss chard. How you doin’? Now that fate had finally brought us together, I’d have to come up with just the right recipe for our first meal. It should be something simple and casual that didn’t require a lot of prep, but let me get to know Swiss chard better. I Googled “swiss chard recipes,” and decided between the top three, all from my go-to recipe sites. A basic sauté seemed to be the way to go, and the instructions were awesomely simple:

  1. Separate the leaves from the stems, chopping the stems into bite-sized pieces and the leaves into approximately 1-inch ribbons.
  2. Heat 1 to 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a wide pan.
  3. Sauté the stems first for about five minutes, then add the leaves and sauté everything together for about five minutes more.
  4. Add a splash of acidity for brightness (vinegar, lemon juice, or white wine) and finish with salt and pepper to taste.

I’d make things a bit more interesting by adding maitake mushrooms, thinly sliced yellow onion, and a pinch of fresh thyme to the mix, serving the sauté over quick-scrambled eggs. Ok, I admit that I was giving myself a bit of insurance here. If things didn’t go well with Swiss chard, the evening wouldn’t be a total loss. I’d still have the rest of the dish to fall back on, meaning I’d at least have a decent dinner.

I prepped while enjoying a white wine aperitif, looking forward to the newness, the possibilities. Sure, I was starting with something basic, but if things went well, who knew? The future might hold more interesting dishes with Swiss chard as the main ingredient — maybe a pasta or something that I could serve at a dinner party for friends. Nope, wait. Let’s not get carried away. I tried to stay in the moment and focus on the prep, enjoying my drink and getting to know my new ingredient.

As it turns out, Swiss chard could hold its own with the heat; it didn’t wilt right away when it went into the pan. As I progressed from cooking to plating, I was feeling a bit of excitement. Things seemed to have gone well; the dish looked and smelled delicious. Admittedly, I was on the fence about the chard stems, which seemed a little stiff, despite extra cooking time.

Then came the moment of truth: that first bite. Hmm. Not exactly what I was expecting. The stems were still fibrous — and while softened a bit from the heat — not exactly delicious. I was underwhelmed. I took another bite. I tried a third bite, adding mushroom and onion. Ok, maybe some of the scrambled egg. Nope, nothing. I didn’t love the texture. There was no hint of hoped-for sweetness, just a slight earthy flavor. Not unpleasant, just… boring. Sigh. Eating those stem pieces started to feel like work. At least the rest of the dish was making me happy.

I wanted to like Swiss chard, I really did. It’s pretty, it’s seasonal, it’s locally grown, and it’s good for you. But the fibrous stems were a drag, and it seemed no amount of cooking might change that. I’d tested the stem pieces a couple of times during cooking, and the texture was the same, but I pushed forward thinking that I really needed to give it a chance. You know, that things would change once the whole dish was assembled. (This is what we call “ignoring a red flag.”) The leaves were decent, so that was something. They cooked down exactly as I’d expected and were a nice complement to the mushrooms, onions, and eggs.

A few more bites in, and I started thinking: “Maybe it’s me.” Maybe I did something wrong. Did I overcook it? Undercook it? How could that be? I’d done my due diligence, cross-referencing recipes and taste-testing my dish at a couple of different points during cooking. Maybe it was the recipe. I should try another recipe. Was it the wine? Maybe no wine next time. You know how that can sometimes change your perception of a dish.

Realizing that things were not turning out as I’d hoped with Swiss chard, I pushed the stems aside and focused on enjoying the rest of the dish. Well, I thought, that was disappointing. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with Swiss chard, but maybe it’s not for me. It’s like that part of the dinner date when you realize “hey, he’s a nice guy, but there’s just no spark.” Should you try again?

As I lay in bed that night, about to fall asleep, I was replaying the evening’s meal. I was stuck on the idea of what I might do differently, should I try Swiss chard again. Ever the optimist, I hadn’t exactly written it off. And then it hit me: “Why not?” I’d done my best. I’d looked up three different recipes from reliable sources and followed the instructions. I’d been careful in the cooking process, paying attention to what was going on with Swiss chard from prep to plating. The fact was: it just didn’t work for me. As much as I wanted to, I just couldn’t get past those fibrous, earthy stems — and trying again wasn’t going to make that different. Oh, I suppose I could just use Swiss chard for its leaves, but that doesn’t seem fair. Realistically, there are other vegetables out there that would be a better match for me. So, I tried it, and it wasn’t great. No harm, no foul. Sorry, Swiss chard, it looks like it’s just not gonna work out for us. It was fun to try, though.

Have you cooked swiss chard? How did it go? What do you think — should I give it another try?

Shop Local: San Mateo Farmers’ Market

March 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

This first Saturday of spring brought a perfect morning for visiting the College of San Mateo (CSM) Farmers’ Market: sunny, clear blue skies, and just a touch of coolness in the air that you know will make way for a pleasantly warm day later. Bliss!

Local kale at San Mateo farmers' market

Doesn’t get more local than this: kale from Pescadero, CA

This kind of day is one of the reasons I’m happy and grateful to live in the Bay Area. Spring arrives, well, pretty much on time, and with it the bounty and beauty of spring produce. Strawberries and spring greens and handfuls of fresh herbs — oh my!

The farmers’ market at CSM is one of the largest on the Peninsula and includes not only small-farm produce, but small/artisan food producers as well. While you’ll find a nice assortment of bakers, confectioners, and makers of small-batch pickles (oh, and Curry Up Now’s food truck!), seasonal fruits and vegetables are the draw. What I particularly love about this market is that some of San Mateo county’s best small farms — and, in particular, organic farms — are represented here. There’s no better opportunity to invest in your local food system than by connecting directly with the people who grow your food.

Below is a quick roundup of what I saw at the market today. Do you have a favorite market in your town? What are you buying? Better yet: what are you making with your market finds?

Fresh Herbs
Cilantro, flat-leaf parsley, thyme, and chives were available from most organic farmstands. I took home large bunches of parsley, thyme, and chives. Can’t wait to use them in salads and as a garnish for grilled fish.

Strawberries
Bright red strawberries are in abundance, and they just about glow in the sunlight! They’re not as sweet as mid-summer berries, but for early season berries, they’re definitely flavorful. Much better than what you’ll find in the local grocery store.

baskets of strawberries

Bright red strawberries, freshly picked

Root Vegetables and Brassicas
Carrots, beets (reds and goldens), radishes, broccoli, kale. Yes, kale is everywhere: curly kale, dino kale, red kale. No shortage of kale this morning.

Colorful assortment of spring vegetables

Add some color to your diet — there are so many options!

Spring Greens
Colorful chard, dandelion greens, salad mixes with flowers, Little Gems, and stinging nettles. Salad for everybody! Want more information about the variety of spring greens available? Check out CUESA’s guide to greens.

Colorful spring vegetables

Greens for making colorful salads and for braising

Spring Flowers
Colorful assortments from Half Moon Bay, Pescadero, and Watsonville: freesias, tulips, ranunculus, irises.

Fresh spring flowers

Fresh spring flowers, grown locally

Details
What: San Mateo Farmers’ Market
Where: College of San Mateo
Directions: Visit the Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market Association site
Saturdays, year-round: 9am-1pm
*Tip: If you’re driving west on Hilldale Boulevard, keep going past College Heights Drive, which is the first entrance to the College of San Mateo (CSM). You’ll want to take the next right onto Perimeter Road. You’ll see the tents for the market in the parking lot to your left.

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