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Farmers Markets: The best of early winter

Although summer claims many of the sexiest, most attention-grabbing vegetables, such as eggplants, tomatoes, peppers and zucchini, in Southern California the vegetables that thrive in winter are equally abundant and alluring. Roots, crucifers and peas may be available year-round, but winter is their time to shine. In the spirit of the many award ceremonies held in this season, here are some of my favorite early winter vegetables and producers who do an extraordinary job with them, based on notes, photos and tastings over the last 14 years.

Celeriac, from a type of celery cultivated for its bulbous, richly scented root rather than its stalk, is a quintessential winter vegetable, at its best from late fall through early spring. Finley Farms of Santa Ynez takes the prize for its spectacular displays of freshly harvested, neatly trimmed roots, often juxtaposed with high-quality stalks of regular celery. Close seconds are Finley's mentors, the Garden of … (Shu and Debby Takikawa), and Weiser Family Farms.

Beets generally are so excellent during this season that it's hard to pick a clear winner among contenders such as County Line, Tamai, Underwood and Weiser. But South Central Farmers' Cooperative of Bakersfield sets up such a luminous wall of pristine beets, displayed like art, that I stop, mesmerized, every time I see it. Elser deserves special mention for growing Crapaudine, an inelegantly named but ancient, intensely flavored variety, fuzzy and cylindrical, like many very old beets.

English peas, fresh, young, sweet and tender, are the winter vegetable I crave most. The first key is to choose well-filled pods, so you're not wasting your time on blanks, and to get peas at the right size and maturity. Too small, they're very fragile and tedious to shell; too large and mature, they're starchy. McGrath Family Farm deserves first prize for offering super-fresh peas already shelled, a real luxury. Close seconds are Tutti Frutti and Richard Sager (Two Peas in a Pod). Valdivia of Carlsbad has just started bringing some of the season's first English peas.

Sugar snap peas, edible whole, crunchy and coolly herbaceous, are most abundant in early winter. Givens Farm of Goleta takes the prize for its plump, sweet, tender pods. Runners-up are Coleman, Sager, Fairview and Finley.

California oak chanterelles, large, moist and meaty, with a delicate but rich taste and aroma, abound after winter rains. The top specialist is Louis Mello of Lompoc, who has been bringing a bumper crop foraged from his farm and from adjacent fields. Two other leading vendors, also from Lompoc, are Mario Trevino and Tutti Frutti Farms.

Radicchio is relatively uncommon because it's hard to grow well, so that it forms a tight, clean head, firm but tender, with just the right bracing smack of bitterness and a tinge of sweetness. Living Lettuce Farms of Reseda does a dependably great job, followed closely by Takikawa; honorable mention to Maggie's Farm and Kenter Canyon.

Fennel is reasonably abundant but hard to find at its best because it's often sold too large, so that it's tough and not very flavorful, or too small, so that you only get a few bites per bulb. No one strikes the happy medium every week, but recently Takikawa has come very close. Nevertheless, Finley deserves first prize because its bulbs are most exquisitely aromatic, as well as tender and succulent. Honorable mention to Givens and Underwood.

Brussels sprouts are available year-round but are never as sweet and tender as in winter; they're also easier to grow organically during cold weather. Honors are tied between Richard Sager of Arroyo Grande and Phil Green (Green Farms, Life's a Choke) of Lompoc. Suncoast, J&J (Jesus Chavez) and Gaytan take second; Weiser deserves special mention for its purple Brussels sprouts, which are actually one-quarter red cabbage.

Savoy cabbage has more tender, crinkled leaves and a looser head than regular cabbage, and generally has richer flavor, at least for cooking. Finley wins the honors for its splendid specimens of the Capriccio variety, a modern hybrid that has relatively dense heads and a buttery yellow interior. Roots Organic, Fairview, Takikawa and James Birch are also worthy contenders.

Rutabaga, a large, golden-fleshed relative of turnip, with a sweeter, milder taste and a drier texture, hasn't quite made it onto the foodie A-list yet but definitely deserves to be better known. It's not easy to find at local farmers markets, so grab some if they turn up (no pun intended) at Weiser, Finley or James Birch.

food@latimes.com

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