These days, while perusing the local farmers' market--eyeing the verdant offerings for tonight's tossed salad--don't be surprised if you happen upon an agreeable entree, plus other tidbits to complete a full menu.
Does eggplant and thyme-filled ravioli, smothered in a zesty scallion-basil pesto sound appealing? How about fresh sea bass for the main course? Don't forget to pick up the sun-dried tomato dinner rolls, and for an after-dinner treat, maybe a few biscotti to couple with that hot cup of joe.
The aforementioned foods and more are available, thanks to a handful of entrepreneurs who have found--or are trying to find--a niche for their wares at Ventura County's numerous farmers' markets.
Their numbers are few, but we may be seeing more of them in the future, said Karen Wetzel, manager of the Ventura County Certified Farmers' Markets in Ventura, Thousand Oaks and Santa Clarita.
"Until recently they weren't even allowed in the certified markets," Wetzel said. But thanks to the loosening of guidelines and restrictions set by the Department of Agriculture, Wetzel said entry to the markets is now easier to navigate.
"Easier," maybe, but by no means easy. So if the entrepreneurial light clicked on in your mind, and you are thinking that grandma's banana cream pie recipe would be a smash hit, beware.
"Admittance is still extremely difficult," she said. All processed foods must be prepared in a government-certified kitchen or commissary. "And generally they can't get their homes certified," Wetzel said.
Here's a look at some of the offerings at area markets--beyond fruits, vegetables, flowers and potted plants:
Terri Cruickshank--a caterer by trade--has recently branched out and is offering fresh pastas and sauces exclusively at the Ventura (Saturday), Ojai and Thousand Oaks markets, as well as Santa Clarita.
Pasta Concerto, as her fledgling business is aptly named, offers a gourmet assortment of noodles, including fettuccine, rigatoni, penne, rotelle and others. The pastas--available in dried form as well--come in a rainbow of colors and a range of flavors: hot red pepper, lemon pepper, squid ink, garlic and basil, artichoke, pumpkin and more. Cruickshank offers her plump ravioli stuffed with spinach and cheese, smoked salmon and dill, and Gorgonzola. And she has a range of pestos, sauces and salsas, including sun-dried tomato and garlic pesto; cilantro and basil pesto; Indonesian peanut sauce; hot Yucatan; and Italian salsas.
"It took a couple months to catch on, but now's it's going great," said Cruickshank, who started at the markets more than a year ago.
The fresh pastas sell for $2.50 per 1/2-pound. Sauces, sold in 8-ounce containers, run $3 and $5; some varieties are 16 ounces for $5.
Depending on how they're bitin'--or being netted--the fresh fish options from Joe Tsunoda and his son, Dennis, can include rock fish species, halibut, sea bass, crabs and shrimp. Their catch--harvested from waters in the Channel Islands vicinity--is available at the Ventura (Saturday and Wednesday), Oxnard and Thousand Oaks markets. The "Anjin II Fishery"-- anjin translation: "navigator of a ship," says Joe--is currently the only fish outlet at Ventura County markets.
"Whatever we catch, that's what we bring (to the markets)," the elder Tsunoda said. Hauled to the markets in their specially equipped truck, the ice-packed fish are sold whole or in fillets. Though the Tsunoda's attendance record gets high marks, there are those times when there is no fish to sell, and Joe instead can be seen helping a farmer friend sell his produce. Such was the case during a recent Saturday visit to a Ventura installment.
"Dennis does all of the fishing," Tsunoda said. "He'll go out anywhere from two to 12 days and if the weather's bad, he's not able to go out at all."
As Jeff Reese tells it, "We grew up in the farmers' markets." Reese and his wife, Jeannie, started J&J; Ginger Bread Co. from scratch about three years ago. "We could never have opened a store of our own," Reese said.
For the baking duo, the farmers' markets provided an opportunity to introduce their products commercially, while economics and logistics prevent them from entering the ever-competitive retail marketplace.
At the Ventura (Saturday) and Thousand Oaks markets, they offer such ginger bread variations as a chewy cookie, biscotti and honey bran muffins.
Even though they are considering other sales avenues, Reese said they'll always attend the markets.
The reason: immediate market research.
"We get instant feedback," Reese said. "The feedback we get from customers has been invaluable." Customer suggestions have prompted the Reeses to make packaging changes, and soon they will include more health-conscious recipes to their regular product line.
Tom Guagliardo, a former restaurateur, sold his first baked breads at a farmers' market in Pomona in September, 1990.
As he tells it, customers went crazy for his breads--based on his grandmother's "Old World recipes"--and business has been climbing ever since.
Today, Guagliardo, his brother, Jim, and several employees attend 44 markets throughout Southern California, from Ventura to San Diego.
"What we found was there wasn't any competition at the farmers' markets, so that's what we pursued," Guagliardo said, who grew up in New Jersey, feasting on his grandma's baked delicacies. "We've been lucky enough to create our own niche."
"At'sa My Bread"--as Grandma Guagliardo used to exclaim back in New Jersey--became the company moniker.
Based in Rancho Cucamonga and sold exclusively at farmers' markets, the breads are available in Ventura County at the Ventura (Saturday and Wednesday), Ojai, Oxnard and Thousand Oaks markets.
The stone oven-baked loafs include:
A German braided six-grain loaf, crusty Italian sheepherders bread (a 1 1/2-pound round loaf), sourdough-corn rye, jalapeno Cheddar and raisin-walnut-sourdough-rye. There's also sun-dried tomato with basil rolls.
"We don't use eggs or any dairy products, shortening or preservatives," Guagliardo said. "There's nothing in the bread you can't pronounce."