Sunday, June 17, 2007

Ocean Beach Farmers Market: The Sixties Live in OB

Who says the 60s are over? Every Wednesday afternoon on Newport Ave. in Ocean Beach, beginning at 4 p.m., you would think Jerry Garcia, Ken Kesey and even his psychedelically painted Magic Bus had never left our collective consciousness. Flower power, along with organic veggies, still live at the OB Farmers Market.

Of course, between the street musicians, the arts and crafts and the llama rides for the kids, it almost seems that the food is beside the point. But, it’s not. In this one little block between Cable and Bacon, you can find all sorts of farm fresh organic produce, flowers and prepared foods. The only caveat? Parking is a bear.

Which is why my planned leisurely afternoon outing turned into a frenzy of note taking, photo shooting, food tasting and finally purchasing—all to be wrapped up before 6:30 when I was due at my friend Marti’s house a few blocks away for our book club’s monthly meeting. I had promised to bring appetizers from the farmers market but at 6:45 was still frantically racing around trying to pick up some unique goodies from various vendors. All because I couldn’t find a parking spot.

But, don’t let this detour you. The OB Farmers Market is a hoot—the people watching and dog watching have high entertainment value, along with the street musicians. And the vendors offer some remarkably wonderful stuff.

One of the first stops I made was at the Smit Orchards stall. Among the apricots and peaches, strawberries and rainier cherries were a pile of utterly gorgeous, sweet and juicy plumcots. After sampling a couple of pieces I gathered about a dozen in a bag to enjoy at home. They’re the color of apricots but with the texture of plums and a flavor that merges the two. They alone are worth the parking hassles.

As I continued along in the June gloom, buckets of brilliantly colored flowers perked up the street. Yellows verged into orange and just approached red in the many varieties of sunflowers. Yellow and blue iris competed for attention with tuberoses. Lilies, whether pink or yellow or white, put out an intoxicating scent. The customers were drawn like bees and so were the many dogs accompanying them.

Just a few yards down was the Milagro farm stall, red tables overflowing with braids of heirloom garlic, and enormous heirloom red onions and beets. They were tempting but I didn’t need a braid of garlic and don’t love beets, so I picked up a couple of heads of the garlic and a promising looking sweet red onion before moving on.

Well, I tried to move on, but was fixated by the mini parade of llamas passing by. The little kids, one with a long blond shaggy Mohawk, one with a close shaved scalp and a pretty-in-pink girl were happily perched on these docile creatures as they passed by The Electric Chair hair salon and Apogee body piercing. Only in OB.

Back to the food. Among the “regular” offerings of produce at one stall were Japanese tomatoes, touted as being low acid. I bought a few and have found them to be fully ripe, juicy and sweet. Then, there’s Jackie’s Jams, sold not by Jackie but by Robert, who would love for you to stop and taste flavors ranging from peach ambrosia and mango raspberry to zippy jalapeño and plum. Robert scooped a spoonful for me of tomato and I could imagine placing a small dollop of it on slices of toasted sour dough rounds topped with a very soft brie.

Near Jackie’s Jams was the very tempting Dr. Chocolat, with their pastries and candies. Six-inch chocolate surf boards perched next to slices of carrot cake, éclairs, fruit tarts and peanut brittle. The butternut brickle they were handing out as samples were that perfect crunchy candy combination of sweet and salty.

The ubiquitous CJ’s mini and regular pies were there also as was another bakery stall, Johann’s Austrian Bakery, with its challah, olive bread, and gorgeous nutty multigrain bread.

I had to move on, but stopped in front of Richie’s Roasted Products. For those uninterested in roasting chiles themselves, you can get all sorts of roasted peppers here, from jalapeños and serranos to anaheims, red bells and pasillas. The company also sells homemade dips. I picked up the spinach, artichoke, pasilla chile and parmesan dip—the mild version—for my book club meeting. My friends enjoyed it but said it could use some salt.

Next to them was La Salsa Chilena, run by Chilean native Silvia Almonacid and her daughter Patricia. They sell homemade tortillas and chips, salsa roja, chipotle salsa and a smooth guacamole. I bought a pound bag of the chips and am still enjoying them. You can also find their products in Albertson’s and Ralphs.

In the spirit of multiculturalism, I moved on to Baba Foods, with their many flavors of hummus and pita chips, their Mediterranean salads and baklava, their falafel and, what I ended up buying, their very tasty taboulie.

I couldn’t get near the Gourmet Tamales stand, with its crowd of customers hovering to pick up some of their 20 varieties. I’ll have to go back and try the pork loin with roasted green chiles and the tinga (spicy chicken with chipotle). If those don’t appeal, there’s the vegan spicy black bean, the sweet corn and scallion and garbanzos, green beans and red sauce. Vegetarians might enjoy the feta cheese, corn and jalapeño or the spinach, feta cheese and tomatillo. Of course, they have dessert tamales, too—pineapple, coconut and raisin; strawberry apple; orange mango and pumpkin spice.

In search of more good produce, I found myself in front of a group of tables with magnificent Blue Lake and wax beans. I bought about a pound of the wax beans which I intend to cook briefly and toss with honey, lemon zest and garlic oil. I also bought a couple of round zucchinis and some fabulously ugly heirloom tomatoes that are as full of robust tomato flavor as they are homely.

There was also a display of sumptuous looking baby zucchinis with squash blossoms. I was so tempted to buy some, but decided to wait for another time.

Nearby was more produce, the most remarkable being the enormous, bowling pin zucchinis.

My final stop was Peggy’s Pasta. Her breads and pastas proved irresistible and I succumbed to a small round of sour dough, a couple of white cheddar cheese-topped rolls, a loaf of multigrain and a couple of packages of pasta—thick and chewy basil pappardelle, true comfort food with olive oil and grated parmesan, and a wonderful plain fettucine that cooks up beautifully.

Marti told me to keep an eye out for the vendor who sells Key Lime Avocado Oil. In my frenzy to see and taste as much as possible before making my book club meeting, it completely slipped my mind. But, when I got to her house, she promptly remedied that. Her husband and daughter were on their way to the market so he promised to pick up a bottle for me. It turns out that Peggy’s Pasta sells the oil… I had completely missed it.

Anyway, what to do with Key Lime Avocado Oil? The company that produces it, Pacific Culinaria, suggests grilling shrimp, scallops and fresh Maui onions, splashed with the oil. It’s also good for sautéing because it has a high smoke point.

I tried it on the shrimp, which I enjoyed with Peggy’s unadorned fettucini, chopped heirloom tomatoes, slices of heirloom red onion, a sprinkling of toasted pine nuts and a vinaigrette I came up with:

Key Lime Avocado Oil Vinaigrette

1 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tbl. Key Lime Avocado Oil Vinaigrette
2/3 c. Tiburtini Aceto di Vino Bianco, a sweet, unfiltered white wine vinegar
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 large clove of garlic, minced (I used a clove from the heirloom garlic I bought)
1 tsp. granulated sugar
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Those couple of tablespoons were just enough to produce a rich, sweet citrus flavor that was also wonderful with the romaine salad I had for lunch earlier in the day. In the salad I added one of the sweet, low-acid Japanese tomatoes, which perfectly complemented the citrus tones of the dressing.

Long live hippyland in OB. As Ken Kesey said, “You’re either on the bus or off the bus.”

The Ocean Beach Farmers Market is located on Newport Ave. between Bacon and Cable streets.

Have some thoughts about the Ocean Beach Farmers 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:

1 comment:

  1. I've lived in Point Loma for almost 36 years, but had never been to the OB Farmers Market. After today, I can no longer make that statement.

    When traveling, I always try for a public market experience, such as Seattle's Pike Street Market, a fun and lively adventure where the vendors are animated and playful, and the Granville Island Market in Vancouver, British Columbia, which has the most beautiful produce that I've ever seen anywhere in the world, true works of art.

    What prompted today's visit however, was the recent KPBS-TV documentary, To Market, To Market, to Buy a Fat Pig, which showed public markets around the United States. My mouth watered just by watching the fresh produce being sampled and bought, including every type of tomato imaginable. They even showed in the broadcast customers sampling these tomatoes, and then rating them, so that a winner could be picked.

    The OB Farmers Market is different. Maybe the fault was in my expectations: (1) knowledgeable vendors who could tell me about their products, (2) samples of the fresh produce as is done at Barron's Market, Whole Foods, Vons, and every other local supermarket, (3) low prices because of the direct producer to buyer connection with no brick and mortar overhead, and (4) the ability to use my credit card.

    Across the board, I was disappointed. First of all, to my amazement, there were no prices posted for the majority of the produce, so I had to ask each time, and it made comparison shopping difficult, maybe the reason that sellers didn't want to display their prices, which is required by law in retail stores.

    Except for some of the crafts vendors, nobody took credit cards. I've been carrying the same $35 around in my wallet for the past 5 years. I use credit cards for all my purchases, even a 7-Eleven ice cream cone, so that these transactions get run through my Quicken accounting software, and are itemized by budget category into helpful monthly charts. Even more convenient, the total balance due each month gets automatically transferred from my checking account, AND I get up to 5% cash back bonuses on my purchases, or frequent airline travel miles. With today's technology, wireless scanning of credit card information is fast, safe, and secure, but not here at the OB Market.

    Also, I asked one vendor who was selling 8 different varieties of tomatoes what was the difference in taste and sweetness. At any local retail store, this would have immediately resulted in a knife, cutting board, and tasting samples so I could make up my own mind, AND I would be given detailed information as well, but not here at the OB Market.

    Finally, I was expecting bargain prices, but I thought that here they were more like Whole Foods prices, WITHOUT the other conveniences mentioned above. I did consider buying some of the fresh cooked food, but at $6.00 a plate, I could have a complete meal at Soup Plantation, and go back for seconds if I was still hungry.

    In all fairness, I will say that I bought two pounds of tomatoes, on trust, which turned out to be excellent, and a loaf of onion bread that fully lived up to my taste expectations. The $2.00 flower squash taco was great. People watching was fun. The fresh cut flowers looked and smelled beautiful. Parking was not a problem, as I parked only 3 blocks away and love to walk.

    To sum up, the Ocean Beach Farmers Market probably will never make anyone's Top 10 list, or appear on national television, but if you don't mind carrying a pocket full of cash, asking each time before you buy about the prices, doing without taste testing (except in the minority of cases where samples were offered), and paying retail store prices for most of the merchandise, then you might enjoy this experience.