Spring splendor all around

This is a great time of year to pretend you're a raw-food disciple. Of course, your friends know you'll make any excuse not to cook.

But with spring's produce at its flavorful peak, it's perfectly rational to consider anything beyond washing the fruits and vegetables as extraneous. You can practically make a whole finger-food buffet from what's coming out of the fields and into farmers markets. With practice, you'll even be able to consume an avocado without the use of utensils.

Luscious strawberries, crunchy sweet cherries and crisp sugar snap peas are guilt-free, bite-size and available for your immediate gratification. And that's not all. Hearty greens and early-season stone fruits vie for attention too.

At farmers markets from Culver City to Hollywood to Santa Monica, it's tough to concentrate on the late-season citrus that, though still at its peak of flavor, seems so 30 minutes ago compared with the sparkling new apricots, nectarines and cherries.

Lemons, Valencia oranges, kumquats, blood oranges and tangerines are in great shape at many markets. Strawberries -- Gaviota, Camarosa and Chandler -- are so ripe and plentiful that they're selling for as little as $4 for three pints, compared with the $7 some Chandlers brought a month ago. In Santa Monica, delicate organic Seascape strawberries from McGrath Family Farms are fetching $8 for three pints.

The lingering cool spring has kept the black "dinosaur" kale, red Russian kale and dandelion greens improbably crisp and hearty late into the season. Coleman Family Farms also had a good supply of $1.75-per-pound rapini and $1 per pound French sorrel at the Santa Monica market last week.

Though it's $3.50 per pound, the savoy spinach crop from Weiser Farms stands up well to the heat of a sauté pan. At the Santa Monica market, proprietor Alex Weiser suggested seasoning the spinach with his red Spanish garlic to add some kick. For something sweet and green, he offered a taste of his raw organic sugar snap peas and shelling peas (each $3.75 a pound) that were disappearing into sacks like so much Halloween candy.

Dandelion greens were so abundant at the latest Sunday morning Hollywood farmers market (Ivar Avenue south of Hollywood Boulevard), that some sellers had heaps for 75 cents a bunch. Grocers are charging at least $1.20 for wimpier stock. Pungent dandelion leaves add a nice tang to sautéed spinach or a salad of mild lettuces. And treating them as food gives you a great excuse not to weed the lawn.

That will, of course, free up time to loll about eating the season's first apricots, peaches, nectarines and, at last, cherries. The lighter, firmer Tulare cherries and the darker, sweeter Brooks cherries from Erickson Farms of Fresno were selling briskly for $5 for a 1 3/4-pound container at Culver City's Tuesday market at Washington and Venice boulevards. The more pie-friendly Rainier cherries won't be at their peak for a while yet.

Good early nectarines for $1.75 a pound are coming out of Balderama Farms in Orosi. Their thin-skinned and fast-ripening May Kist, May Glo and April Glo have been selling at the Sunday Hollywood market.

Apricots are already abundant this year. About 30 varieties are found in California. Some of the better early varieties are the Honey, the Poppy cot and the Earlycot, which are almost exclusive to Southern California. They're $3.50 a pint from Pritchett Farms, of Visalia. Eat them fast -- apricots don't like refrigeration. The Poppy cot and Earlycot make up only about 10% of the early season volume, said Tom Tjerandsen, manager of the fresh Apricot Council. Markets are already filling with the early-season Castlebrite, but the popular, extra juicy Blenheims won't be in markets for a few more weeks.

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