What’s at the Market?
By Barbara Kobsar
Illustration by Susanne Kaspar
You’re never far from a farmers’ market here in the East Bay. Every day of the week—except Monday—there’s an open-air market where you can shop for fresh, in-season produce and specialty products. In the past, many farmers’ markets would typically fold up their tables in December and reopen in May, but with a growing number of customers eager to shop for super-fresh produce all year round, more of our local markets are remaining active straight through the cool season.
Nuñez’s New Potatoes
On a cool December day, I paid a visit to the year-round Tuesday market at Todos Santos Plaza in Concord. Market manager Ben Palazzolo says he maintains around 30 vendors there during the early months of the year, juggling spots when necessary to accommodate growers who can bring in a wide variety of crops through the cool season. As I wandered the aisles, I found farmers chatting with customers buying greens, carrots, onions, and bunches of broccoli with full green heads and fresh-cut stems.
I was especially pleased to find Nuñez Farm, since that’s where I like to buy one of my cool-season favorites, the new potato. “New” means that the potatoes are the first harvest that comes to market directly from the field instead of being stored. These might be any variety of potato, and are characterized by low starch and high moisture. The thin skin of new potatoes requires no peeling, so if you like eating the skins, it is better to choose organic. New potatoes have a waxy texture that makes them the best potatoes to slice up for salads. They are also good baked in a little olive oil, and their small size makes them ideal for boiling or steaming whole.
Farmer Guilebaldo Nuñez began his career on his father’s farm in Mexico and continued in the United States at the Agriculture and Land Based Training Association (ALBA) in Monterey County. Nuñez now practices sustainable, organic farming in Watsonville and grows over two dozen types of vegetables
In March, when the Orinda Farmers’ Market opens, I head for the Ratto stand, where the early spring greens are fresh and plentiful. I’m expecting to find heads of romaine, red, and butter lettuces stacked neatly alongside bunches of spinach. I’ll also find dandelion greens showing off their long, slender, pointy-toothed leaves, which offer a bit of a bitter bite. The small, younger leaves are less bitter and can be tossed into salads, while the older, larger leaves benefit from a little braising.
Nick and Paul Ratto grow a wide variety of vegetables on their 100-acre farm in French Camp (about six miles south of Stockton). They are the third generation of a farming family that follows the traditions laid down by their grandfather, who started the farm when he emigrated from Italy in 1898.
March 16 is set aside as National Artichoke Hearts Day, followed in April by a whole artichoke month. But as far as I’m concerned, any day is a good day for artichokes, and I celebrate with weekly visits to the Ledesma Farm stand at the Orinda Farmers’ Market. At this time of year, their display of artichokes sits among a large and diverse selection of organic produce items. Javier Ledesma grows over 60 different items during the year to maintain his farmers’ market and wholesale businesses.
Artichokes originated in North Africa, and the Dutch introduced them to England during the 16th century. But it wasn’t until the 19th century that the artichoke arrived in America, brought over by the French immigrants to Louisiana. Now, artichoke production is a California exclusive: Our state produces virtually 100 percent of the nation’s supply of fresh artichokes.
The artichokes we buy to eat are the immature flower buds of a perennial thistle. The terminal buds, those that grow at the top of the plant, can grow quite large, while the plant’s lower portion produces the dwarf or “baby” buds. Most of the artichokes you’ll find for sale are of the Green Globe variety, and they are harvested almost year-round from three- to four-foot-high, fountain-shaped plants. At peak season, the buds will be plump with compact leaves and heavy for their size, and they might even give a “squeak” when squeezed gently. They are generally an even, olive-green color, but in the early season, you may find the dark streaks of frost damage. This is a cosmetic defect only, since frost tends to enhance the artichoke’s “nutty” flavor. Thorns of the Green Globe variety are less developed in the winter and spring, and become more prominent as summer and fall approach.
Dwarf or baby artichokes require little preparation since they have not yet developed the fuzzy “choke” at the center. This choke in medium- to large-size artichokes is what develops into the impressive-looking purple flowers if the buds are allowed to mature on the plant.
Enjoy, and see you at the markets!
Barbara Kobsar is a home economist and 21-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. She spends part of every week at the East Bay farmers’ markets scoping out fresh produce. When not roaming the produce aisles, she is behind her market stand selling the Cottage Kitchen jams and pepper jellies she makes from farmers’ market produce.