Winter’s own bounty

With fresh vegetables available at farmer’s markets, you can shop with the chefs and create a nourishing soup.

Photo By Larry Dalton

It’s not hard to find inspiration at the farmer’s market on a warm summer evening. Juicy heirloom tomatoes, plump Sloughhouse corn, big bunches of green basil and aromatically ripe nectarines are all there begging you to take them home and eat them with the bare minimum of prep work.

But a recent visit to a year-round market (under the freeway at 7th and W streets in Sacramento) serves as a reminder that winter has its own earthy pleasures. When it’s pouring rain for the sixth straight day, you want hearty comfort food, and that’s what you’re going to get if you buy winter produce. Jewel tones of ruby and rainbow chard, pomegranates already split for your perusal, and orange persimmons all offer a rich palette of color, shape and texture. One vendor’s stand displays four varieties of yam and sweet potato, and another offers a good half-dozen varieties of squash—mind-blowing in their wild shapes and bright colors. Dried lavender in bulk spills from a crate nearby, and Tim Boughton of Amber Oaks Farm in Auburn offers roasted samples of his chestnuts.

Unlike summer produce, which is fragile and must be consumed soon after harvest, winter vegetables like squash, potatoes and rutabagas can be stored for days without suffering any loss in flavor or character. Root vegetables will remain available throughout the winter, as will the hardier greens, like chard. At the Perry’s Gardens booth, you can choose from the familiar acorn squash and butternut or be more adventurous and try the gaily striped turban, an enormous banana, the hideous but extremely popular Sweet Mama kabocha or the pumpkin-like red curry squash.

And what about the yams? Most people don’t even know the difference between a yam and a sweet potato, but Canisso Farms offers two varieties of each at the farmer’s market. According to vendor Tracy Farlinger, yams have a sweeter, moister flesh, and the sweet potatoes are starchier. Kotobuki sweet potatoes, she said, have a less sweet, chestnut flavor. Most people will do little more than bake these tubers, although Farlinger said the Japanese who frequent the market use them for stir-frying.

Photo By Larry Dalton

A lot of dedicated foodies get their inspiration from what they eat in restaurants, and local eateries are busy ramping up their winter menus right now. Winter squash will make its appearance on a lot of menus, although most restaurants are sticking with the familiar butternut squash. As Rick Mahan of the Waterboy restaurant said, people like the sound of the word butternut, probably because it conjures that rich feeling of butter in your mouth.

“We go by what’s in season,” said Barbara Carter, chef at The Kitchen. “Right now, we’re doing Cinderella pumpkins and butternut squash for soup.” Cinderella pumpkins are bigger and darker and have more flavor than the pumpkins most consumers see at the market. The Rio City Cafe and Slocum House also plan on featuring butternut-squash soup, although Slocum House chef Jim La Perriere likes to mix his up with Thai or Indian curry spicing.

A few restaurants are branching out in their approaches. Mike Jones at Enotria uses squash in a grilled-vegetable Wellington served with a truffle-infused tomato sauce. La Perriere is planning a gratin of roasted root vegetables but said ruefully that a lot of people just want mashed potatoes at this time of year.

Mahan, of the Waterboy, is one restaurateur who gets consistent kudos both from growers and his fellow chefs for his daring and uncompromising cuisine. “Part of the deal is we never have anything that’s out of season,” he said. “We’ve 86’d all the summer produce.” His winter menu likely will feature greens including broccoli, rabe and chard; wild mushrooms, such as chanterelles; and delicata and butternut squash. A typical dish is duck with ravioli stuffed with a puree of squash and Yukon Gold potatoes.

Local consumers have one advantage compared with restaurant owners: Consumers can afford to buy and cook fresh produce with very little lag time between ground and table. Many restaurants rely on large distributors, like Produce Express, and supplement the staples with specialty items from small growers. Most restaurants don’t have the staff to do their own foraging at markets.

Mahan, for example, uses Full Belly and Fiddler’s Green farms, both out of the Capay Valley. Right now, about 30 percent of what he uses comes from small growers, although he has nothing but praise for Produce Express. He wants to use as much organic produce as possible and said there is a startling difference in quality between organic and conventional produce.

“I believe in small farms and in sustainable agriculture,” he said, but added that “there is a cost issue. We spend a lot of money for our ingredients, but I don’t have the customer base to go strictly organic.” His eye remains fixed on the future, though, and he said, “Every month that we’re open, we get deeper into that.”

Because La Perriere lives in Davis, he is one of the few chefs in town who does some of his own foraging, by stopping by the Davis farmer’s market religiously on Saturday mornings. He estimated that his regular purveyors supply about 85 percent of the restaurant’s produce. “But what is in season and available from the market, I’ll buy,” he said. “The quality can’t compare because it’s been picked within the last 24 hours, and it’s generally less expensive” because he has eliminated the middleman.

Soil Born Farm’s Shawn Harrison and Marco Franciosa distribute their goods to Selland’s Market Cafe, The Kitchen and Tapa the World, and they also sell at the farmer’s markets during the spring and summer.

“We have two acres, certified organic,” said Harrison, who plans on expanding his range next year. As an organic farmer, he can sell more conventional produce like broccoli and greens. Niche growing is a delicate balance between growing what restaurants want and building the relationships crucial to that enterprise. “You can’t just grow it and expect them to buy it,” he said. Harrison said he thinks local restaurateurs are receptive to what’s different. “They want locally grown stuff that’s organic and good quality,” he said.

A lot of the specialty produce available every weekend at the farmer’s market is organic, fresh and relatively inexpensive. A good way to spend a Sunday would be to dig out a stew or soup recipe and pick up the fresh ingredients. Or, you could let inspiration be your guide. Wander through the market and talk to the vendors. Many love to talk to customers and give them helpful cooking hints. Choose what most appeals to your eyes and put together a menu that way. If you’ve never tried this, you’ll be surprised at how easy it is to let what’s seasonal and fresh dictate your decisions.