Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Memories of a Loquat Tree

Some of the most vivid memories I have of my childhood are of the loquat tree in our front yard. I imagine the tree was there when my parents and older brothers moved into the house in the early '70s, as it was full grown and productive by the mid-'80s, when these memories were made. I spent many a temperate San Antonio evening in its nook, made easy to access by my resourceful father who nailed three wooden slats to the trunk so I could shimmy my short little body up to the fork between two branches. Often times, I'd escape the madness that was our four-child, two-parent home by taking some melodramatic young adult book or my current diary up there and sit over the driveway, just enough hidden to evade easy detection. (To this day, I'm not sure anyone ever knew that this was my chosen hiding place for all those years.) In the days of early summer, when the fruits would yellow and ripen, I'd eat them straight off the tree, right there in the driveway, using its branches and those of the neighboring tall ash for shade from the relentless Texas sun. Loquat trees actually grew up in yards all around our home. So, on days or evenings when climbing the tree didn't provide enough solace, I'd roam the cul-de-sacs of our quiet, sidewalk-less neighborhood, collecting fallen loquats on the way for food, for what I was sure would be a long, lonely night on the street.

Eventually, the tree had to be chopped down and uprooted -- like many others at the time, it had become infected with some incurable virus (or, so I think). I remember then, even, feeling that this somehow marked the passage of time. I had long outgrown the nook, but even so, the loss of the tree and its fecund branches, stands out as I remember my last few years in San Antonio. I'm not sure what took its place, if anything.

Years later, when I moved to Irvine for graduate school, I discovered just such a tree down the path from my apartment. It had been close to 15 years since the last time I sunk my teeth into the tough skin to the soft, sometimes tart, sometimes sweet, always juicy meat of a loquat. Though they still have a few days to go before reaching sugary perfection, I simply haven't been able to resist plucking a few to relieve the branches from a bit of their droop. Like I used to do when foraging for food on the streets of San Antonio, I cupped my shirt like a basket and piled them in for sustenance for what I was sure would be a long and arduous journey.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

At Long Last... The Mangosteen

Forbidden in the United States for decades, the fresh mangosteen has arrived! I learned about its arrival through this video on the NYTimes website. I've long yearned for the opportunity to sample this tropical wonder, and genuinely thought I'd have to travel a long distance to do so. And though I'm thrilled to learn of its arrival, it is a bittersweet excitement. As anyone who reads this blog knows, I feel strongly about doing my best to support (and celebrate) local produce growers. So the arrival of the mangosteen, though titillating, makes me all the more aware of the commitment I've made to local growers. Frieda's Specialty Produce Company, the supplier of the mangosteen and many other "exotic" fruits and veggies, has a product list that includes many items available from local growers: eg., bok choy, Asian pears, atemoyas, Chinese broccoli, etc. I will probably still hunt down a mangosteen, even though it will have been shipped in from somewhere in Southeast Asia, but I anticipate a slightly bitter flavor amongst the sweet.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Why Newspaper?

I asked George again about what the advantage is to placing your strawberries on newspaper and learned that the ink acts as a safeguard against "mossification." In other words, the ink prevents any of that fuzzy, white moss/mold that often accumulates on your strawberries from doing so. There you have it.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Farmer's Market Blues

It's a sad state of affairs out there, fellow marketeers, a sad, sad state. We have officially entered the much-dreaded between-season slump. Just look around the next time you go to the market: tables once overflowing with ripe, juicy citrus have just a few scrappy heaps left. Though I've still managed to scrounge up some oro blancos (from Cal Poly farms) and cara cara oranges, the range of selection (and general quality) is way, way down. That being said, the veggies continue looking good. I picked up a voluminous artichoke and sweet, sweet sugar snap peas. But the real warm-weather goodies haven't begun to pour in yet, or even trickle in for that matter. Save, the strawberries, which as I've remarked before are incredibly flavorful this year. One other fruit item I've been hankering to try is the cherimoya. I think I'll pick one up from Eden Organics next weekend.

A good friend recently reminded me of these odd fruits, one of which arrived in her weekly CSA box from Eden Organics. (If you've been considering signing up for the CSA, you should know that Eden has reached full capacity and cannot take any new subscriptions. You should still chat with them--Jenn or Paul--if you're interested, though.) Cherimoyas peak in March through April, so now is the time to try them. If you decide to do so, just make sure the fruit is firm, lacks any big brown blemishes, and is chilled before you eat it. Enjoy!

Friday, April 18, 2008

JRB Farms

This week's feature is on JRB Farms and their wide selection of organic fruits and vegetables grown in Temecula, Ca. Many of you probably know George even if you don't think you do: ever heard a bellowing voice announcing in a sing-song cadence: "Straaaaaaaaaaawwwberries! Straaaaaaaaaawwwberries! We grow 'em so you don't have to!!"

Yup, that's him. Before these last couple weeks, I had never visited or bought anything from his stand; now, after having finally perused his offerings, I can hardly admit to my earlier blindness. I've sampled nearly every strawberry possible this season, and I have to say, his have been the tastiest. But in addition to the mountain of strawberries available, he and his right-hand man Ramiro (pictured above), also have a wide array of root vegetables (carrots, beets, onions) and other veggies and spices.

I picked up a generous bushel of sweet onions, which were beautiful and delicious. Here they are:

These were exceptionally juicy and fragrant -- after lopping off the green ends for me at the market, George made sure to give us a look and a sniff. By both aroma and flavor, they seemed like a green onion hybrid. I chopped them up for an Asian-style stir-fry of beef with ginger, bok choy, broccoli and fish sauce.

Now, to report on the frozen strawberries: They look great. Just like room-temperature strawberries, but colder. Freezing them individually on the plate is obviously a convenience factor for whatever you intend to do with them, but I can't really say quite yet what the newspaper did. I'll have to ask for more information from George tomorrow.

Happy marketing!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Donovan Sez...

"Mmmmmmm. Crunch, crunch, crunch. I looooooooooooove cilantro. Crunch, scrunch, munch, crunch. It's so ... slurp ... delicious. I could just ... crunch, squunch ... eat it all day. Oh no! Sniff, sniff, sniff. Where'd it all go? I need more!"

Seriously. You can hear the crunching. You don't even have to listen that carefully. It's like a typewriter crossed with jaws in there.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Give Your Berries Some Room ... and Some Paper

While at the market a couple weeks ago, George, from JRB Farms, let me in on a little secret about freezing strawberries. For the best results, freeze them on some newspaper. I laid out a couple of sheets (from the Sunday's Times) over a plate and then set my washed and hulled berries, with an inch or so between them, on that. Apparently, the non-toxic ink from the paper helps them stay fresh. And keeping space between them is crucial because they have sharp, protruding micro-spikes on their flesh that can stab and injure their neighbors.

So give 'em some room already! I'm experimenting with this today and can't wait to see how it goes. Stay tuned for my findings, and for my general review of JRB organic farms. If all goes well in the freezer, I'll be sipping strawberry margaritas this weekend. Yummmmmmmmmmm.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Sweet Tarte

Once I discovered the fuji apples at Ha's Snow Mountain Grown Apple Farms, I stopped buying any other kind of apple from any other vendor. They are that good. Always sweet and extra crunchy, these apples come in steady supply almost year-round. I particularly appreciate the great variety of sizes they always have on offer. Sometimes all I want is a teeny-tiny fuji -- I can get that there!

Even though you may not see any samples on offer, stop by, because Jenny and Kevin mete out generous chunks of freshly peeled apples to passersby. Though their prices are a bit steep -- not for the samples, of course -- ($2.25 for non-organic, $2.75 for organic), I think it's worth it. At no other stand or market have I found such dependably tasty, crunchy, and juicy apples. They also sell jars of homemade apple butter and bags of dried apple rings at the stand, which due to their price, I've never bought. Though the Ha's only offer apples at the Irvine market, apparently at the Sunday farmer's market in West Hollywood they have a much wider selection.

Initially, after bringing home my bushel of apples, I imagined baking a soft and homey apple cake; but after a bit more consideration, I decided fujis were simply too juicy for cake and opted for a tarte. Instead of going the usual Tarte Tatin route, though, I checked Epicurious to see if I could find some fabulous variation to make. Low and behold, I did! Here it is. What distinguishes this tarte from more traditional recipes, is that you essentially bake the apple slices in homemade caramel for an hour and a half in the oven before placing the (store-bought) puff pastry on top.

After the final 30 minutes it takes to cook the pastry to golden perfection, you absolutely must let the whole thing sit out and cool for several hours: they recommend three, I went for five. For the big reveal, I expected a soupy, sticky mess, and was thus so pleased to see it come out in one gorgeous piece. Look!

I served up each whopping piece with an equally healthy dollop (is there such a thing?) of creme fraiche to cut through the sweetness of the caramel. It was perfect and not a drop was left on anyone's dish. One friend, whose mother has baked apple pie almost every year for her birthday, proclaimed that she hoped to have this tarte instead at all future birthday celebrations.
Sorry Laura's mom!

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Americans (Eating) in Paris

Dear Readers, My wonderful brother, Matt, and his equally wonderful family (partner Rob and too-beautiful-for-this-world children, Cory and Addy) are casting off for a six-month stay in Europe--Barcelona, then Paris--at the end of April. To record their adventures and entertain those not lucky enough to be there with them, Matt has started a blog. Though it will cover more than just cuisine, I think I can promise all of you out there that these two incomparable foodies will tell us lots about what they eat, where they eat it, and how much of a mess the kids made while doing so. And if we're (read: they're) lucky, they'll ditch the kids once or twice to head out to eat something truly divine. I'm crossing my fingers for a firsthand review of Ferran AdriĆ”'s restaurant/s in Barcelona.
Bon voyage, boys! And blog away!