It was a little disorienting: the temperature nearing a shirtsleeve 70; a salty tang to the air; heaps of colorful fresh vegetables and fruits as far as the eye could see; and all this in the first half of March. I was at the famous Santa Monica Farmer’s Market outside of Los Angeles – a block from the Pacific ocean and worlds away from the slushy snow in Connecticut.
Disorienting indeed, but it was exciting to know that that a dinner based on all this bounty would be eaten the same day – a taste of summer in the dregs of our harsh winter.
A heap of stunning, deep red organic strawberries, modestly touted as “supersweet, red and ripe”, drew me to the first stall on the left. When you cut into these berries they’re red all the way through, not just a red layer on the outside covering a white center like the well-traveled supermarket berries we see. I think the Californians keep the best for themselves. The display at the famous Harry’s Berries from Oxnard, CA offered a choice of two varieties: Gaviota (firmer with a delicate flavor) or Seascape (softer texture and more intense flavor), both picture perfect – I couldn’t resist.
Many of the vendors offered a full range of vegetables, fresh off the farm; others catered to the significant Asian population in California with speciality crops, unfamiliar to me, but intriguing and impeccably fresh.
The most everyday vegetables were available in astonishing diversity: a pile of carrots colored orange, red and white; Pinkerton, Fuerte and Hass avocados each offered ripe for immediate consumption or hard to ripen in a few days;
leafy greens, dark or light, with lacy or broad leaves, in many shades of green, delicate pink french breakfast radishes, all a striking contrast to cold, monochromatic New England.
Citrus was a category unto itself: orange, yellow, green and a few shades in between, large and small, round or irregular shapes I hadn’t seen before. Meyer, Golden Nugget, and Eureka Lemons; Star Ruby Grapefruit; Tangelos; Oro Blanco and Mondelo (don’t know what these are); Kaffir Limes (grown for both its fruit and fragrant leaves); blood oranges, and several flavors of tangerines. We were encouraged to taste with the call, “Get your daily Vitamin C!” from a vendor with boxes of fruit wedges for sampling.
Fresh or aged farmstead goat cheeses from the Drake Family Farms in Ontario, CA was too tempting for me. A wheel of bloomy rind aged Glacier and a smaller chunk of ash coated Mt. Baldy were added to our already bulging market bag. We took a minute to learn about the busy bees from Burbank at Isabell’s Honey Farm and explore the delicate local-orchard orange blossom and hearty buckwheat honeys.
I knew I had stepped through the looking glass into spring when I saw the asparagus: fresh and green, thick or thin, just picked from Zuckerman’s Farm in the San Joaquin Delta. The whole market was a lesson in Southern California farming geography.
Artichokes – fat and round or tiny and pale green – were piled high. They like the marine climate found along the California coast. Right from the fields, they have better color, flavor and texture than what we see in the East.
A couple of the vendors offered fresh eggs – rich with bright yellow yolks and firm whites – quite different from store-bought. We got a dozen hen’s eggs and two bigger duck eggs, that were packed in a wooden pint berry box on a lacy cushion of cut carrot greens for a safe and colorful ride home.
Chefs, in their double breasted jackets, were seen prowling the aisles pushing hand carts stacked with bins of their market finds. You could see them discussing choices and planning the menu.
With our bags full, we reluctantly left the market and struck out for the Bay Cities Italian Deli and Bakery – a Santa Monica destination famous for its meatball sandwiches and massive “Godmother” italian grinders – both on crusty homemade bread baked that morning. We were lucky to snag an outside table to watch the street scene and see the crowds come and go. For our show biz moment, actress Hilary Swank stopped in for a bite and was seen taking a selfie with the Bay Cities owner. I wonder which one was the celebrity?
Our market treasures were cooked up for dinner that night. The menu, spontaneously whipped up by our son Bertram was: Drake Mount Baldy cheese; sunchoke and green garlic soup with fingerling potato pennies; wine-poached Santa Barbara white sea bass with Meyer Lemon beurre blanc; sautéed asparagus, baby artichokes and burgundy carrots; and Harry’s Gaviota and Seascape strawberries with whipped cream. Yum!
In a few months, I’ll be cruising the wonderful farmer’s markets in Fairfield County. In the meantime, I was thrilled