Tuesday, June 26, 2007

La Jolla Open Aire Market: Produce Lust in La Jolla


So, here I was Sunday morning, exhausted from a stressful work week and too much weekend socializing. My plan was reasonable: eat breakfast and then hang out on my patio until early afternoon with a languishing stack of New Yorkers and the wonderful novel I’m halfway through, “The Last Chinese Chef,” by Nicole Mones. I had plans to go out to eat later in the day at Romesco in Bonita with my friend Angela so a quiet morning reading would be heaven sent. But, I was torn; I really wanted to go to the La Jolla farmers market, or, as they refer to it, the Open Aire Market. Be lazy or be indulgent? Indulgence won and after returning from the dog park with Shayna and leaving her with her own breakfast, I set off to see what I could forage in La Jolla.

What a difference from the OB retro-60s parade. Of course, the La Jolla market is much more sedate and with an older and more upscale crowd of shoppers. Held at La Jolla Elementary School, it’s less street fair and more festive market with a single blues guitar providing the aural ambience. And, there’s a parking lot—especially cool since, as an early bird, I easily found a spot. So, already I was ready to roll with the luxury of time to take it all in.

But where’s the food? Only once you get past the rows and rows of crafts booths with silver jewelry and carved wood bowls, flowing gauze dresses and garden tchotchkes, as well as the obligatory kettle corn booth, does real food start to make an appearance. But, it was completely worth trekking through the kitsch. This week the produce was so sublime with so many unique offerings, I was beside myself with pleasure. Be forewarned—I took lots of photos of gorgeous food and I’m just going to shoehorn them all in here.

First up, prepared foods. Although it was barely 9 a.m., Vila’s Salsa was my first stop. Owned by Isabel Range, known as Vila, the booth has a range of salsas, from the sweet and tangy mango to a series of reds going from mild to medium then hot and finally, fiery (courtesy of roasted habaneros). All were delicious and even the fiery salsa wasn’t beyond the pale, but my favorite was her salsa verde, a smooth, rich blend of roasted tomatillo and avocado with a hint of heat. Range also sells homemade flan in several flavors, including chocolate, coffee, mocha, coconut, pumpkin and strawberry.

That was a great intro and not having had breakfast, it was hard to resist what followed—booths with crepes, Belgian waffles and Louisiana sausages. Belinda’s Cocina, with its chile relleno burrito, breakfast burritos, enchiladas and wonderful tortilla chips and salsa, smelled divine. The woman making corn tortillas on the hot comal came this close to convincing me to buy breakfast but I was on a mission to scope out the entire market so I kept going.

Finally, produce. I stopped first at Cervantes Farms from Ramona and sampled some sweet and juicy Santa Rosa plums.

Then I strolled over to the booth for Betty B’s Ranch, also based in Ramona, where owner George Schnurer had the most intriguing collection of citrus, including very tangy limequats (a cross between key limes and kumquats) and sweeter orangequats (a cross between mandarin oranges and kumquats). Like regular kumquats, they’re tiny with thin skins and you just pop them into your mouth for an unusual explosion that melds sour and sweet with a touch of bitterness from the skin.

Schnurer also invited me to taste his sweet pixie tangerines and blood oranges. Of the three varieties that can be traced to Sicily, Moro, Sanguinelli and Tarocco, he had the seedless Taroccos on display and they were lovely to look at with their flush of red skin and bold ruby fruit. They’re very sweet and juicy and make for an unusual glass of juice. If you’ve ever wondered, the distinctive color is a natural mutation due to the presence of anthocyanin (the same plant compound responsible for the color of pomegranates). Taroccos also have the highest vitamin C content of any orange variety.

Then my eye caught what was truly a sea of strawberries, organic Chandler strawberries from Peterson Specialty Produce. These are the antithesis of the hard, pinkish berries that are passed off in the supermarkets. Loaded with sugar and juice, they reminded me of my strawberry touchstone—the flats I used to buy at a stand off the Rose Ave. exit on the 101 in Oxnard on the way to or from Santa Barbara, where my sister went to college. I think I actually got drunk from eating them one after another. Well, these Chandlers were magnificent.

But, what was around the corner just made my heart sing. Boysenberries. Plump, juicy reddish purple boysenberries. Named after California grower Ralph Boysen by Walter Knott (of Knott's Berry Farm fame), boysenberries are thought to be a cross of blackberries, raspberries and loganberries. I love their tartness, but hadn’t seen them in years—just made due with blackberries from Henry’s or Trader Joe's, which are good, but don't seem to have as much flavor. So, here was a treat. For days, I’ve been enjoying them naked, in harmony with blueberries and sliced strawberries, for breakfast.

That wasn’t all I bought from Peterson Specialty Produce. I found lovely bunches of baby bok choy and a crazy quilt of yellow and green squash.

They were simply so pretty I couldn’t resist. I’ll probably bake the striped zucchini and summer squash with olive oil, bread crumbs, herbs and parmesan cheese, but I’ve already tackled the psychedelic yellow and green mottled zucchini.

I did a take off on a Patricia Wells recipe for Zucchini Carpaccio with Avocado that happened to show up in the current issue of The Week magazine. Basically, you use a mandoline (a washboard-looking adjustable slicing tool recently made popular by Oxo) or, in my case, one of those terrific Kyocera double-edged Mandoline slicers (the yellow one) and thinly slice the zucchini lengthwise after trimming it. Mix up a blend of lemon juice (about 1 tbl.) and olive oil (1/4 c.) with sea salt and pepper and fresh thyme leaves (lemon thyme is even better). Spread the zucchini slices on a platter, just overlapping and drizzle with the lemon oil mixture. Cover with plastic wrap and let it sit for an hour at room temperature. Per Wells’ recipe, alternate the zucchini and thin slices of avocado and then sprinkle with pistachio nuts. I used what I had and alternated the squash with thin slices of sweet white onion and sprinkled the dish with more thyme leaves. Wells’ version is probably exquisite. But, with a beautiful vegetable, any riff will work and mine did just fine.

Back at the market, I left Peterson Specialty Produce and discovered Rodriguez Ranch. Carlos Rodriguez, son of the owner, led me through a tour of their stunning organic produce. There were bunches of itty bitty baby red carrots next to hardy red scallions.


Nearby was a rainbow of Swiss chard, followed by beets—gold, red and a cheery candy cane.



Then came red and white striped French breakfast radishes, and, finally, torpedo onions—visually, a cross between a red onion and red scallion. These, says Carlos, are great on the grill.


I filled my French shopping basket with the red carrots and scallions and the French breakfast radishes. Then I noticed another leaf veggie that was a deep dark forest green and asked Carlos about it. This was black kale, which I learned later, is also called cavalo nero and developed in the 18th century in Tuscany. Carlos stuck a bunch of the kale in my bag and told me to come back and let him know what I thought of it.

It wasn’t hard to figure out what to do with it. It’s got broad stiff leaves that obviously needed to be blanched first, so I cut the stem out of the bigger leaves and threw the whole bunch into a big pot of salted boiling water for a few minutes. After draining the now softened greens, which took on an even bolder color, I sliced a few of the red scallions and used my little Kyocera slicer to get very thin slices of a couple of cloves of the heirloom garlic I had bought last week in OB. In my wok, I heated some olive oil and added the garlic. Just as I could smell the aroma of the garlic I added the kale and the scallions, tossed in some salt and pepper and sautéed the mix until the kale gave a little more in texture. What I love about this vegetable is that, unlike spinach, which can be hard to control when cooking and often leaves a tinny aftertaste, the black kale retains some structure and heft and has a deep, dark flavor. And, the addition of the red scallions worked well. Raw, they’re a little tough and very pungent. Cooked, they soften, of course, and develop a sweetness that’s a nice contrast to the kale.

So, what else was at the market? My favorite plumcots from Smit Farms, which was also selling wild blueberries. And, bunches of hard-to-find fresh epazote.

This is a Mexican herb, strong and lemony, often used in cooking with beans to help alleviate the gastric problems that can arise afterward. The word epazote comes from the Aztec words 'epatl' and 'tzotl', meaning smelly animal. Others call it Mexican tea. You can use it raw but more likely you’ll find it dried in packages in markets like Northgate Gonzalez.

Sage Mountain Farm had unusual organic Armenian cucumbers, which are sweet and crunchy. If I didn’t already have a large hot house cucumber in the fridge waiting for me to eat, I would have bought one of these large striped cukes.

I also found some unusual looking watermelon radishes. They aren’t gorgeous; in fact, they're downright homely, but so odd in color and size that you have to see them.

Across from these stalls was a collection of potted herbs from Casablanca Nursery in Valley Center. They had a lovely selection of five-inch pots of lavender, chocolate mint, lemon balm, pineapple sage and tomato plants. They also had a wide selection of basils, including curly-leaf mammoth basil, which has a strong licorice flavor, and an even stronger Thai basil, great for stir fries. I bought a pot of spicy bush basil, with its tiny thyme-like leaves that are wonderful for pesto.

At Valdivia Farms’ booth were gorgeous heirloom tomatoes—I’m such a sucker for these—and half pints of little multi-colored sweet cherry tomatoes, which I love to snack on.

Their mini veggies—little yellow summer squash and vibrant green zucchini—were beautiful, as were their squash blossoms.

I bought a large bunch of their Dragon Tongue Beans. These crazy looking flat purple and cream beans are sweet and flavorful, raw or cooked—packing far more taste than their green bean cousins.

I could make a meal just munching on them raw, but I steamed them briefly in the microwave for a minute, only slightly disappointed by the loss of color that results from cooking them. Then I tossed them with the rest of the lemon mix from the zucchini and refrigerated them to let them marinate. The result was a still-crisp bean redolent of the lemon oil and full of its own sweet bean flavor.

Interspersed among the produce were booths manned by some wonderful characters. George Petrou sells olives, olive oil, balsamic vinegar and capers. With every customer who came by, he’d pull out a notebook to show his organic certification, talk about his 107-year-old mother, still living in Delphi, and boldly declare in a strong Greek accent, “Olive oil is the best medicine.” He had me convinced. I walked away with a tall bottle of cold, first-press, unfiltered extra virgin olive oil.

Next to Petruou Foods was Belen Artisan Bakers and the enthusiastic Louise of Impeccable Taste, who makes sugar and sugar-free jams, pickled beets, bread and butter pickles, sherry wine jelly, cherries brandy, chutneys and mustards.

She also sells the baked goods for Belen. I tasted her lime marmalade, truly an explosion of lime, and her lovely black cherry jam. I ended up buying one each of the gorgeous scones—cranberry orange and cranberry walnut—and a loaf of organic country garlic French bread. The scones are divine, with a great texture and perfectly balanced flavor. I enjoyed the bread, but have to admit that it was too glutinous and could have been lighter.

Then I encountered the ebullient Vinnie Abdin of Majestic Garlic, with his more restrained sister Veni. They make vegan-friendly garlic spreads in a variety of flavors, including curry, dill, smoky and cilantro. I don’t quite know how they do it, but this stuff is great and very low fat. Add to a baked potato or pasta, serve with baked pita or raw veggies as an appetizer or snack. Use it in a stir fry. It’s quite remarkable.

Finally, I ended up at Peggy’s Pasta, which I had encountered earlier at the OB Farmers Market. Here, the booth is a full 35 feet and they fill it up with nine styles of pasta, 35 styles of bread and some gorgeous pastries, including a splendid flourless chocolate cake filled with a rich chocolate ganache. Heat it in the microwave for 10 seconds and the ganache spills down like a volcano, inserting itself into every seductive bite of very light cake.

At the end of all this, I still hadn’t had breakfast, but I was sated. As I left, I ran into my friend Jan Percival and her daughter. Every weekend, the two go to breakfast together in the neighborhood and then head over here. It’s a ritual Jan says they count on and I truly understand why.

La Jolla Open Aire Market is located on Girard at La Jolla Elementary School.

Have some thoughts about the La Jolla Open Aire Market or other farmers markets in San Diego? Do you have a favorite neighborhood market or shop that carries unique or unusual foodstuff? Let me know or add to the conversation by clicking on comments below:



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