photo by Sam Breach
"A slight woman with a mop of black curls and a string of chunky red beads around her neck is holding out a tiny spoonful of orange goo for me to take. She's just scooped it from an unlabeled glass jar -- one of five she brought with her into the tea house where we've met -- and our waiter is pretending not to notice the flagrant health code violation. She watches expectantly as it disappears into my mouth. I sit still for a moment, savoring the flavor, before I finally say, "That's good." This is, quite possibly, the understatement of the year.
The woman is Rachel Saunders, and her orange goo just might be the best local jam you've never heard of."
“One potato, two potato, three potato, four, five potato, six potato, seven potato, more.” That old-fashioned rhyme doesn’t even begin to account for the 20+ varieties of tubers David Little grows each season. The Tomales area organic farmer specializes in dry-farming, a practice that minimizes or eliminates irrigation in favor coaxing water out of the earth and into the topsoil. The result is some of the best potatoes you’ll ever butter and salt.
Though dry-farming produces a low yield, it has an important advantage over traditional methods: it concentrates the sugars, leading to unbeatable flavor. Just ask Northside restaurants like Greens, Quince, and Michael Mina, all of whom are customers.
A lot of people grow tomatoes this way (notably late summer’s sweet Early Girls), as well as winter squash, cucumbers, and potatoes. The ground is first disked, then plowed and compressed, a process David likens to composting. “It cooks the ground and cleans it,” he says, noting all the rich organic matter that is turned up in the ground.
Some of the heirloom potatoes David grows are the Ozette, a fingerling from Peru, or the Sieglinde, a German variety with thin skin and sweet flesh. One of his most popular is the Red Gold, a yellow-fleshed red potato made for mashing that tastes best once it’s sprouted. David ages them in his barn and, when they’re “wrinkled like prunes,” brings them to market – where they sell out.
The Goods – Organic potatoes
The Markets – Ferry Plaza (Saturdays) and Marin (Sundays). Year-round with a short break in late spring/early summer
Fun Fact – David is raising two goats on the farm. He bottle fed them as babies, thinking he’d start a goat dairy, but now he just tries to keep them from munching the roses.
Originally published in "Fresh from the Farm," Northside San Francisco August 2007. "Fresh from the Farm" is a monthly column on sustainable agriculture, humane husbandry & artisanal food production. Reprinted with permission.
Stone fruit arrived early this year. I couldn’t get used to the idea of eating fuzzy peaches and smooth nectarines in May, so I stuffed myself instead with cherries and plums until I could face the flagrant summertime fruits.
Then I found myself enjoying apriums, but I didn’t know what they were. So I called Bryce Loewen, whose family runs Blossom Bluff Orchards. They grow certified organic peaches and nectarines as well as plumcots, pluots, and apriums. The latter are all variations of plum-apricot hybrids. Plumcots are 50/50 hybrids, pluots are the offspring of a plumcot and a plum, and apriums come from a plumcot and an apricot. Confused yet? All you really need to know is how they taste – sweet and juicy, with sour plummy undertones. Utterly delicious.
Bryce’s family has been tending fruit trees for four generations. The orchards occupy 60 acres in the small town of Parlier, near Fresno. Stone fruit thrives in the Central Valley’s cold winters, dry springs, and hot summers. Come fall, there are pomegranates and persimmons, some of which grow on 60-year-old trees, then citrus takes over for the winter. They’ve recently planted figs, but it’ll be a few years before they’re ready. All together, Blossom Bluff produces some 170 varieties of fruit. You’ll find some of them on the menus of Northside restaurants like Greens and Bix, as well as in my own fruit bowl.
The Goods – Organic cherries, nectarines, peaches, plums, plumcots, pluots, apricots, apriums, persimmons, pomegranates, and citrus.
The Markets – Nine Bay Area markets including Ferry Plaza (both days), San Rafael, Berkeley (Tuesday & Saturday), and Oakland (Grand Lake & Temescal).
Fun Fact – The orchards originally belonged to Bryce’s maternal great-grandparents, Daniel and Babette Lichti, German immigrants who also raised almonds, pecans, and raisin grapes.
Originally published in "Fresh from the Farm," Northside San Francisco July 2007. "Fresh from the Farm" is a monthly column on sustainable agriculture, humane husbandry & artisanal food production. Reprinted with permission.
If you’ve ever eaten a homemade tamale, you know just how good they can be. The mere thought of soft, sweet corn masa molded around ooey-gooey cheese and roasted chilies is enough to make my tummy rumble. But unless you have a Mexican grandmother, getting your hands on a good one isn’t easy. Enter Donna Eichhorn and Shirley Virgil, the founders of Donna’s Tamales.
Four days a week, they make tamales fresh from masa that’s been ground and cooked that morning. Everything is vegetarian, from the classic Cheese Chile Corn tamale with roasted Anaheim chilies, to one stuffed full of red and black beans, yams, poblano chilies and ancho chili sauce. There are ever-changing seasonal selections – “We try to reflect what’s in the market,” Shirley explains – and depending on the month, you might see tamales bursting with asparagus from the Delta or the first zucchini of the season.
Inspired by the green corn tamales Donna liked to devour right off the plane on visits to Arizona, she left her job as the head chef of a restaurant fifteen years ago and hasn’t looked back. One cornerstone of the business is a commitment to organic ingredients, from dried white corn to locally made Monterey Jack, white cheddar and jalapeno Jack cheeses, and from Wildwood tofu to Muir Glen tomatoes. Another cornerstone is helping the community by donating food to numerous organizations several times a year.
The Goods – Fresh vegetarian and vegan tamales served hot or to go, plus burritos, pupusas, enchamales, and salsa
The Markets – Ferry Plaza (Tuesdays), Marin Civic Center (Thursdays & Sundays), Oakland/Grand Lake (Saturdays) and Oakland/Temescal (Sundays)
Fun Fact – Every year, Donna’s Tamales serves their kid-friendly corn tamales to inner city kindergartners during a field trip to the Ferry Plaza farmers’ market. In return, Shirley says they get “fabulous fan mail.”
Originally published in "Fresh from the Farm," Northside San Francisco May 2007. "Fresh from the Farm" is a monthly column on sustainable agriculture, humane husbandry & artisanal food production. Reprinted with permission.
Mother Nature chose well when she selected asparagus as the first sign of spring. It’s green, after all (though there are white and purple varieties, too) and its feathery tips resemble flower buds waiting to open.
Asparagus season (mid-February – late May) finds Roscoe Zuckerman, a third generation asparagus farmer from the Central Valley, at farmers' markets all over the Bay Area. His shock of white hair makes him easy to spot as he unloads crates or prepares his famous deep-fried spears. He sells up to 2,000 pounds of asparagus a week at the peak of the season, and his jumbo bunches, which are tenderer than thinner varieties, often sell out by 10 a.m.
Roscoe’s farm occupies close to 3,000 acres in Stockton, with 700 acres dedicated to asparagus. (He also grows eight kinds of potatoes, and corn for kettle corn.) He’s experimenting with a purple variety known as Purple Passion; look for that next year. It takes three years before asparagus can be harvested from the crown, the plant’s root system, and another year or two before the plant reaches full production. All Roscoe’s asparagus is picked, sorted and packed by hand. Though the farm isn’t certified organic, he tends his crops conscientiously, spraying only after the harvest is over for the year.
When asparagus season ends, you can content yourself with Roscoe’s handmade ravioli stuffed with asparagus, Parmesan cheese, mushrooms, and a secret ingredient or two.
The Goods – Several varieties of asparagus, plus potatoes and kettle corn.
The Markets – Ferry Plaza, Marin, and other local markets in season.
Fun Fact – Saturdays at Ferry Plaza, Roscoe deep-fries jumbo spears and serves them hot with condiments like Parmesan cheese, balsamic vinegar, ranch dressing, soy sauce, and – Roscoe’s personal favorite – hot Chinese mustard and ketchup.
Originally published in "Fresh from the Farm," Northside San Francisco April 2007. "Fresh from the Farm" is a monthly column on sustainable agriculture, humane husbandry & artisanal food production. Reprinted with permission.