Monday, January 25, 2010

Winter's Charms at Hillcrest Farmers Market


It's not unusual for farmers markets across the country to close for the winter. But not only are San Diego's markets open, they're packed with gorgeous produce. Looking at the bounty at last Sunday's Hillcrest farmers market, it's hard to believe we just endured a week of heavy, chilly storms.

Clearly, it's not strawberry or tomato season yet. Or is it? There were a couple of farmers from Carlsbad with flats of bright red juicy strawberries. And there were several stands with tomatoes, including gorgeous heirlooms of vibrant shades of green, red, yellow, and orange at Valdivia Farms. Are they grown in greenhouses? I asked and was told they're growing outside under the sun. Now, I don't think they have the depth of flavor that long hot summer days provide, but it's kind of nice to have fresh local tomatoes in the dead of winter.



I bought several after tasting samples chopped in a delicious spicy chile mix they're selling. But instead of buying the chile mix, I more or less replicated it, first making a simple little chopped salad of the tomatoes, tiny Mexicola avocados from Koral's Tropical Fruit Farm (more about them below), green garlic, and stemmed red onions-also from Valdivia. These were tossed in a dressing of locally produced avocado oil from vendor Bella Vado,green Hatch chile powder from Richies Roasted Products (whose stall is near the Joe's on the Nose orange coffee truck), fresh lime juice from limes in my garden, and salt and pepper. You could also marinate shrimp in this dressing, grill, and add to the salad, served with homemade corn tortillas. Or serve the salad as a salsa-like condiment with fish, chicken, beef, or pork. It's a wonderfully bright flavor surprise in the middle of winter.




Leafy greens are abundant this time of year. I saw a lot of Swiss chard on Sunday. At Sage Mountain Farm, I picked up some beautiful rapini (also known as broccoli rabe) and a bunch of broccoli. Now, while rapini has those little yellow buds that look they they're going to explode into little broccolis, they're actually not even in the broccoli family, but related to turnips.




These greens are slightly bitter, but it works for them when you counterbalance it with other flavors. After you trim the ends of the stalks, use everything else on the plant, including the yellow buds. Cut the stems into one-inch pieces and blanch in boiling water for about a minute. Then drain and sauté in olive oil and garlic. I like to add about a teaspoon of chopped preserved lemon to it as well, along with toasted pine nuts, dried pepper flakes, and salt and pepper. You could also add pancetta or bacon. Rapini makes a nice side dish, of course, but try tossing them with pasta and add some feta cheese.

As you're walking down the main aisle of the Hillcrest market, rising over the sounds of live music will be the energetic voice of Barry Koral.


 
Playing the part of the carnival-style barker, the 68-year-old Koral, who owns Koral's Tropical Fruit Farm in Vista, is hawking the flavors and nutritional value of his produce, which this time of year is mostly citrus. I saw oranges and tangerines, limes, sweet lemons, Meyer lemons, and conventional lemons. But he also had some interesting fruits like guavas and Mexicola avocados.



Mexicola's are a tiny avocado variety with a thin purplish, almost black edible skin. They have a nutty, almost almond taste to them. Don't use them to make guacamole. Slice them in half and serve with a tray of crudités or chop them and add to the tomato salad I described above. Look for fruit with smooth shiny skin and that are firm but give a little when you touch them. You don't see these beauties  regularly in the markets, so grab these as a special seasonal treat.