Walking through the farmers market, enjoying the mild weather each Sunday morning; it's difficult to put my mind around the fact that this is winter. All the farmers are selling vegetables that would make a New York City market in the summer blush with excitement.
What a bounty! Piled high on the farmers' tables were fat bunches of leafy vegetables, sweet apples, juicy cara cara oranges, broccoli, carrots, beets, turnips, potatoes, Persian cucumbers, parsley, black kale and so much more. Produce this beautiful begs to be eaten on the spot.
But sometimes looks are deceiving.
For the out of town visitor, the line up of bright red strawberries laid end to end must suggest that Southern Californians live in a land of perpetual summer. But one bite pulls back the curtain on that illusion.
Winter strawberries may look like their summer cousins, but they lack the rich balance of sweetness and acid that puts a smile on your face. These strawberries have come of age in the shadow of a dim sun and their colorfully inviting hues are betrayed by their pallid flavor.
Nothing can save these out of season strawberries, but some hapless vegetables ignored by shoppers, if treated with love and kindness, can be coaxed to overcome their diminished glory.
Take winter tomatoes, for example. Sliced and used in salads, they are poor relations to their summer cousins. Apply the oven’s heat, a drizzle of olive oil and sea salt and pepper for seasoning and stand back. Tomatoes thus revived are sweet, with a deeply satisfying flavor. They can be served as a side dish, added to stews and soups or used to make pasta sauce.
Most of the produce at the Sunday market doesn’t need such remedial care to reach their full potential.
Mr. Yang of Yang Farms in Fresno is a frequent Palisades market merchant and sells a selection of vegetables including leafy greens, root vegetables, herbs and aromatics. His asparagus are thick with a good, nutty flavor. Up until a few weeks ago, he sold thick bunches of sweet and peppery arugula, the leaves fat and broad, ideal for salads topped with grilled shrimp and homemade croutons.
Some farmers like to chat with their customers. Mr. Yang doesn’t have time. With eleven children to feed, there’s a lot to do on market day. Luckily, most of the kids help out on the farm and one or two of them, like his daughter, Amy, are there Sundays to help their dad.
If you want a treat, try Mr. Yang’s sweet potatoes, perfectly sized for one person. For anyone who complains that home cooking is too much trouble, take home a few pounds of his sweet potatoes. Wash and then wrap each one in aluminum foil. Place them on a baking sheet, then into a 350 degree oven for 45 minutes. Go watch TV, answer some emails, take a nap or talk to a friend. When the timer goes off, take the potatoes out of the oven, unwrap them, slice them open the better to drop in a pat of sweet butter, season the orange flesh with sea salt and pepper, and commence with eating.
Try his carrots. They don’t look special. They look, well, like carrots. But one bite and you know they’re different. Sweet and clean tasting, the carrots are a pleasure eaten raw, cooked in stews or oven roasted.
A favorite recipe uses them in a carrot salad with golden raisins soaked in lemon juice spiked with freshly ground black pepper. Because the carrots are so sweet, the salad has a perfect balance of sweet and sour with heat.
How can something that takes so little effort be so delicious? Surely, like many of the farmers at the Sunday market, Mr. Yang is doing something right.
Follow David's Palisades Food Adventures every Thursday. David Latt's blog, Men Who Like to Cook, can be found here.