Sunday, August 10, 2008

Big Momma Market: The Hillcrest Farmers Market

Last week, KPBS radio's These Days had a discussion about buying local food and people were calling in, usually prefacing their remarks with "I go every Sunday morning to the Hillcrest farmers market." Even a woman from Scripps Ranch, which has its own Saturday market... Go figure. But the Hillcrest farmers market is a special place. I used to go almost every Sunday myself when I lived in Hillcrest, but since I'm in Tierrasanta now I tend to go there on Thursday afternoons. So, it had been awhile since I'd been by and thought it would be fun to see what's new.

I'd forgotten just how huge it is. Like the La Jolla and Ocean Beach markets, it's packed with all sorts of vendors and feels like a big festival. Many of the folks I'm used to seeing around town are there--among them, Baba Foods, Majestic Garlic, Smit Orchards, Gourmet European Pastries and Lisko Imports, Jackie's Jams and Creekside Tropicals.

Because of that, I'm not going to go through everything I saw. Stone fruit are front and center still this week, as are tomatoes, squash and avocadoes. What I will do is show you some things that caught my eye.

Like the produce at Valdivia Farms. I love their tomatoes, particularly their heirloom tomatoes. Today, they were overflowing.

But, they also had a box of sweet little baby corn.

I bought half a dozen and then spent awhile back at home trying to decide what to do with them. Regardless of how large the packaging is -- and some of these, as you can see, were seven or eight inches with lots of silk -- once you peel away the husk and silk, it still is a petite three inches or so.

Do I stir fry them with other veggies? Marinate them in herbed garlic oil and then grill them to serve as appetizers? Chop them and add to pasta? Eat them raw, dipped in chili sauce?

Raw won for one of them. This is not the same baby corn you get in the can. Straight from the husk, it was sweet and just a little crispy. The chili garlic sauce was a nice complement. As for the other five, I'm going to add them to pasta with the chopped heirloom tomatoes I bought from Valdivia, sweet basil and lemon thyme from my garden, a teaspoon of Majestic Garlic spread, olive oil and thin slices of Parmigiano Reggiano. Perfect for a sultry Sunday night meal.

The tomatoes. Aren't they amazing? Some of the heirloom tomatoes were so dark, they looked like fat purple plums. But they weren't the only ones to catch my eye. There were hefty globes in red, green and yellow. The green are perfect, of course, for frying. The yellow ones are fun to incorporate in a salad or sliced to make a sandwich with mozzarella, basil leaves and a homemade vinaigrette. They're sweet, juicy, meaty (yes, I ate one this afternoon with just a little bit of sea salt sprinkled on it). It is high season for these magnificent fruits. Buy them and enjoy them while they're looking so good.

Mountain Meadow Mushrooms of Escondido had a booth offering a smorgasbord of fungi. There were hamburger patty-size Portabellos and dark shitakes, big stemmed trumpets and little wild Maritakes, criminis and your basic white mushroom. I liked the baskets that offered a variety.

I walked past stalls filled with fresh herbs, including one that had such a beautiful display that one customer was creating a bouquet. I would have bought some myself, except that I grow them at home.

I was astounded, though, by the large display of one of my very favorite fruits, passion fruit, which I discovered on a trip to Australia years and years ago. These egg-shaped fruits are the ugliest little things when fully ripe, but what's inside is a bright yellow-orange magical liqueur that is sweet and tart. I am happiest simply scooping up the liquid in a spoon and eating it, but drizzle it over French vanilla ice cream, add to a smoothie or incorporate it into a sauce.

Unfortunately, I couldn't buy any because I had run out of cash. And, here's my suggestion to the managers of any of these markets--invest in an EBT machine so people can use a debit card to get cash or tokens that vendors can cash in at the end of the market. As a customer, I find it's just too hard to anticipate how much I'll want to buy or what it'll cost. And, it may encourage customers like me to buy more.

The Hillcrest farmers market is held every Sunday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at 3960 Normal Street at Lincoln, adjacent to the DMV.

Have some thoughts about the Hillcrest farmers market or other 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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  1. I think farmers markets are going to be THE hot thing in coming years. I love going to the one in Escondido, and wish it were as large as those in Hillcrest and La Jolla.
    I enjoy the throng of people (and I don't usually like crowds), but it creates a party atmosphere. Some of the vendors now recognize me as a regular, and we discuss what's in season. There's a wonderful sense of community.
    And, oh, the peaches of August! Tree-ripened, not like those beautiful-but-mealy tennis balls at Vons.

  2. Thanks for writing! I love that party atmosphere, too. And the sense of community. When I was at my local Tierrasanta market last Thursday, I stopped by a vendor I hadn't shopped with before and she asked if I was the woman with the two Ridgebacks (which I was). She'd seen me with them before, had had two of her own and was hoping to see mine again. It launched a wonderful conversation. Try doing that at your local Vons or Albertson's.

    A new farmers market just opened this past weekend in Little Italy. The numbers here are growing steadily and I hope people will take advantage of the bounty.