This Wednesday was a special day in my weekly ritual of going to the Heart of the City Farmer’s Market: it was the top of the glorious summer months in which every summer goodie is present and in gorgeous abundance. And since this is HotC, CHEAP!!! I was like a stealth bomber, smooth, quiet and dead on target as I made my rounds and decided on what to purchase. There was so much to choose from and I only had so much space and so much brute strength for the MUNI ride home, so only the genetic and aesthetic superstar elite of the fruit and vegetable races were allowed a resting place in my re-usable cloth shopping bags. Farmer’s Markets are one rare instance in which eugenics, practiced with a cold, hard Machiavellian intensity, are A-OK. What follows is a little travelogue from the HotC Shopping Ninja.
Ahh, the tomatoes. And the Armenian cucumbers. What summer would be complete without some good old-fashioned ripe tomatoes trucked up from most likely just outside my hometown of Sacratomato, I ask you. If you are anywhere close to Sacto when the tomatoes are ripe, you’ll experience the fun, uniquely Sacramentan experience of encountering the chock-full tomato truck hurtling down the freeway at top speed on it’s way to the cannery. Tomato trucks are just trucks with some rickety railings there to purportedly keep the tomatoes inside the truck bed. But at 70 mph, some of those tomatoes are going to want to learn how to fly. SPLAT!! they hit your windshield, allowing you admission to the tomato pock-marked windshield club; you’ll see legions of your fellow members driving along with glorious red splats all over their automobiles. Since these tomatoes are destined for the cannery, they are picked ripe (what a concept!), something that never happens to the supermarket’s selection of hard green baseballs that get gassed with CO2 for fake but red ‘ripeness’. And because they are ripe, they really explode with juiciness when they hit your car. It’s disturbingly fleshy sounding; it’s a sight and sound this valley girl will never forget.
Tomatoes are one of those foods with passionate, devoted fans. Every tomato fan has their favorite varietal and method of preparation, and they will defend these to the point of death. My favorite are the deep purple varietal of beefstakes called Brandywines, and I like to make a smooth, olive oil-rich gazpacho to highlight their greatness. These are best if you grow them yourself, as they can really only handle transport from your garden to your kitchen when they are truly and perfectly ripe. I’ve found Brandywines at HotC as well as Green Zebras, golden Kellogg’s Breakfast and many other esoteric heirlooms. but the largely Asian tomato growers at HotC favor the thin-skinned round, intensely red golf-ball-sized Early Girls, which have a nicely balanced acid level along with a sock-it-to-me hit of umami–the “yummy” savory taste. Around 2:00 or so, each tomato vendor will begin to bag their goods up in 2 pound or so bags and start loudly hawking their wares for “one bag one dollah one bag one dollah”. Compare this to the freaking $6/lb that the sucker yuppies pay at the Ferry Building’s Farmers Market–you’ll get that warm, tingly feeling of Schadenfreude every time.
Cucumbers are in abundance at HotC; nubbly yellow-skinned and round Armenian cucumbers with their firm, almost sweet flesh and lack of excess seeds are a bit harder to suss out. It seems that a good amount of HotC customers make pickles, because most of the cukes available are the small, green pickling variety. I like these too; in fact, I’ll take pretty much any cuke that is not the standard waxy green, mushy and seedy-as-hell American supermarket type. Why this particular varietal was annointed as the mass production queen escapes me as there is nothing good about these cucumbers except that they are blandly pretty–in a boring stock-photo kind of way. They must be easy to ship; this is the sad, capitalist reason that Americans have been trained to eat truly repulsive tomatoes, cucumbers, and stone fruits.
I like to chop my Armenian cukes in a fine dice, and stir them into thick whole milk Greek yogurt along with a paste made from minced garlic and salt mashed with the side of your knife, and handfuls of finely chopped mint and parsley to make a yummy dip. I like to eat “dip meals”, and this dip is great with crudites, especially julienned raw fennel and sweet peppers, and whole wheat pita chips. And it’s so good for you…
This glorious bowl of vegetable loveliness and perfection, along with the tomatoes discussed above, are going into a free-form vaguely North African stew called “Vegetable CousCous”. What have we here? Well…starting at the top: baby yellow zukes, round gray-green Mexican squash, Romano beans, kolhrabi, deep yellow cauliflower, tiny elfin purple and white/purple striped Japanese eggplants, and in the center, deep orange heirloom carrots. To make the Vegetable CousCous, first slice the eggplants in half, salt and let them weep for about 15 minutes, then brush with olive oil and grill on a grill pan, and cut the tomatoes in half, and roast in a slow oven for a couple of hours to intensify flavour and texture. Then, cut the rest of the veggies in large chunks. Sweat a mirepoix of very finely diced celery, onion, carrot and fennel, then add your veggies, the eggplant and tomato, chicken stock (or veggie stock if you are meat-avoidant), tomato paste, orange zest and about 1/2 cup of freshly squoze OJ, and spice it up with Ras el Hanout (Moroccan spice mix with coriander, cinnamon, cumin, lavender, fennel, cayenne, cloves and cardomon) and a zing of red chili flakes. Cook until just fork tender, and serve in a bowl on top of couscous made with stock, not water. Garnish with a dollop of Greek yogurt, a splash of olive oil and chopped mint and parsley. Summertime perfection. And it’s so good for you…
This is a picture of some chunks of melon in a bowl and not the melon in its entirety because I could not keep my greedy paws off of the ethereal perfection that is the elusive Orange Honeydew. I stumbled across this Queen of All Melons last summer, at precisely the same time, as I walked past an orchard vendor who always has really enthusiastic young girls and guys hawking their peaches, nectarines, plums, almonds and etc with plates of free samples. For about a month during the summer, they have tables of melons: yellow ridged Crenshaws and creamy light yellow round melons that look like your normal green-fleshed honeydew, but are actually the satori of melon perfection: the Orange Honeydew. I remember a girl handing me a chunk of the sweetest, juiciest, ripest heavenly tasting melon as I was walking by, and I literally stopped in my tracks, grabbed another sample, and immediately purchased two of the rather heavy melons. Some advice: save your melon buying until the very end of your HotC spree. But I was in a fructose trance, so my actions can be forgiven.
When I got those babies home, I put them in the fridge to chill the still-warm-from-the-fields orbs of melon majesty. When thoroughly chilled, I cut them into bite-sized chunks free of rind or anything else to get between you and your melon. What I had was (sadly or awesomely) a day’s supply of greedy melon orgy, with enough for a bowl of melon and cottage cheese for breakfast the next day. Regular green honeydews had never really hooked me; they tended to be a bit dilute and one-note. There was something magical about this orange varietal. Alas, I happened upon these on the last week of their existence and when I came back the next Wednesday, the vendor informed me that they’d harvested the last of their Orange Honeydew, and that they really only come into perfect ripeness during a very short and precise window, requiring an expert hand with planting schedules. I cruised other Farmers Markets in search of the elusive melon, but to no avail.
I’ve spent the last month or so in greedy anticipation of Orange Honeydew’s arrival, pestering the vendor until they recognized me on sight, and this last week was it! I’m eating the last of the melon as I type this very blog, and I’m both sad and enraptured at once. And it’s so good for you…
As a rule, the raspberries I buy at HotC are about a third again as large and sweet as the best organic berries I can find at, say, Whole Foods. We’re talking raspberries so yummy that I have to always buy one more basket than I need because I will eat the whole thing on the way home. It will be gone sometimes even before I board the train at the Civic Center MUNI station.
I am not a chocolate fan. I realize that this is heresy in 95% of the population’s books, but instead I am drawn to vanilla and then fruit-flavoured sweet things. These raspberries will be part of a Raspberry and Lemon Dacquoise. Dacquoise are one of my all-time favorite desserts; layers of crisp meringues, pastry cream or buttercream, whipped cream and fruit or ganache depending on what kind you’re making. I love meringue desserts like œufs á la neige and Baked Alaska because of the contrast of textures of crispy, chewy meringues and creamy stuff.
A Dacquoise is kind of the crowning glory of all meringue desserts. My Dacquoise replaces the pastry cream with a tart Meyer lemon curd lightened by folding in whipped cream; the whipped cream layer features whole raspberries stirred into vanilla whipped cream. The whole shebang is garnished with an artfully strewn handful of fresh berries. That, my friends, is the shizz-nitt.