Produce harvested at its peak is your sure bet for flavor and freshness.

By Barbara Kobsar | Illustration by Charmaine Koehler-Lodge

The holiday season is an especially good time to appreciate our farmers’ markets and the local growers, makers, and farm workers who supply so much valuable food to our communities every week through good times and bad.

Paulina LaBelle and Alfredo Gonzalez are among the many helping hands that bring produce to market from the orchards of Smit Farms in Linden, a community 30 miles east of Stockton, California. The two arrive early at market to set up tables and bins filled with pomegranates, apples, dried apricots, plums, peaches, apple rings, and jars of apple butter. Buckets filled with ice keep their popular apple cider blend and pomegranate juices fresh and ready to go.

Apples

At this time of year, I always stop by the Smit Farms booth at the Sunday Walnut Creek Farmers’ Market for their outstanding apples. Highlights are the early-season Pink Lady and Gala varieties and the Fujis and Granny Smiths that follow. The Granny Smith, with its juicy tartness, is one of the best pie apples in my book since its texture holds up well when baked.

Pomegranates

These shrubby trees thrive so well in California that our state produces more than 90% of the nation’s pomegranate crop. The tangy sweet seeds add sparkle to salads, desserts, and entrées, and the juice makes delicious beverages and jellies.

Choose large, unblemished pomegranates that are heavy for their size. If you plan on using them right away, don’t shy away from picking out a few of the split ones since those are always bursting with juice!

Recipe: Holiday Spritzer 

 

Is it a Root or Is it a Tuber?

Knowing the difference between a root and a tuber isn’t a necessity for enjoying these favored vegetables, but the distinctions can matter to both the grower and the cook.
Both are underground root swellings that store energy for the plant, but if it’s a root vegetable, you get only one—carrot, beet, parsnip, or radish—per plant. Pull it out of the ground, and the plant is done. Enjoy roots raw or cooked.
Tubers, like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and sunchokes, are generally cooked before serving (with the exception of the jicama, which is crunchy and delicious raw or cooked). Tubers grow underground on a system of hairy roots, and with some care, a grower can pluck an individual tuber out of the ground leaving the plant to continue growing. If you cut up a tuber and plant the pieces, each piece will sprout a new plant. Root crops don’t work that way and have to be started from seed. ♦

Veteran journalist Barbara Kobsar has authored two cookbooks focusing on traditional home-cooked meals using local produce. You’ll find her each Sunday at the Walnut Creek market and on Saturdays at the Orinda and San Ramon markets selling her Cottage Kitchen jams and jellies made from farmers’ market produce.

Artist Charmaine Koehler-Lodge grows most of her family’s food in their rural Pennsylvania garden.