Farmers markets, like battleships, take a long time to change direction. Such has been the case with the Studio City venue, which since its founding in 1998 has always been a "family-friendly" event, with a pony ride, petting zoo and lots of prepared foods and crafts. While striving to maintain this social element, Carole Gallegos, who took over as manager six years ago, has gradually cut back on the crafts and upgraded the lineup of produce vendors by adding small, quality and organic farms. As a result, the market is now one of the two or three best in the San Fernando Valley.
Among the newcomers is
of Goleta, one of a limited number of producers able to provide a good selection of organically grown vegetables year-round, because of their coastal microclimate. Currently it has tender, sweet sugar snap peas, aromatic fennel, giant leeks and a wide range of winter veggies, including cabbage and kale.
Givens also has an item surprisingly hard to find at farmers markets: high-quality organic celery. There's much that can go wrong with this crop. When conventionally grown and bloated with nitrogen, the stalks are typically pale green, large, watery and rather bland – useful for their crunch but basically neutral in flavor. (Celery is also at the top of the
Dirty Dozen list of produce most contaminated with pesticides.)
Organically grown celery tends to have smaller, less fleshy stalks that are darker green, often excessively so, as they become tough, stringy and bitter. Givens has managed to hit the golden mean, with medium-green, succulent stalks, just right in size, and a subtle vegetal flavor. Grab it when you can, because growers rarely manage to maintain that precarious balance of size, color and texture for long.
Gallegos has also brought in the Grove, which is what Deborah Ghamlouch calls the orchard established decades ago by her grandparents in Riverside. Her specialty is the Washington navel orange, which was brought from Brazil to
, to Riverside in the 1870s, and it still grows to perfection there. From Riverside, as for most of Southern California, it's at its seasonal peak now, sweet and juicy, while retaining a desirable tinge of acidity.
Ghamlouch and her husband, Hassan (who sells at the Santa Monica Organic market on Saturdays and in Pacific Palisades on Sundays), offer navel orange juice, an item that is chiefly found at farmers markets or squeezed at home. Commercially, navel oranges are a premium fresh fruit, because they are large, seedless and peelable; juice from this family of varieties can be problematic, however, because "delayed bitterness" develops after a day or so, as a tasteless precursor molecule is converted into a bitter terpene, limonin. But if you're going to drink it right away or soon after purchase, navel orange juice is a nice change of pace from the standard Valencia, with a milder flavor and distinctive aromatics.
Gallegos, who aside from running the market gives riding lessons and trains horses, will be opening a new market starting April 2 in Sherman Oaks, with many vendors selected from Studio City. It will be held on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., at Peach Avenue and La Maida Street, just north of the Galleria Shopping Center.