Produce of the Week - Spring Is Here
sponsored by Coleman Farms
There's something funny about the interpretation of structures like Stonehenge, which supposes them to have announced important dates - Solstices or Equinoxes - in the agricultural year. What's the need of a structure - architectural and social, too, what with the priests or whatever officiating - to tell us these things? The rate of change of day length is great enough around the Winter Solstice to be directly observed by anyone. There are any number of natural harbingers of Spring - an orderly succession of budding, blooming and leafing out, and on top of this the suite of migratory birds provide both notice of Spring's approach and a direct indication of the weather it's bringing with it. This is true even in Santa Barbara, where the narrow range of seasonal variation lets people think of every day being either late Spring or mid-Summer, depending on who's thinking.
One of the nice things about the Farmers' Market is that, unlike a supermarket, the produce reflects seasonal change, perhaps especially in Spring. There's the blindingly obvious, such as the appearance of outdoor-grown cut flowers, starting with sprays of peach blossom and pussy willow. And there's the more subtle - the reappearance of various herbs, for example, some of the more sensitive members of the mint family - oregano and marjoram, then tarragon, and finally just before Summer, basil.
Some produce appears only in early Spring, and then fleetingly. A good example is the new potato, which has a 'season' of about a week or two for any given harvest site, but growers from the Imperial Valley will be a weeks earlier than those from the San Joaquin. New potatoes used to be a big thing here, and in parts of Europe they still are, commanding a lot of cooks' attention and maybe five times the price of old ones. I suspect there are two reasons for this. First, new potatoes would have been about the first staple produce of the year, a welcome change after a winter of turnips, rutabagas carrots and cabbage, and this, together with their promise of more to come, would lift the spirits. Second, a new potato isn't just a 'baby potato', it's almost different in kind from the adult: the skin is tissue thin but has a lot of flavor, and a flavor all its own, while the flesh tends to waxiness and, again, has a more intense, more 'vegetable' and less starchy flavor than old potatoes. Add to this the small, forkable size, and you've got something that's recognizably potato, yet so different that it mixes easily with 'real' vegetables - peas, baby limas, carrots - which would shun an old potato.
The special properties of a new potato depend as much on freshness as on youth. In the US, this means you just about have to buy them from the producer, at the Farmers' Market.
There are other short season products of Spring to look for, such as asparagus - also the object of near cultic ritual in northwest Europe - and last week's Rapini (which can reappear in Autumn).
There are a lot of local crops which aren't restricted to Spring, but which are noteworthy or specially nice then. Most of the cabbagy greens are available almost year round in Santa Barbara. But they largely don't like the heat of Summer, and while particularly flavorful in Winter, they produce slowly in the cold. A burst of Spring warmth during the day combined with lowish nighttime temperatures can produce a flush of kale, chard, mustard and turnip greens with a lot of flavor and very tender new growth. A new crop of dandelion (or the virtually identical chicory) should appear about now, with large, tender and deliciously bitter leaves.
Spring provides ideal conditions for most lettuces, which respond to the warmer weather by growing faster, generally producing larger more open heads with fleshier leaves. The robust varieties that stuck it out through the Winter, such as Romaine, thrive now, and are joined by more sensitive varieties, such as Butter. Other salad greens, things like arugula and the upland cresses, are at their peak now, when the warm days urge them to put forth fullsome succulent foliage, and they are as yet untroubled by the heat and bugs of Summer.
Spring is rural renewal. See it and taste it at the Farmers' Market.