Sunday, July 22, 2007

North Park Farmers Market: They’re Back … in North Park

After an absence of close to a year and a half, North Park's neighborhood farmers market is back. Reopened last Thursday afternoon on the south side of the CVS Pharmacy parking lot at Herman St. and North Park Way, the market has 37 vendors, many of whom are familiar to regular area farmers market shoppers.

So, who will you find along the aisles? Baba Foods and their spread of pitas, hummus, roasted veggies and tabouli. The ubiquitous Kettle Corn, of course. Hillcrest’s Bread & Cie. And Belen Artisan Bakers with Louise of Impeccable Taste, whom I met at the La Jolla Open Aire Market. She came prepared to sell her jams, pickles and mustards, along with the Escondido baker’s breads. World Famous Smoked Fish was there, with bags of 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. And, some familiar farmers were there—both Smit Orchards, with their delicious plumcots and organic blueberries, and Rodriguez Farms, with its wide array of unusual produce.

So, what was Rodriguez Farms offering in North Park? Magnificent greens, which this time included purslane, called verdolaga in Mexico. Often considered a nuisance weed, this succulent is actually one of the most nutritious you’ll find, with more beta-carotene and Omega-3 fatty acids than spinach. Traditionally, it’s been used as a remedy for arthritis, but it may even lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

More to the point, of course, it’s very tasty. In Mexico, it’s eaten in omelets, sauteed as a side dish, rolled in tortillas or dropped into soups or stews. My friends Paula and Armando eat it all the time, prepared like spinach (steamed a few minutes with a little water, then drained and seasoned with a lot of lemon, salt and pepper). She says it's better a little al dente than too soft. You can also pull the leaves from its thick stems and eat it raw in a salad. Joe Rodriguez, owner of the farm, was at the market on Thursday and he suggested sautéing it with onion, garlic and tomatoes as a side dish or cooking it with pork. It also pairs well with cucumbers and is a great addition to a traditional Middle Eastern fattoush salad, which would include large cut up pieces of cucumber, tomato and onion, mint, along with parsley and stale pita and tossed with olive oil.

Rodriguez Farms also had some beautiful bunches of mizuna, a mild feathery green typically found in Japanese markets, but also a regular component of mesclun salad mixes. I bought a both a bunch baby bok choy and mizuna, which I’ll stir fry together with shitake mushrooms and shrimp.

I discovered some fun new vendors, new to me at least. If you have a hankering for jerky—from beef and turkey to ostrich, venison, salmon and even rattlesnake—head over to Lee Harris and his House of Jerky. If the products are unconventional, the flavorings will be familiar—natural, black pepper, teriyaki, habanero chile and cayenne and garlic.

I saw and tasted even more wonderful produce. Creekside Tropicals sells oranges, grapefruit, apples and lemon, but the most spectacular of their offerings are the mammoth Reed avocados, easily the size of a hefty grapefruit.

At the R&L Farms stand, I discovered the most astounding summer fruits I have tasted in a long while. Customers were thronging at this stall for gorgeous huge peaches and nectarines, both regular and white, as well as Santa Rosa plums and plumcots that while firm to the touch were almost pulsating with sweet juiciness. The flavors were so rich they tasted like they had been injected with liqueurs. I took home some of each and all were just as wonderful once I got them into my kitchen. They’ve made breakfast a treat.

Bakehouse Foods is full of nuts—great nuts. The charismatic Patrick offered me samples of fire-roasted Valencia peanuts, which were even better than traditional ballpark peanuts and far less salty. They have a terrific flavorful crunch to them.

If you’re a fan of glazed nuts, try the orange glazed pecans tossed in a green salad, on ice cream or with crunchy wheatberries (cook wheatberries like you would rice, only simmer them longer, say, for about an hour, drain and add sautéed onions and garlic, olive oil, a little balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper). They also carry three-ounce bags of glazed walnuts and almonds.

I saw the folks at Gourmet European Pastries and Lisko Imports at the OB Farmers Market but didn’t have a chance to take a good look. If you are planning on entertaining and want to impress your guests with some amazing desserts, check out their offerings. They have slices of baklava and little lemon bars, along with individual flourless chocolate cakes filled with chocolate ganache, upside down pineapple cake, apple streusel, pecan pies with a chocolate crust, Tahitian vanilla crème brulee and dreamy Belgian chocolate and white chocolate covered apples.

Sharing the space alongside the pastries is Lisko Imports—all part of the same company, I believe. I tried their rich roasted eggplant with feta mixture and their delicious sundried tomatoes, marinated in olive oil and balsamic vinegar. They sell several varieties of olives: garlic-stuffed greens, black rounds, kalamatas brined in red wine vinegar, green olives and yummy wrinkled olives layered in Mediterranean sea salt, which are actually very mild and not at all salty.

Also try their cheese. They offer a hearty Bulgarian feta and lighter Greek feta, a semi-soft manouri from Greece—wonderful topped with honey and walnuts—and the firmer, tangy Kashkaval cheese. This is a hard yellow table cheese from Bulgaria, often called “the cheddar of the Balkans.” Use it in a salad or shred it on pasta or pizza.

You can also satisfy your appetite with gourmet tamales of a variety of flavors. The owners brag that these are made without lard. I tried a sample of the sweet corn with poblano and cheese and found it light and, well, sweet. There are tamales for vegetarians and vegans, but also more traditional fare like shredded beef, pork loin and chicken, as well as dessert tamales like pineapple, coconut and raisin; orange mango and pumpkin spice. They freeze well, so are worth stocking up on.

Next to the tamales was a stall with empanadas (an Argentinean stuffed pastry) and chimicurri (a wonderful condiment made of parsley, garlic, olive oil, vinegar, oregano and paprika). These folks can be found online. At the market, they sell chicken, beef, corn, spinach and mushroom empanadas as well as choripan, an Argentinean-style sausage.

And, of course, you’ll find several stalls of magnificent flowers, a massage booth, jewelry, plants, clothes and some unusual garden mobiles.

The market is open every Thursday from 3 p.m. to sunset in spring and summer, and from 2 p.m. to dark in autumn and winter.

The North Park Farmers Market is located at the CVS Pharmacy parking lot off of University and 32nd St.

Have some thoughts about the North Park 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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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Parsian International Market: A Taste of Tehran on Convoy

A few years ago, my friends Paula and Armando told me about Parsian, a tiny Iranian market on Balboa Ave. in Clairemont near See’s Candy. Armando, in particular, adored the fresh produce. It took me awhile to find it but once I did, I had a ball shopping there. And, then it wasn’t there; instead the much larger Balboa International Market was. It was all very confusing but it turns out that Parsian had simply moved, taking over what had been a Chinese restaurant (and before that a McDonalds) on Convoy in Kearny Mesa, across from Home Expo.

Parsian, still small by market standards, has been in these digs for three years now. It’s owned by three women, including Sariba Arin, who told me by phone that Parsian has been in business for 13 years. And, it’s a business with a loyal clientele. Last Saturday, a middle-aged man waiting for his takeout order told me how much he loved the store, how wonderful and kind the people are who work there and that he and his wife continue to drive down regularly to shop from Carlsbad, where they now live.

In fact, Parsian is a great place to stop by for a casual lunch on the patio before picking up authentic Iranian and Middle Eastern treats. The owners have obviously taken advantage of the pre-existing kitchen space (and drive-through window) to offer a nice mix of prepared meals, redolent with exotic spices. Start with dips like hummus, cucumber (their tangy, thick house yogurt mixed with crunchy chopped Persian cucumbers and fresh mint), shallot (yogurt with shallots—very oniony) or eggplant (eggplant marinated in garlic and onion, topped with yogurt). On a hot day, try a Greek salad or grilled chicken salad. They have A’sh Reshteh, a vegetarian noodle soup with lentils, garbanzo beans, herbs, reshteh (Persian noodles), garlic and mint. And, of course, they have kabobs—grilled filet mignon, minced beef, chicken, even salmon. The plates come with the most extraordinarily fluffy and aromatic basmati rice with saffron; a salad bursting with tomatoes, sweet onions and thick slices of Persian cucumbers; two pieces of warm lavash (a light, thin flat bread) with butter and the traditional grilled tomato. I sampled the mini grilled chicken kabob (marinated in saffron and a splash of lemon) and beef kabob (koobideh) platter. Both the chicken and beef were moist, tender and full of flavor.

They also have a variety of sandwiches and enormous wraps, as well as very tasty specialty stews. I took home the fesenjoon, a hearty walnut stew made with breast of chicken strips, crushed walnuts and pomegranate sauce, served over basmati rice, with a side salad. The stew is a deep brown and thick, almost like a paste, rich with the subtle essence of the walnuts and pomegranate. Equally enticing is the eggplant stew, with sautéed onions in a tomato sauce with top sirloin strips. Portions are huge and the prices very reasonable.

Once you’ve had some lunch, grab a basket and head down the aisles. Check out the colorful hookas, or water pipes, and the crazy collection of tobaccos—splash margarita, raspberry, cappuccino, cherry, strawberry daiquiri, cola and jasmine. That’s a whole other world of temptation for a nonsmoker like me, but obviously it has its fans.

More to my liking were the bins filled with snacking seeds and nuts—red melon, almonds, squash and watermelon. I was attracted to the thick red melon seeds but found I actually preferred the daintier “fancy” melon seeds.

They’ve got a good satisfying crunch and aren’t overly salty. Get the seeds loose here or packaged where they’re stacked in one of the aisles. In fact, look for something in the packaged section called “Leblebi.” These are, for a lack of a better term, frosted chickpeas. Frosted with sugar. Very popular in Turkey, they are nothing if not novel in taste, and actually, very good.

One of the best aisles for all-purpose hoarding is against the far wall. This is where you can stock up on all sorts of wonderful jars of pickles (torshi)—mixed torshi (hot marinated vegetables), pickled garlic, pickled onions, peppers, shallot, okra, cucumbers, eggplant and even sour grapes.

I bought what I thought was the most unusual—mixed fruits pickle. The ingredients include eggplant, quince, apple, garlic, cilantro, vinegar and salt in a thick minced texture. I don’t know what I was expecting but the first bite was not at all compelling and I thought I’d have to toss the jar. But, I decided to put it in the refrigerator and went back to it later. With a second try, I found that its odd sweet-vinegary tartness started to grow on me. It’s not something to spoon out and just eat, or even scoop with a cracker—anymore than you’d just nosh on a chutney, say. But, as a condiment, it would be delicious with fish or chicken and rice. And, in fact, torshis are accompaniments to a main course.

I also picked up a jar of green chili paste. This is very, very hot stuff. But, used judiciously, it can energize a sauce. Last night I steamed bok choy, scallions and sliced shitake mushrooms, and made a soy-based sauce for it that required red chili paste, which for some reason I didn’t have. So, I dipped into this and it added the heat I needed, as well as the flavor.

You can also find jars of vibrant orange pickled mango, zucchini caviar, marinated red tomatoes, pickled green tomatoes, curry pastes, ajvar (a wonderful red pepper dip) and a wide assortment of dried packaged herbs, flowers and spices, from cardamom, chamomile flower, borage and all spice to ground sumac, fenugreek, dried leek and valerian root. And, here’s something to try: dehydrated herbs and spices packaged in a canister by Sadaf. Each brightly colored container holds a mix specific to a particular dish—kookoo sabzi (herb soufflé), sabzi polo (herb rice), ghormeh sabzi (herb vegetable) and Aash (herb soup). Simply rehydrate the herbs and mix with other ingredients included in the recipe on the packaging. It’s an easy way to introduce yourself to unfamiliar dishes.

You’ll also find a wide range of olive oils, vinegars, olives and the mysterious assortment of waters I first found months ago at Balboa International Market—fenugreek, borage, sweetbriar, dill weed, oregano and the like. As I mentioned in a previous entry, some of these waters are medicinal, while others have specific culinary uses.

And, there are staples like beans, barley, rice flour, chickpea flour, bulgur, lentils, noodles and 10-pound burlap bags of aged basmati rice.

Stock up on the cans of stuffed vegetables. These are unbelievably handy to have in the pantry when you have company or can’t think of anything to make for dinner. Along with the traditional dolmas (grape leaves stuffed with rice), be adventurous and try stuffed eggplant. The rice is saturated with onions and tomato in a rich sauce. The stuffed chard leaves, or pazi sarmasi, are stuffed with wheat, onions and tomatoes. I tried the lahana dolma, or stuffed cabbage leaves. Again, it’s a rice, onions and tomato stuffing, but it also incorporates the sweetness of currants that complements the sweet cabbage leaves. If you serve them as finger food, cut them in half—they’re about three inches long and aren’t real firm—and squeeze lemon juice over them to offset the oil they’re prepared with. Lahana domas also make an easy, delicious and very pretty first course, served on a bed of baby greens. Again, squeeze lemon juice over them, and also drizzle with some olive oil and add a sprinkling of toasted pine nuts and grated black pepper to dress the greens.

The aisle with the packaged seeds is filled with other great snack treats: thick sunflower seeds, dried figs, pistachios and a rainbow of raisins.

There are packages of dried fruit strips, rose-water infused pistachio nougat and a variety of fruit nectars and syrups—quince, lemon, mint, rose, black currant, blueberry, raspberry and sour cherry. The syrups are terrifically versatile. Add one part syrup to three parts water (try carbonated) for a cool summer drink over ice. Add to a flute of Champagne or Prosecco. Or incorporate it into a glaze for grilling or roasting poultry.

I found jars of pomegranate spread, which I thought would be wonderful on toast. Surprise. “Spread” is an absolute misnomer for this; try molasses or syrup instead. It’s a deep brown, with a rich sour flavor and undertones of sweetness. And talk about versatile. Once I got over the looseness of this product, I came up with several ways to use it. I drizzled some over a bowl of sliced strawberries and blueberries for breakfast. I made a glaze for roasted chicken with olive oil, sea salt, red pepper flakes and minced garlic. I added it to a vinaigrette. I have yet to spoon it over vanilla ice cream or mix it with yogurt, but these would be refreshing desserts.

If you like to browse teas, Parsian has an aisle filled with a colorful variety.

And, of course, you’ll find Turkish coffee. For dessert, there are a range of sweet, thick halvas (both the Mediterranean version with sesame paste and the Iranian/Turkish version with semolina and rose water). And there are pastries: packaged tea biscuits and honey-laden baklava, chickpea cookies, walnut nazook (a cookie with walnuts and cinnamon) and, in a case, zolubia, little fritters made with flour and yogurt, dipped in a syrup of rose water and honey that melt in your mouth.

Parsian has a good selection of yogurts and yogurt drinks, several fetas (domestic, French, Bulgarian and Greek) and goat milk cheese. The small produce section had lovely summer fruits, enormous fava beans that a couple of customers were bagging to steam, luscious looking Persian cucumbers and a nice variety of fresh herbs.

Also tucked in that space are stacks of enormous flat breads specific to different regions of Iran—Tehran Sangak bread, Barbari Bread, taftoon and lavash. Parsian also makes its own taftoon, a Persian wholemeal flatbread that goes with just about anything—salad, kabobs, buttered for breakfast.

And, check out the ice cream freezer. You’ll find flavors like saffron rosewater, creamy rosewater, pistachio and the one I bought, pomegranate passion. The creamy base is a gentle foil for the sweet/sour essence of pomegranate.

Once you hit the counter, however, take a look for the gorgeous velvety green figs—soft fleshed, sweet and really delicious. And for the petite fresh sour cherries. While they are mainly used for cooking, they’re a wonderful, rare snack. This is a real find, not to be missed while they’re in season.

Parsian International Market is located at 4020 Convoy St.

Have some thoughts about Parsian International Market or other ethnic 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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