Sunday, August 26, 2007

Tierrasanta Farmers Market: The Island in the Hills Meets the Farmer in the Dell


I’d been waiting on tenterhooks for this moment. My neighborhood, Tierrasanta, finally got its own farmers market last Thursday afternoon. By the looks of it, my neighbors were also in eager suspense. With all the oohing and ahhhing, you’d have thought none of us had ever seen an heirloom tomato or fresh peaches before.

The market, located in the parking lot of Gaspar de Portola Middle School, has been in the planning process for some five months, according to Ron La Chance, the market manager. For its debut, La Chance brought in 10 farmers and 20 other vendors, selling everything from jams and breads and flowers to prepared foods and jewelry. There’s room for another 25 vendors if business is good and demand calls for it. By the looks of this first outing, my fellow Tierrasantans should make a point of showing up regularly and requesting more. We need it. I loved what I saw, but there are some definite gaps that need to be filled.

There were a number of familiar farmers market faces. I first encountered Jackie’s Jams, run by Jackie Anderson and Robert Shay, at the Ocean Beach market. They have about two dozen flavors of jams that Jackie makes in a commercial kitchen nearby off of Convoy.

Her jams are offered at Bread & Cie down in Hillcrest. There are some unusual concepts like Mango Raspberry and Papaya Mango, Spicy Peach, Tomato, Strawbarb and Zippy Jalapeño. And she makes some more traditional fare like Strawberry, Plum, Triple Berry and Apple Butter. They’re all delicious and sing with flavor, especially the Zippy Jalapeño.

I’ve already written about Baba Foods and their pitas, humus and salads. They’re there. As are the crepe guys. World Famous Smoked Fish was there selling fresh sea bass, salmon, albacore, mahi mahi and ahi, along with smoked yellowtail, ahi, salmon and albacore and dips they make from the tuna and salmon.

Petrou Foods, minus the outsized personality, George Petrou, was there with their delicious olives and olive oils. I picked up a bottle of their low-sodium green olives. They’re soaked in sea salt for three months instead of six, which the young sales woman said accounted for their lower sodium. However, at 10 percent sodium, they’re not that low. I looked at the label of a jar of Trader Joe’s pitted Kalamata olives and those are only 6 percent. But, Petrou’s olives do taste good and don’t need refrigerating. Just put them in a cool pantry or cupboard and flip the jar over periodically since there’s not a lot of liquid.

Johann’s Austrian Bakery sold the market’s only baked goods—Mountain Rye, Farmers Bread, Jalapeno Cheese, French and whole wheat. I bought a lovely braided raisin challah, which I’m enjoying. It’s sweet and moist and perfect for French toast. However, the strudel was a tremendous disappointment. I tried it that evening and could barely cut through the dough and still am not sure about the flavor. I think it was apricot. The next day, I thought I’d try again, this time reheating in to see if the pastry would crispen. It did somewhat, but still, this is not something to seek out.

At farmers markets you can always count on the presence of a few characters. I found my first at the entrance. Papa Louie—the only name he’ll give—makes a lovely marinade/dressing made of extra virgin olive oil, balsamic and rice vinegars, garlic, salt and spices.

It’s got a nice zippy punch to it and is intriguingly thick, given that it has no mustard or other emulsifier. What’s the secret? He won’t tell. All he admits to is that it’s a 106-year-old family recipe created by his grandmother in Venice, Italy. Papa Louie also sells vinegars and olive oil from Spain.

Another character at the market was Deborah Giraud of Sunflower Organics. She convinced me to buy a jar of her ginger-flavored honey and bee pollen mix. She also sells honey from Hawaii, loose teas and a line of jojoba oil lotions. Stand around her stall and you’ll learn more than you’d thought you wanted to know about the beneficial aspects of bee pollen. That it’s a complete food with all essential amino acids, minerals and vitamins. That raw honey is easily metabolized in the body and rich in Vitamin A, beta carotene and rich in enzymes. Good thing for us that it tastes so good.

I also got a kick out of meeting Emilio Carranza of Carranza Fruit Farm in Valley Center. He sells a nice selection of pesticide-free produce—enormous zucchini, lemons, tiny and tart tomatillos and an assortment of items you’d think you’d be more likely to find in a Mexican market.

The tunas, fruit of the nopal cactus, were lovely hues of green and red orange. Inside, depending on which color you bought, the flesh was white or yellow. Carranza also had nopal paddles available, already de-needled and ready to be chopped into a salad with queso fresco or used for some other recipe. He had bunches of epazote and something I’d never seen before—white sapote.

White sapote (or sapote blanco) is grown predominantly in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Costa Rica. You’ll also find it in northern South America, the Bahamas, the West Indies, along the Riviera and other part of the Mediterranean, in India and the East Indies. It’s also grown in the southern U.S., both in California and southern Florida.

The fruit looks rather like a green apple, but don’t be fooled. It’s a member of the Rutaceae family, to which citrus belongs. When ripe, the flesh is like custard—sweet and creamy—and perfect for spooning out and eating plain or adding to a smoothie. Don’t eat the skin or the seeds.

I bought several sapotes and a basket of tunas. But really, what was I going to do with all those tunas?

Carranza suggested I make Agua de Tuna (cactus fruit drink) and told me how: peel the tunas and coarsely chop them into a blender, add a little water and pulverize. Then place the puree into a strainer over a bowl and push out all the liquid. Toss the solids, add some lemon juice and sugar and more water to the tuna liquid. Pour into a glass over ice. Sounded easy. I took them home and found a recipe online with a little more structure and tried it. Here it is:

Agua de Tuna

1 pound of green cactus fruit (tuna), with the spines removed
½ pound red cactus fruit (tuna), with the spines removed
The juice of 3 lemons
1 cup sugar
2 liters of water

Carefully peel the tuna fruits, making sure that they are free of spines. The spines are often tiny, so be very careful handling the fruit! Place the tuna fruit in a blender with the sugar and a little water. Blend well. You can pass the pulp through a colander to remove any seeds. Add the water and lemon juice. Or, if you prefer, simply add the water to the pulp with the lemon juice.

Serve over ice.

From “Mexican Culture for Kids.com”

I have to say it was delicious. Thick, the color of rich orange juice, but a blending of sweet and sour in a uniquely tropical way. Perfect for a hot and humid afternoon.

I strolled around the rest of the market, picked up some magnificent heirloom tomatoes at JRB Farms from Lake Perris and enjoyed a sample of their oh, so sweet honeydew melons (which they ran out of…). I also bought several little squash—the kind that look like they were victims of “spin art,” with their crazy splashes of yellow and green. I love baking these in olive oil and garlic, topped with bread crumbs and grated parmesan cheese.

Actually, all the produce looked good. So, what do you do with all this gorgeous bounty? It’s August. It’s hot. It’s muggy. Gotta make gazpacho. You’ll find most of the ingredients for this recipe (my mom’s) among the farmers’ booths here or at your neighborhood market. The chopping can be time consuming but there’s no cooking with heat involved and what you end up with is a healthy and refreshing series of meals that are utterly delicious.

Gazpacho (serves 8-10)

5-8 large tomatoes, chopped

2 large cloves of garlic, minced

1 cucumber, peeled (unless it’s an English cuke) and diced

1 or 2 red or green bell peppers, chopped

6 to 8 scallions, chopped

6 to 8 radishes, chopped

½ medium onion, chopped

½ bunch parsley, minced

½ bunch cilantro, minced

2 cups corn (I like either fresh from the cob or Trader Joe’s bags of frozen roasted corn)

2 to 6 dashes Worcestershire sauce

4 tbsp. red wine vinegar

1 small can V-8 juice

2 tsp. olive oil

½ tsp sugar

1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice

1 tsp. salt

1 can beef or chicken stock

Tabasco sauce to taste

The easiest way to do this is to roughly cut up each set of veggies and put in the food processor to chop into small pieces – don’t process until smooth – and then add each to a large bowl. Once all the vegetables are chopped and in the bowl, add the corn, the herbs, the liquids and the salt. Mix it all together and refrigerate until cold, then correct the seasonings. Add cooked shrimp or other protein if you like when serving. Top with a dollop of sour cream.

And for dessert? Stop by Smit Orchards for their O’Henry freestone peaches, or Arctic white nectarines. They no longer have plumcots (the fabulous yellow fruit I fell hard for earlier in the summer), but they do have Dinosaur egg pluots (3/4 plum, ¼ apricot).

Okay, I mentioned there were gaps. I missed Rodriquez Farms and their wide variety of greens. I obviously would like another bread and pastry vendor and how about Valdina Farms and their magnificent beans and mini veggies? And, Peggy’s Fresh Pasta. Well, I’m going to be patient. Hey, it took years for us to get this far. I’m sure that with community support, Mr. La Chance will be able to bring in many more wonderful vendors and Thursday afternoons will be the highlight of the week for locals.

The Tierrasanta Farmers Market is located in the front parking lot of De Portola Middle School at 11010 Clairemont Mesa Blvd. in Tierrasanta. It’s open from 3 to 7 p.m. every Thursday.

Have some thoughts about the Tierrasanta 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:



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