You Say tomato…
As Shannon Somers of Somers Ranches will tell you, farming is a passion that ripens with age. Somers has been farming nearly his whole life — a respectable 35 years — and accredits the excellence of his products to a fondness for great food and an in-the-family ambition. Somers became familiar with the art of farming through working on a ranch owned by his father, and has taken up the business thereafter.
Somers Ranches is a major produce supplier for local restaurants including Bouchon, Blue Agave, Seagrass and Elements, just to name a few. Somers is a regular at the downtown Santa Barbara farmers market located just off the corner of Santa Barbara and Cota Streets and sells some of his produce for about $2 per pound, a fair price for gourmet ingredients. The ranch is well known for its citrus products, including mandarin and blood oranges, Eureka lemons, ruby grapefruits and limes. In addition, the stand also has a few avocados, for good measure. When asked how to pick the perfect citrus product, Somers stated without hesitation and with a firmness in his voice that citrus products should have a “nice smooth skin.” The rancher then took me aside and showed me two seemingly similar lemons. The difference — as the farmer had said — was the skin, and once I got the lemons into my own hands I could notice the disparity between the two fruits. A rough, dull peel will give away a flavorless, lackluster lemon. In addition to this rule of thumb, one should also notice the vibrancy of the fruits and vegetables. The richer a color is, the riper it will likely be. Depending on when the produce will be needed, use this natural color scale to guide you into making a wise purchase. If that avocado will be sacrificed for guacamole on the same day of your purchase, consider getting a deep emerald green fruit to make the perfect dip. If you’ll be saving a few avocados for a turkey sandwich later in the week, start with a light lime colored avocado and watch its progression to a rich green once you need it a few days later.
As I was leaving the Somers Ranches tent with a head full of produce knowledge, Somers also provided me with a bag full of his finest citrus. As I exited the market, I grabbed a mandarin orange and began to carefully peel the rind, unearthing its fleshy center. Upon my first bite of the fruit, I knew the man had not lied about his passion for his produce. Somers knows how to pick an excellent fruit, and I relished this thought as I consumed mandarin after mandarin on the walk back to State Street.
We Don’t Need No Education
A self-made man, former UC Santa Cruz student Jacob Grant, dropped out of college to pursue his obsession with organic farming. After working on a family friend’s farm for a brief time to learn the inner workings of the business, Grant established the Los Olivos Roots Organic Farm. The Los Olivos Roots produce stand is sandwiched among other vendors in the downtown Santa Barbara farmers market. Resembling a picturesque European postcard, the stand’s rainbows of bulbous carrots, leafy kale, bagged, billowing spinach and jarred heirloom tomatoes are captivating to passersby, myself included.
I asked Grant the same question posed to Somers: how do I sift through produce to find the best buy? Grant’s reply was like that of a politician and illustrated the utmost confidence in his product.The once-UCSC student said, “All the produce here is already sorted through. It is already the top-of-the-line, so there’s not much you have to do at all.” Well said.
As I watched seasoned shoppers grope for the first item they saw, I imagined that Grant’s response must have had some truth to it. As some jars peripherally placed on the table caught the sunlight and dazzled gorgeously in the morning illumination, they also caught my attention and curiosity. I pointed to the red and yellow shards of diced fruit, suspended beautifully in what seemed to be olive oil and asked Grant what they were. “Heirloom tomatoes,” he replied rapidly, “jarred by a local company.” According to Grant, there are two variations, one set is peeled tomatoes packed in its own juice while the other is oven-roasted and packed with olive oil. Although I did not sample the tomatoes, I could imagine their intense, rich flavor and gorgeous pairing with any Italian cuisine. In addition to these gourmet curiosities, the Los Olivos Roots produce stand sells spinach for $3.50 per bag, carrots for $1.50 per pound and kale for $2 a bunch. The next time I make my rounds at the farmer’s market, I will inevitably make it my vendetta to sample the jarred heirloom tomatoes, as I imagine you should too.
An Honest Living
Karen Nedivi, a sweet young woman with brown curly hair and a welcoming smile, was manning the Whitney Ranch family farm stand as I approached. Nedivi’s demeanor immediately drew me into her tent and I could easily grasp that she had a passion for farmers markets as we chatted. Picnic blankets covered the two makeshift tables at her tent and woven wooden baskets carried a few handfuls of the family’s produce. An SUV, rather than a large produce truck, was propped open near the back of the tent, carrying back-ups of goods in case the morning was particularly busy. The Whitney Ranch family farm is best known for its blueberries, and the petite round fruits were definitely as good as their reputation. Sweet, playfully colored and tangy, the blueberries were everything they should have been. According to Nedivi, when looking for blueberries, the adage of “the bigger the better” does not always apply. “Some customers want to try different things, some like their blueberries a bit more tart than sweet and vice versa,” she said. Nedivi said the bluer and softer the berry, the sweeter it will likely be. Thus, this rule can be used as a guide to find a combination of berries that will work well for you. These succulent fruits go for $5 per 6 ounces at the stand.
In addition to blueberries, the small farm also carries Eureka and Meyer lemons. While Eureka are the bright yellow, “everyday” lemons you are probably accustomed to, Meyer lemons are a refined spin on the original.
“Meyer lemons are less acidic, and really juicy,” Nedivi explained. “If a recipe calls for lemon zest as an ingredient, a professional chef will likely use Meyer lemon grinds to give a dish an extra kick.” According to Meyer, rather than noticing the color or texture of lemon peels, she uses weight to determine a lemon’s value.
“Weight usually tells me how juicy the lemon will be,” she clarified. According to the citrus expert, heavier lemons will boast the richness of their innards and indicate just how much juice the fruit packs. In addition to these fruits, the stand also carries Haas avocados at a dollar apiece and bottles of honey, which are priced at $5 per container. According to Nedivi, the owner of Whitney Ranch family farms formerly rented bees to assist in the pollination process for his produce. Eventually however, the owner purchased a hive of bees and began beekeeping himself. Following this move, the farm decided to provide consumers with its fresh honey, in addition to the fruits that benefit from the bees. For the Whitney family, this willingness to do nearly everything to ensure the finest produce is a testament to just how much passion goes into the art of farming for these local producers.
Here is a comprehensive list of in-season fruits and vegetables for coming months to help you with your own farmers market endeavors, courtesy of www.wisebread.com: http://www.wisebread.com/fresh-fruits-and-vegetables-by-the-month.