By Barbara Kobsar

Photo by Carole Topalian

I’m passionate about what goes into my shopping bag, and so I’m a regular at the East Bay’s year round farmers’ markets—even in winter. Every week, rain or shine, I bundle up, grab a sturdy shopping basket, and go to rub shoulders with the other regulars perusing the produce aisles and scrutinizing the stands filled with specialty foods. I make sure to bring small bills and change to expedite the purchase. This leaves me with more time to talk to the growers about what’s happening in the fields and what’s coming up next.

“Operating on a year round basis can be challenging, with weather being one of the biggest factors,” says Keith Farley on-site manager of the year round Contra Costa Certified Farmers Market (CCCFM) in Walnut Creek.

May marks the opening of CCCFM’s seasonal farmers’ markets in Orinda, Pleasant Hill, and Martinez. From opening day ribbon cutting to closing day ceremonies in November, the flurry of fresh produce and happy shoppers never stops. Shopping at a farmers’ market can be an event. Most markets offer music, children’s activities, or a cooking demonstration.

A small group of volunteers opened the first farmers’ market in Contra Costa County on July 9, 1983. They set up in the parking lot at the corner of Taylor and Morello in Pleasant Hill with the permission of the adjacent church that owned the lot. Many of the growers came from the Brentwood area or were from small farms in Pleasant Hill (Mangini Farm down the road from the market) or Martinez (Alhambra Valley), and were contacted directly by the volunteers. It was much less complex in those days. 
That original market has changed location within Pleasant Hill several times in the intervening years, but charter members such as Stan Devoto (Devoto Farms from Sebastopol) and John Barbagelata (Barbagelata Farms from Linden/Stockton) are still familiar faces at the market.

As the demand for fresh, locally grown produce increased, CCCFM opened more farmers’ markets: Walnut Creek in June 1984, Orinda in July 1997 and Main Street Martinez in May 2002.

There are now more than 350 communities with farmers’ markets throughout the state of California. Changes in the operational side of a farmers’ market have become more complex over the years, but the premise remains the same. Farmers’ markets are set up to bring produce direct from the farm to the consumer. The markets quench our thirst for “fresh,” but they offer more than fresh produce. Specialty products, baked goods and fresh cut flowers are all integral parts of a “full service” market. Some markets also offer education. The Walnut Creek market has joined up with NEAR (Nutrition Education and Agricultural Responsibility) to collaborate efforts towards healthy eating and supporting sustainable agriculture.

Shopping at a farmers’ market gives us a means for supporting sustainable agriculture and also a chance to get acquainted with the people who grow our food. See you at the market!

 

Cherries

Photo by Carole Topalian

Cherries are the most anticipated crop at the opening of the seasonal farmers’ markets, but this year, we may be waiting a little longer than usual for the season to begin. “The cool weather in March means a delay in the harvest,” says Jim Culbertson from the Cherry Advisory Board in Lodi, California. “We just wait it out,” he says. This year the cherry season is expected to run from the beginning of May until the third week in June.

There are approximately 30,000 acres of sweet cherries in the State of California. Early varieties to arrive at the markets are Brooks, Tartarian, Burlat and Tulare. The popular Bing cherry, a sweet-and-dark variety, ends the season with a burst of color and flavor. Red blushed Rainier and Royal Ann (Napoleon) offer delicate flavor with a fine texture, but need careful handling to prevent bruising.

At the farmers’ market, you’ll find piles of firm, shiny cherries that are ripe and ready. Cherries do not ripen or improve in flavor after harvest, but cherries destined for the farmers’ markets are allowed to bask in the sun a few extra days, and so they can be pure delight for the taste buds.

Sour cherries such as Montmorency and English Morellos are mostly produced in Michigan, but I have spotted a few growing locally. They are quick ripening, leading to a short July season. Sour cherries are high in acid and generally too tart to eat fresh, but make excellent pies and preserves. Most are sold to commercial canneries.
Store cherries in a plastic bag, a bowl or between paper towels in a container – just be sure to keep them refrigerated and they’ll last for up to a week. (Those with stems tend to keep the longest). Cherries absorb water quickly and turn soft. Do not soak cherries in water when preparing, or sprinkle with water when storing. Place cherries in a colander and rinse under running water just before serving.

Choose whatever-works-for-you when it comes to pitting the cherries. Use a standard cherry pitter, the point of a paring knife or tip of a vegetable peeler. I usually end up just using my fingers when I’m getting cherries ready for jams and pies.

 

Clafoutis

This classic French recipe for Clafoutis uses sweet cherries, but you can use plums, peaches, pears, or a combination of fruits. My recipe uses a batter topping; others use more of a pudding.

Cherry clafoutis (Popo le Chien, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Serves 4

  • 1 pound cherries
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • ⅓ cup flour
  • Pinch of salt
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 cup cold milk
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 375°.

Wash and drain the cherries. Remove stems and stones. Place the cherries in a lightly buttered oval baking dish or 9-inch pie pan and sprinkle with half the sugar. 

In a bowl, combine the flour, salt and remaining sugar. Beat in the eggs, one at a time followed by the cold milk and vanilla extract.  Continue mixing until the batter is smooth. Pour the batter evenly over the cherries.

Bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until the top is puffed and golden, Sprinkle the clafoutis with a little sugar if desired.

Serve lukewarm or cold.

 

Fava Beans

Fresh favas fascinate me. Each bean is nestled comfortably in a fuzzy lined, velvety green pod, and when mature contains 25–30% protein. When picked young, small and tender, preparation is quick and simple—like a snap bean—but most are left to mature to fully develop the beans inside the pods. The favas I spot at our farmers’ markets are generally at the 6–9-inch stage, with 5 to 8 beans inside.

Since fava bean pods deteriorate quickly, I like to enjoy them as soon as possible or refrigerate, unwashed in plastic bags for a day or two. If I find I was over zealous at the fava bean bin, I freeze the extras for later. Freeze shelled and skinned beans in a single layer on a tray and then pack in air-tight freezer bags.

To prepare, shell and blanch the fava beans for about 5 minutes. Drain, run under cold water and slip each bean out of its skin by pinching open the end of the bean opposite the end that connected it to the pod. Once my stash is ready, I prefer simple preparation. Sauté the fava beans in a little olive oil and diced shallot or toss them cold into green or pasta salads.

 

Mediterranean Spring Vegetable Stew

This classic recipe comes to Edible East Bay from Sandy Sonnenfelt, Prepared Foods Manager at Market Hall in Oakland. Serve it as a side dish or as a light meal accompanied by a loaf of crusty bread. To make a more substantial dish, toss the stew with pasta and crumbled chèvre.

  • 25 baby artichokes
  • Juice of one lemon
  • 3 pounds fresh fava beans, shelled and hulled
  • 1½ pounds English peas, shelled
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 5 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
  • ¼ teaspoon chili flakes
  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1½–2 cups chicken stock, vegetable stock, or water

Add lemon juice to a bowl of cold water. Break off the outer leaves of the artichokes, until the pale green inner leaves are reached. Cut off the pointy leaf tips and remove any discolored parts from the base of the artichoke. Cut into 4 and immediately place in the lemon water. This helps prevent browning.

Heat olive oil over moderately low heat, add the onion, garlic and chili flakes and sauté until onion is soft and translucent. Drain artichokes and add them to the onion mixture. Add 1 cup liquid (stock or water) and simmer gently for 10 minutes. Add fava beans and peas. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add another cup of liquid.

Cover and simmer until the vegetables are tender, 12–15 minutes. Stir in thyme, check seasoning and cook, uncovered for another few minutes.