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Robert Scheer

Farm Fresh: A.J. Szenda, chef at the Plumed Horse, writes his monthly menus around the fresh organic produce found at local farmers' markets.

Our unbeatable Central California climate fuels local farmers' markets, making them increasingly irresistible to many restaurant chefs

By Christina Waters

AT A RECENT lunch thrown to honor organic growers and the publication of her new book, Vegetables, culinary pacesetter Alice Waters admonished the assembled chefs and restaurateurs to "resist the temptation to serve any vegetable out of season." Hmmm. What about the miracles of modern refrigeration, of high-tech worldwide shipping methods that allow us to have asparagus in November and raspberries in February? Surely we can have anything we want, when we want it.

Well, of course we can, Alice Waters would respond impatiently. That's precisely the point. Yet resist we must if we want to consume the very freshest in seasonal produce--produce that hasn't had to wait around for hours, even days, to get to its destination. For those who heed the call of the diminutive Chez Panisse founder, farmers markets provide one freshly harvested answer.

The next time you're busy hefting the lettuce or squeezing zucchini at the Saturday farmers market in Saratoga Village, chances are the guy next to you checking out the arugula is A.J. Szenda, chef at the Plumed Horse. "I write my monthly menus around the fresh organic produce at the markets," says Szenda, who estimates that upwards of 60 percent of the growers display the CCOF sticker certifying that their wares meet current organic regulations.

Szenda's main suppliers include Stone Free Farm of Aromas, a restaurant-friendly group that will deliver to their clients as well as stock booths at area farmers' markets. "Stone Free now supplies Whole Foods market, and their organic greens are especially good, the braising mixes and the edible flowers," says Szenda, who often creates custom dishes for customers who request 100 percent organic vegetarian plates. "I'm always curious about what's new and fresh and I always go to our market--sometimes I go to the downtown market as well."

Szenda also says that, along with Le Mouton Noir's Deb Conway and David Kinch of Sent Sovi, he patronizes a Los Gatos company called From the Ground. "We do real well with this local company who grow produce on a four-acre plot," Szenda explains. "The grower actually came to us. He told me he wanted to grow organic, and we pulled out the Shepherd's seed catalog and told him what we wanted him to grow. And he'll call us and tell us what he's got that's special--he comes and delivers two or three times a week." Clearly Alice Waters isn't the only savvy chef to cultivate special relationships with prime organic growers.

Jesse Cool, whose Flea Street Cafe has long been a showcase for seasonal produce, is zealous about her alliances with local growers. To maintain consistency, she utilizes the selective produce buyers of Green Leaf, who also deliver almost daily to the Palo Alto bistro, L'Amie Donia. This way, Cool explains, she can buy the large quantities of single items she needs--something farmers' market purveyors are often reluctant, or unable, to supply. For special menu items, she turns to the famed Full Belly Farms, who also supply Alice Waters.

"Right now we're really excited about asparagus and sugar snap peas. Kale is still strong, as well as cauliflower and broccoli," Cool says. "And while I'm not a big fan of baby things, there are some really nice teenage vegetables, like beets, and the green garlic is great now."

Looking for a local farmers' market?
Check out this list.

Drew Rivers, who operates Full Belly Farms, located in the Capay Valley behind Davis, says she'll begin stocking the Palo Alto farmers' market again when it opens for the season on May 11. "This is our 14th year with the Palo Alto market," Rivers says, "and while the main crops of the season aren't ready yet, we'll open next week with beautiful lettuce and salad mixes--kale, mustard, mizuna, arugula, loose little spinach, baby Tokyo turnips, fresh green garlic and garlic flowers. And we've always got lots of flowers," she laughs. Later on in the summer, Full Belly Farms will be offering an expanded selection of warm-weather fruit and "lots of heirloom tomatoes."

When the downtown San Jose farmers' market opens on May 23, Cafe Matisse's Michael Aldridge will be there for his first season. "I'm looking forward to shopping the downtown market. I'd really like to go all organic with our menu and hope to work something out with some of the growers." On the other hand, some local chefs long ago developed the farmers' market habit. "For regular items, I deal with produce brokers," confesses Jim Connolly of Emile's Restaurant." I need that stability. They go to the San Francisco produce market every day and I know the quality I'm looking for will be there. They find those basics, like tomatoes, that I need all the time." But for the special, fill-in items, Connolly cruises the downtown farmers' market.

"It's not just about seasonal. Sometimes it's all so fresh it jumps right into your mouth. It's about the best quality right now!" Connolly's technique is to make a quick tour of the entire market and then begin buying. "If I don't taste, I don't buy," he points out. "But if you're creative, the market itself will supply you with the menu." Farmers' markets help chefs simplify their cooking, as well as keep it fresh. "If a tomato is really fresh, you don't have to do much to it."

"Variety is another big plus about farmers' markets," continues Connolly. "It keeps your menu from being full of what I call commercial gray product. At the market you discover apples you never knew about, plums, peaches--ooh, when the peaches come in, the variety, the colors!"

Connolly says he's hooked on shopping the markets, where he can save money by getting produce that's in season and hasn't had to be shipped halfway around the world. "And I relish the anticipation, the waiting for things to come into season." The chef, who loves his weekly downtown market, is among many who were disappointed that the market isn't a year-round fixture. "They should be. Farmers' markets help keep the inspiration in cooking."

For rising culinary star Charlie Deal, chef of Santa Cruz's year-old Oswald bistro, "eating seasonally has just been instilled as the way things should be. The farmers' markets are the best way to find out what's fresh. And especially if you're committed to organics, you really have to shop the markets."

Deal says he's now able to arrange prices his small restaurant can live with by cultivating relationships with certain farmers'. During the rainy winters, Deal religiously shopped the Santa Cruz farmers' market. That patronage wasn't forgotten, and now Deal can get a deal, so to speak, from grateful growers. But not always. "One grower wouldn't sell me all her English peas last week," he chuckles. "She wanted other people to know that she had them." Deal is proud of his track record. "We haven't bought any out-of-season products since we opened a year ago."

On the other hand, Chef Donia Bijan sticks primarily to her produce company of 10 years--Green Leaf--to supply what she needs at L'Amie Donia. "They shop the big markets and they're so reliable. The problem is that the farmers' market, even though it's conveniently located, happens only on Saturday," she says. "If it were every day it would be great. As it is, I use the farmers' market to fill in the gaps, or if something looks especially great."

Currently Bijan is "having a ball with fava beans," a fresh item with local growers. "The artichokes lately have been gorgeous, and the berries also have been fantastic." As for utilizing organic produce, Bijan maintains that "it is really costly. Especially for a lot of staples, like celery, leeks, carrots and onions. We have onion soup on our regular menu. And it just becomes outrageous when you need 100 pounds of onions each week."

Deal says that the small size of his restaurant helps with his all-organic agenda. "But it's also because our staff is small, and by now they all are sensitive to what's in season."

Deal also likes to get to the markets 15 minutes before the opening bell and stake out his selections. "Last Wednesday was the first zucchini and basil on the market," he says, clearly overjoyed. "So we did a little zucchini and basil and mozzarella sandwich that day on our menu." The flexibility of his menu perfectly mirrors the evolving flow of ripening produce from farmers' markets.

Would that every restaurant could find a way to celebrate the moment. Maybe they would, if the customer demanded it.


New Zucchini, Basil and Fresh Mozzarella Sandwich

From chef Charlie Deal of Oswald bistro in Santa Cruz comes this fresh creation. If you've been good and waited all winter until the first local zucchini and basil come around, this is a delicious way to celebrate their arrival. Just the smell of the zucchini cooking reminds you that summer is nearly here.

3 small zucchini, sliced lengthwise a quarter-inch wide
2 stalks green garlic, sliced into thin rounds
10 basil leaves sliced into strips
1 or 2 fresh mozzarella balls, sliced thinly
Aioli (store-bought mayo will work in a pinch)
Dijon mustard
Francese or focaccia rolls
Red wine vinegar
Olive oil

Grill or brown in a skillet both sides of zuke slices, seasoning with salt and pepper. Place on plate without stacking to cool. Heat the garlic slowly in 1 tablespoon of olive oil until soft; add 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar. Pour mixture over zukes. Let sit at least 10-15 min. Zuccini should be rather soft. Spread aioli on bottom slice of bread. Layer ribbons of zukes (folding over if necessary) along with basil, distributing evenly between sandwiches. Place cheese (3-5 slices) over zukes, spread mustard on top slice. Cut in half to display layers. Makes two sandwiches.


Penne with Sun-Dried Tomatoes, Asparagus and Smoked Trout in Goat Cheese Sauce

Jesse Cool of Menlo Park's Flea Street Cafe> was happy to provide us with this recipe from her luscious Tomatoes: A Country Garden Cookbook.

12 whole shoots of spring garlic or baby leeks
2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 to 1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes, soaked and coarsely chopped
6 to 8 ounces soft goat cheese
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh thyme
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 pound fresh asparagus, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces
8 to 10 ounces smoked trout (or salmon)
16 ounces fresh penne

In a large pot, bring approximately 3 quarts of salted water to a boil.

Meanwhile, cut off greens and tough parts of green garlic or leeks. Slice tender white part into 1/2-inch pieces. In a large sauté pan, slowly sauté garlic with olive oil over medium heat until soft. Add white wine and cook for 3-4 minutes. Add the tomatoes and crumble the goat cheese into the pan with thyme and pine nuts. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and set aside.

Steam or boil asparagus in boiling water for approximately 3 minutes or until tender. Reserve boiling water to cook the pasta. Bring the sauce back to heat. Break up the fish and add to the sauce. Turn off the heat.

Cook the penne in boiling water for 2-3 minutes or until al dente. Drain and toss with sauce. Place on a platter or on individual plates and top with warm asparagus. Serves 4.


Strawberry-Rhubarb Sorbet With Fresh Mint

The Plumed Horse's A.J. Szenda offers us this refreshing summertime dessert.

4 cups cut rhubarb
1/4 cup water
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 cups fresh strawberries (rinsed and stemmed)
1/2 cup fresh mint (cut chiffonade)

Simmer the rhubarb in a covered saucepan with water Stir in sugar (simmer 10 minutes). Puree in a food processor. Add strawberries and puree again.

Allow to cool, then add fresh mint. Freeze in ice-cream maker.

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From the May 9-15, 1996 issue of Metro

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