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Fresh From the Farm

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fat peaches that dribble luscious, tart-sweet juice . . . raisins so fresh and moist they still seem like grapes . . . crisp lemon cucumbers that you munch, peel and all . . . huge, ruffly heads of lettuce just plucked from the field . . . great giant basil--these were some of the pickings at the West Hollywood Farmers’ Market at Plummer Park last week.

It’s just this sort of produce, available at Certified Farmers’ Markets throughout Southern California, that brings the joy back into shopping. Farmers, after all, are a friendly bunch, eager to talk about their crops.

At Plummer Park, Kachi Takahashi of Top Veg Farms in Carson tells customers how to batter-coat and fry the wrinkly little Japanese chiles she sells for $1 a basket. Last week, her booth was loaded with greens, including fat bunches of large-leafed basil for 75 cents, lettuce for 50 cents a bunch, arugula, two kinds of parsley, verdolaga (purslane) and collard, turnip and mustard greens. The beets she displayed were likely to go into borscht because many West Hollywood residents are Russian immigrants.

For that reason, Wally Melzer’s Hass avocados are labeled in Russian as well as in English. Melzer’s “Astral Grown Organic California Avocados” range from $1.75 giants--"you could almost take these home and cuddle them,” he said as he juggled a couple of whoppers--down to baby avocados at six for $1. They come from Deluz, which is 15 miles west of Temecula.

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Harriett and Bob Williams drive in from San Luis Obispo County. Their farm near Morro Bay produces garlic--regular, elephant and extra-strong red German garlic. They also show off heads of garlic that develop as solid rounds rather than dividing into cloves.

The Williamses keep a file of garlic information and recipes including Harriett’s garlic soup. “It’s the best soup I’ve ever eaten, bar none,” her husband said loyally. Harriett might chat about how she makes salad, grating elephant garlic into a bowl to mingle with chopped tomatoes, onion, celery and cucumber, then adding crisp lettuce, just enough olive oil to coat each leaf, a squeeze of lemon juice and a dash of kosher salt.

Nearby, the Peacock Family Farms of Dinuba had set up a large display including three kinds of eggplant, cucumbers, avocados, vine-ripened tomatoes, ready-to-eat peaches and juicy raisins made from their own Thompson and Flame seedless grapes. In October, dried hachiya persimmons should be available. Although Peacock produce is not certified organic, it is grown without pesticides.

Richard Allen Farms of San Miguel also avoids pesticide use. Packing up a sack of white corn (four ears for $1), Allen warned that a worm might lurk within a husk. “I’d rather have the caterpillars than the chemicals,” he said. Allen was also selling ripe tomatoes and crunchy round lemon cucumbers.

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Tenerelli Orchards of Littlerock exhibited box after box of Flame Crest peaches, one of 20 varieties raised on this 50-acre spread. The high-desert peach season runs late, so you can continue to get fruit from Tenerelli after it has vanished from supermarkets.

Organic oranges and apples, sprouted legumes, potatoes, eggs and even seafood were also on hand last week. San Pedro-based J & P West Coast Fish brought in a refrigerated truck loaded with salmon, red snapper, thresher shark, cultured oysters and shrimp from the waters off Santa Barbara, Morro Bay and Catalina.

The certified markets are tightly regulated--all the produce is sold by the farmers who raise it. At Plummer Park, market manager Kamish Blume logs the produce before the market opens and checks the amount that was sold after closing. That way, no unauthorized items can slip in. The stands are staffed by members of the farm families or paid employees, which guarantees that no one profits from sales with a commission. And inspectors dispatched by the Los Angeles County Agricultural Commissioner roam the markets at random, bagging samples to check for pesticide residues.

In addition to food, the market offers cut flowers, decorative arrangements and plants for the yard, including drought-resistant varieties. The garden plants are from Desert to Jungle Nursery in Montebello, which specializes in unusual varieties. According to Blume, cooked food stalls will be added as a summer feature.

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* Visit the West Hollywood Farmers’ Market every Monday, holidays included, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Plummer Park, 7377 Santa Monica Blvd. For further information on Certified Farmer’s Markets, call (213) 749-9551.


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