Nearly a month ahead of schedule, Mother Earth has split with Old Man Winter.
Judging by the softball-size artichokes, plump tomatoes and tiny pea tendrils that are filtering into area farmers markets, Mr. Winter, and his hearty appetite for roots and dark greens, left town without saying goodbye.
“There’s definitely a big climatic weirdness going on,” said Chip Fieberg, a volunteer at the Wednesday Santa Monica farmers market stall of Malibu’s Vital Zuman farm. Another spring indicator -- the California poppy -- has popped up at the farm weeks early, he said.
Fresh temptations such as slender asparagus, earthy new potatoes and huge, intensely red strawberries are filling market stalls and shoppers’ bags. An unusually warm January gave area farmers a head start on crops that don’t usually show up while we’re still finishing Valentine’s Day chocolates.
“Wintertime is sort of ‘all quiet on the produce front,’ ” said Susan Ayles, an employee of Harry’s Berries in Oxnard. At the Glendale market Thursday, she sold her extra-sweet, low-acid, $4-a-pint Gaviota and Seascape strawberry varieties. Other vendors at the Santa Monica market, as well as the Glendale market, were selling different varieties of strawberries for $2.50 a pint that were enormous but not as sweet.
At Wong Farms in the warm desert town of North Shore, Calif., some of the region’s first vine-ripe tomatoes are already landing in chef’s salads and pasta pots, said Ralph Bieggar, who mans the Wong stall at the Glendale market.
“Normally, these tomatoes are not available until mid-March,” he said of the Shady Lady tomatoes, which cost $2.50 a pound (a buck if they’re bruised). Some customers were buying a single tomato, a not-so-stingy purchase given that each one can weigh 12 to 14 ounces.
Though some artichoke farmers have already picked all but the stragglers, the cabbage-size specimens from Underwood Ranch Produce in Moorpark are some of the biggest around -- and the farm is just beginning its harvest. Uncommon greens are responding well to the milder weather, and so are customers, said employee Nance Shirley as she explained how to cook the Japanese spinach called mizuna and the dandelion-like tatsoi at the Glendale market.
Other more unusual greens such as pea tendrils ($1.50 per bunch) and the $1.75 broccoli raab are nabbed by chefs early in the day at markets, said Bill Coleman, of Coleman Family Farms in Carpinteria, Calif., who was selling them in Santa Monica.
In many parts of the country, spring isn’t spring until the lilacs and the new potatoes are on the table. The fragrant flowers won’t bloom until April, but Alex Weiser, of Weiser Family Farms in Edison, Calif., has specially harvested loads of olive-size purple new potatoes, peewee Russian banana fingerlings and French La Ratte potatoes.
He and his staff delight in telling Santa Monica shoppers how to make children love mashed potatoes the color of Barney -- boil their purple Peruvians with a tablespoon of vinegar and then mash away. The vinegar helps retain the color.
But the delights of spring are just beginning. If those purple potatoes are a hit, don’t let April pass without snagging some other exotic and fun finds. The Weisers promise that their yellow, red or purple-skinned carrots are sure to be a smash -- even if you’re not a kid.