What’s at the Market

By Barbara Kobsar, Illustration by Helen Krayenhoffpea

Each farmers market is “shaped” by size and location but “flavored” by its unique group of farmers and vendors, as well as shoppers. Yes, shoppers! I’m as likely to see a regular shopper as I am to find a favorite grower at the markets.

For instance, Cathy Sears does all her weekly shopping at several different East Bay markets. Her local market in Lafayette is seasonal (May through September), so during the cool months, Cathy finds her way to the year-round markets in Walnut Creek, Concord, and Danville. She knows what it’s all about: Buy fresh, buy local, and talk to the growers if you need some hints on selecting or preparing what they sell.

I recently visited the Danville market for the first time and was not surprised to see Cathy as well as friendly farmers selling fresh-picked asparagus and juicy strawberries, vendors selling pot pies and kettle corn, and helpful recipes neatly displayed on the information table. No grocery lists allowed—it’s all about finding the best of what’s in season.

Iacopi Farms: Peas and Fava Beans

Market manager Gloria Baker pointed me in the direction of the farmstand famous for peas and fava beans. Iacopi Farms is a father-and-son operation (Louis and Mike) occupying about 150 acres near Half Moon Bay, ideally situated to take advantage of the cool coastal climate legumes love. One of the plots is uniquely located between the landing strips of the Half Moon Bay airport.

Iacopi’s peas are ripe and ready to go. Their seed pods split along both sides when ripe. With English peas you remove the pod and discard it, and with sugar snaps you eat the pod and all after removing the tips and any string along the seam. The trick to buying sweet, tender peas is to look for smooth green pods that are crisp and firm. If they are bulging, the peas are getting too mature and they will be starchy and tough. A quick quantity guide I find useful is that one pound of shelling peas yields two servings and one pound of edible pod peas yields four.

Louis and Mike suggest adding English peas to rice, pasta, salads, or soups, and using the sugar snaps for sautéing. Since the peas are harvested and sold within a day, they will keep for a week or more if necessary. English peas do best stored in the refrigerator inside a plastic bag along with a paper towel. Sugar snaps like a quick rinse to add moisture before you wrap them in a paper towel to refrigerate.

The Iacopis’ love of fava beans probably stems from their Italian background. Their basic recipe—sauté the favas with some good local extra-virgin olive oil and garlic—is my favorite. They sow the beans, which typically take about 120 days to grow and mature, every 10 to 14 days to ensure a constant fresh supply for the markets.

Preparing fava beans is labor-intensive since each mature bean must first be removed from the pod and then from its surrounding tough skin. (If the beans are very young I don’t bother removing the thin skin around the bean). If I’m not ready to use all the beans at once, I freeze them in a single layer on a tray and pop them in an airtight freezer bag where they’ll keep for up to a year.

Borba Farms: Peppers and squash

Ron Borba is a familiar face at the Danville market; his family-run Borba Farms produces crops year-round in Aromas, southeast of Watsonville in Monterey County, a region famous for artichokes. In 1993, seeing all the competition from imports, Borba made a decision to concentrate on farmers markets, where he now does more than 75 percent of his business.

Borba’s plots are located fairly close to the ocean, enjoying a marine-effect climate that has proven ideal for growing squash and berries. Borba grows several varieties of peppers during the winter months using a cold frame, whose plastic cover traps heat and gives protection from the pelting rain and occasional frost. Cauliflower, broccoli, and carrots survive direct planting in the fields during the cooler months to produce the beautiful selection on display now.

Miniature squash are a signature crop at the Borba stand. Look for a colorful mix of crookneck, zucchini, and pattypan squash that are picked very young and tender. They’re perfect to sauté and serve whole or to slide on a skewer for barbecued kabobs.

Borba’s squash blossoms are a specialty item. The blossoms must be picked early in the morning before they open, and packaged immediately for transport to market, where they’ll be bought by cooks who might stuff them, fry them, or add them to quesadillas. Both the male and female blossoms can be used. The male blossoms are at the end of a thin stem, and picking them does not restrict the production of squash. The female blossoms form at the end of the buds that grow into squash and definitely make more of a statement on a dinner plate when served intact.

Enjoy and see you at the markets!

Barbara Kobsar is a home economist and 20-year veteran journalist who promotes the enjoyment of in-season produce. She has also authored two cookbooks focusing on traditional home-cooked meals using local produce. When not roaming the produce aisles she is behind her farmers market stand selling Cottage Kitchen jams and pepper jellies she makes from produce from the farmers markets. Contact her at cotkitchen@aol.com

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