What Makes it an Heirloom?

sliced heirloom tomatoes

Sliced heirloom tomatoes

Ever wonder why certain tomatoes are called heirloom while others aren’t. You can look to the definition of the word heirloom, “A valued possession passed down in a family through succeeding generations.”, for the answer.

heirlooms at the farmers market

Heirloom tomatoes being sold at the Sacramento Farmers’ Market grown by Lawrence Farms in Oroville, CA.

Heirlooms are grown from seeds that have been collected, saved and passed down through generations. Every heirloom tomato variety is genetically unique and inherent in this uniqueness is an adaptation to specific growing conditions and climates.

Black Cherry tomatoes

Black cherry heirloom tomatoes growing in a pot in my backyard. These are larger than the typical cherry tomatoes you might think of and when fully ripe, dark in color like the Cherokee.

Supermarket hybrid tomatoes, on the other hand, have been carefully crossbred to produce characteristics like; resistance to pests and diseases and firm flesh and thick skin so they can be machine harvested. Most hybrids are harvested while green and are ripened to redness with ethylene gas.

Abraham Lincoln heirloom

The other heirloom I’m growing this year is Abraham Lincoln. It’s medium in size and will be bright red when fully ripened. I can hardly wait to try this one.

Heirlooms often produce less fruit per plant and when grown organically they are more susceptible to fungus which can make them crack and split.They also tend to be soft skinned requiring hand harvesting. Heirloom crop yields tend to be one-third or less that of hybrid tomato crops. So, more labor to produce them and less production due to their genetic makeup, in most cases, equals higher prices when we buy them. But, if you grow them yourself you still might have the disease problems inherent in the variety you try but you’ll probably get more than enough delicious tomatoes to make you smile for the summer and you can save some seeds to use next season. I’d call that a win, win.

grilled cheese with tomato and basil

Grilled Gruyere cheese sandwich with sliced heirloom tomatoes and fresh basil leaves on a seeded wheat bread. The perfect lunch for an atypical rainy California summer day.

For me the test for any tomato is taste. If it looks perfect but doesn’t taste like a tomato, what’s the point in eating it? Give me a heirloom that is raised locally and allowed to ripen on the vine. That’s what I call a tomato. Oh, one more thing – Please, please don’t put your tomatoes in the fridge. It just kills their flavor.

Advertisements

A One of a Kind California Farmers’ Market

While on vacation at Packer Lake in Sierra County I learned about a farmers market that is touted as the only “on-farm” farmers market in the state of California. Locals call it the The Romano’s Farmers Market, aka Sierra Valley Farms Farmers Market . It is not large, it hosts only 10 – 12 hand-selected vendors. It typically opens the first Friday in June and continues for 15 weeks until the second Friday in September. We were in luck it was only the first Friday in September when my sister, Gwen, and I decided to leave the solitude of Packer Lake and travel over to Sierra Valley and see what all the talk was about.

The farm sits on the northern part of Sierra Valley. This valley sits at approximately 4850 feet and is surrounded by mountains ranging in elevation from 6 to 8000 feet.  The former lakebed covers 120,000 acres and receives an annual rainfall of less than twenty inches, most falling as snow. It is what I call high desert, filled with grassland, sagebrush and extensive freshwater marshes that drain into the middle fork of the Feather River. It is an important area for migratory bird species that stop over in the fall and nest there in the spring.

It was in the 80s when we arrived around 11am and the wind, which can blow pretty hard here, was gentle, a perfect vacation day. We pulled in to a dirt parking lot, found a spot, grabbed a reusable bag from the back of my car and headed off to do some serious exploring. We had heard that the farmers market is presented among unique old farm buildings; an old grainery built in 1939, now houses a produce stand and walk-in cooler and the quaint farm store, that contains the checkout stand and hand made items for sale, is part of the old chicken shed. To say the setting is quite unique is an understatement.

We wandered through looking at everything from hand made pottery to some tasty looking bakery items, from gorgeous produce to some pretty interesting pasta and olive oils from Pappardelle Pasta (a pretty large company that sells directly at farmers’ markets and a few specialty gourmet retail stores throughout the country). For not needing anything and thinking we would just take a look, we walked out with one of the biggest pineapple heirloom tomatoes I have ever seen (and now that I have eaten the softball sized wonder I can say it was one of the best I have ever tasted), a small package of Southwestern Blend (Blue Corn Ziti, Red Southwestern Chile Lumache, Green Jalapeno Fusilli and Yellow Maize Amore) that I want to use in soup this fall, Smoked Mozzarella Ravioli,  a beautiful little cantaloupe, some lovely orange peppers and a couple of bottles of cold water from the cooler in the old grainery.

As we were leaving Sean Conroy, chef at Longboards Bar & Grill, Plumas Pines Golf Resort was setting up for a cooking demonstration. They evidently have one each week, something I have seen at urban farmers markets but out here in the middle of nowhere (sorry Sierra Valley folks), it was really unexpected, but a very nice touch.

Later I read on the market’s website that they also host a \”Dinner in the Barn\”, a four course gourmet meal featuring farm-fresh produce harvested specifically for the dinner. The setting is inside a historic rustic barn overlooking the farm fields. There is a farm tour before the dinner, which is catered by Moody’s Catering in Truckee. If they have one of these during the time I’m at Packer Lake next year I’d really like to go.

If you’re ever up in this neck of the woods during the summer months, seek out this market. It is definitely worth a visit.

Carson Farmers Market, Carson City, Nevada

My sister and I found the Carson Farmers Market, quite by accident, while traveling through Carson City on our way north to Reno. It is located at 3rd & Curry Streets and is open Saturday, from 8:30 until 1:30. There’s lots of shade, plenty of parking and some of the nicest people you will meet anywhere.

The first place we stopped was Lattin Farms. They have a really nice farm in Fallon. I know they grow incredible tasting cantaloupe so we stopped to see if we could pick one up. Since we were at the market late in the day they were sold out of the cantaloupe so we decided to try a melon called “Arava”.  It’s not a true cantaloupe but a cantaloupe honeydew cross, an early producing Galia hybrid that does well in growing seasons that are too cool or short for most melon production. Perfect for the short growing season in northern Nevada and where it originated in 1970, Israel.

The Galia-Arava is very aromatic and the flavor is more like a honeydew than a cantaloupe. It was juicy, sweet and tasty. You may be able to find this variety if your area has a short growing season. It’s definitely worth a try.

Another great find was Basque Chorizo from Butler Meats. After tasting a sample we deiced to buy some to have with our breakfast on Sunday. It’s not too hot, not too spicy, definitely just right. I wish we had bought two packages so I could have taken one back to California with me.

A definite stop on your market wander should be Carson City Confections. Especially if you like really good chocolate. We tried several creative  goodies and finally decided on the Ginger O’Snap (with fresh ginger) and Lemon Cream (with cashews and lemon zest). Sorry no photo, we ate them before I thought about photographing them. Obviously, they were very yummy!

This is a wonderful little market with lots of fresh local choices for produce and products. I’ll definitely stop by again.

Nevada Farmers Market resources:

Carson Farmers Market

Nevada Grown –  A resource for Nevada’s rich selection of locally-grown food.

Spring Artichokes

These beautiful artichokes spoke to me as I passed amongst the merchants at the Sunday Farmers’ Market. They knew I had just purchased some Spring lamb chops and wanted to be part of my Valentine celebration dinner. So not wanting to disappoint them, I put them in my basket and brought them home. I can’t think of a better combination than grilled Spring lamb chops and artichokes.

The other reason, and more likely the true reason I bought artichokes and lamb, was that I’m sick of eating chicken and chard. As much as I like both chicken and chard I figured that if I’m treating myself to a special Valentine’s dinner it should be something new and exciting, something special.

Since I haven’t written about anything for a week or so, I decided that today was the day and since I had the beautiful artichokes to inspire me, they are the subject of today’s post.

ARTICHOKE HISTORY

Historically artichokes have been around since the middle of the 9th century. Modern scholar, Le Roy Laduire, in his book Les Paysans de Languedoc (1966) has documented the spread of the artichoke:

“The blossom of the thistle, improved by the Arabs, passed from Naples to Florence in 1466, carried by Filippo Strozzi. Towards 1480 it is noticed in Venice, as a curiosity. But very soon veers towards the north-west…Arctichoke beds are mentioned in Avignon by the notaries from 1532 onward; from the principle towns they spread into the hinterlands…appearing as carchofas at Cavallion in 1541, at Chateauneuf du Pape in 1553, at Orange in 1554. The local name remains carchofas, from the Italian carciofo…They are very small, the size of a hen’s egg…and are still considered a luxury, a vaguely aphrodisiac tidbit which one preserved in sugar syrup.” Preserved in a sugar syrup, really?

French immigrants brought them to the United States in 1806 when they settled in the Louisiana Territory. Though the first commercial artichoke fields were developed in Louisiana, by 1940 they had mysteriously disappeared. The Spaniards later established them in California in the Monterey area during the later 1800s and that’s where the two I bought today came from. Every Sunday Contreras Flowers, who also sells at the Palo Alto Farmers’ Market, brings flowers and “cool weather” vegetables, from the Moss Beach area, to our market here in Sacramento and while they don’t meet the 100 mile “local” criteria that is spoken so much about lately,  they definitely qualify as fresh having been picked just yesterday. Today, nearly 100 percent of the United States crop of artichokes is grown in California. Worldwide they are also cultivated in France, Italy, and Spain.

Here’s a bit of artichoke trivia I found.  It’s from the site, What\’s Cooking America by Linda Stradley.

“In the 1920s, Ciro Terranova “Whitey” (1889-1938), a member of the mafia and known as the “Artichoke King,” began his monopoly of the artichoke market by purchasing all the produce shipped to New York from California at $6 a crate. He created a produce company and resold the artichokes at 30 to 40 percent profit. Not only did he terrorize distributors and produce merchants, he even launched an attack on the artichoke fields from Montara to Pescadero, hacking down the plants with machetes in the dead of night. These “artichoke wars” led the Mayor of New York, Fiorello La Guardia, to declare “the sale, display, and possession” of artichokes in New York illegal. Mayor La Guardia publicly admitted that he himself loved the vegetable and after only one week he lifted the ban.”

You can find more history and artichoke lore at What\’s Cooking America. There’s some very interesting reading here.

WHEN AND HOW TO BUY ARTICHOKES

The peak seasons for artichokes are spring and fall. You want to look for artchokes with a tight leaf formation, and those that feel heavy for their size. To test for freshness, press the leaves against each other and you should hear a squeaking sound. Browning of the tips can indicate age, but can also indicate frost damage.

Fall artichokes may be darker or bronze–tipped or have a whitish, blistered appearance due to exposure to light frost. This is called “winter-kissed” and many consider these frosted artichokes to have a more intense flavor and be the most tender.

Baby artichokes are not a separate variety but a “baby” version of larger artichokes. Their size comes from their location on the artichoke plant. They are picked from the lower parts of the artichoke plant where the plant fronds protect them from the sun, in effect stunting their growth. These tend to be the most tender and are most often more expensive than the regular mature artichokes.

COOKING THEM

Artichokes can be steamed, grilled or baked and can be added to just about anything from pizza to an omelet. Very often, they are served with sauces or herbed oils that the leaves can be dipped into.

Today I tried a nice recipe for grilled artichokes that I found in My Nepenthe by Romney Steele, a delightful cookbook and history of Nepenthe, an iconic historic restaurant on the California coast, that I received as a gift from a friend last year.

Grilled California Artichokes with Garlic Basil Aioli

(I didn’t serve them with the Garlic Basil Aioli but have included the recipe incase you want to try it. I really liked this recipe and will definitely try it again, next time I’ll try the  Garlic Basil Aioli too)

Serves 4 to 6

4 to 6 small or 3 large artichokes, stems trimmed

Juice of 1 lemon

1 to 3 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Handful arugula or mache (optional)

Garlic Basil Aioli (recipe follows), for serving

Lemon Wedges, for serving

Trim off the thorny tips of each artichoke and rub the cut ends with a little lemon juice. Place them cut side up in a steamer with ½ inch of water at the bottom. Steam the artichokes, covered, over medium heat, for 20 to 25 minutes, or until just tender (make sure that the water doesn’t run dry). Transfer them to a towel-lined plate to drain.

Heat a grill or grill pan over medium-high heat.

When the artichokes are cool, cut them in half and discard the thistly choke, leaving the heart intact. Drizzle the artichokes with the olive oil and fresh lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Grill over a medium-high flame, turning on occasion, until well marked and warmed through, about 5 minutes.

Arrange on plates with a tussle of arugula and dollops of the aioli. Serve with lemon wedges and the remaining aioli in a bowl for dipping.

Garlic Basil Aioli

Makes about 1 cup

2 clocves garlic, peeled

Salt

1 egg yolk

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

¼ cup vegetable oil

½ cup olive oil

White pepper

2 teaspoons finely chopped basil

With a fork mash the garlic with a pinch of slat until it makes a paste. Combine half the paste with the yolk, lemon juice and mustard in a large bowl. Combine the oils, then add a drop or two to the yolk mixture, whisking well to emulsify: Slowly add the remaining oil in a steady stream, whisking rapidly to combine. Add a pinch of white pepper and the remaining garlic to taste, if desired. Stir in the basil.

More Recipies

You can find more recipes on the Artichoke Advisory Board of California‘s site, Simply Recipes, posted by Elise on Apr 16, 2007 (how to cook and eat) and My Recipes from Southern Living, 2009 (fresh grilled artichokes).

How do you cook and eat artichokes? What are your favorite dipping sauces, that includes what kind of mayonnaise if that’s what you dip into?

Five Reasons To Care About Where Your Food Comes From

Five Reasons To Care About Where Your Food Comes From is a beautifully written article By Yvonne Maffei who blogs for Earth Eats a publication of Indiana Public Media. It is a must read for all you who care about what you eat and where it comes from.

It’s the weekend – get out to the Farmers’ Market.

Here’s a list of fruits and vegetables that you will find at most Northern California Farmers’ Markets this weekend.

Apples

Beets

Broccoli

Brussel sprouts

Carrots

Cauliflower

Grapefruit

Kale

Kiwis

Lemons

Mushrooms

Oranges

Pomegranates

Potatoes

Scallions

Spinach

Sweet potatoes

Swiss chard

Tangelos

Tangerines

Winter squash

Don’t forget to pick up some fresh bread, and maybe some really fresh eggs, oh, and cheese and last but not least, flowers for the table. I’ll see you there.

Help! I can’t find the recipe.

crimini mushrooms

crimini mushrooms

Sunday morning had me at the market a little before 8. I had volunteered to help plant some native plants at Cosumnes River Preserve at 9 so that didn’t leave much time to shop and make the half-hour drive. One of the reasons I really wanted to go to the market, besides I just love going there, was to get some Japanese sweet potatoes. I had decided that they would be perfect in a vegetable lasagna that I wanted to prepare for a potluck that I am going to on Friday. So I head straight for the vendor who has the potatoes and guess what. She’s not there. There’s just an empty space where she should be. Since I didn’t have a lot of time to waste, I decided to cruise the market and see what else sparked my creative culinary juices. On my rounds I saw lots of beautiful winter squash, but I did something with them last time we had a potluck. I stopped by the Hood Ranch stand and picked up some nice fuji apples and bartlett pears. I needed to buy some fruit for the week. Still looking, I spied mushrooms. I love mushrooms. I’ll make some stuffed mushrooms as an appetizer. I have a great recipe. I bought a pound. On the way out I found some beautiful red flame grapes and bought a couple pounds of those too. It was time to hit the road.

This morning I went through my recipes looking for the stuffed mushrooms. I thought it would be nice to include the recipe in the blog. I couldn’t find it! This is frustrating cuz I consider myself organized. It should be here, but it’s not. Then I got the idea to just Google stuffed mushrooms. After spending some time going through the search items I wasn’t really thrilled with any of them. Now the frustration is really festering. So I thought I’ll just start working on my blog anyway. I can always add a recipe later. Now as I’m typing and thinking, I think I should really do some research in my cookbook collection. And, hey what about emailing a couple of my foodie friends for recipes. And then it occurs to me. This blog is going out to who knows where. There are unlimited possibilities as to getting recipes. All I have to do is ask! So, do any of you, out there in the blogosphere  have a recipe for stuffed mushrooms that you want to share? The potluck is Friday night.

Ann