One of the sorriest of all the silly slams against Southern California is the one that says we don’t have seasons. That is a lie. If you want proof, go to the farmers market.
Particularly during the spring and summer, the markets’ seasons are in an almost constant state of flux. Every week there is something new showing up. Every week something else disappears. Want a new season? You only have to wait a week or two.
Right now, with spring teetering into summer, the Bing cherries and English peas are in. In a couple of weeks it’ll be Blenheim apricots and Santa Rosa plums. July begins with mulberries and Suncrest nectarines and ends with a rainbow of eggplants and peppers. In August start looking for good tomatoes and grapes. Even a Thompson Seedless can be spectacular if you’re careful to choose the ones that are sugary golden. Then come figs and shelly beans and dripping O’Henry peaches.
Who says the seasons never change?
Certainly there are constants. You are always going to be able to find zucchini (though probably not those gorgeous round Ronde de Nice zucchini that are so wonderful stuffed with rice and a little bit of sausage meat and baked in tomato sauce).
And, yes, we will always have tomatoes too. But not the deeply ribbed Costoluto Genovese, the incredible tangy Brandywine, the true San Marzano plum that, with a little heat, practically melts into a deeply flavored tomato jam.
It’s these special things that give the markets their character. And for Southern California cooks it’s these same special things that give our year its shape. Pity the poor misbegotten souls who have to rely on snow and ice to do the same thing.
Much is made of the practical benefits of shopping to the season -- that’s when things are best and when they are cheapest. Not enough is made of the way it reminds us of the constant turning of time.
Market seasons aren’t governed just by the set positions of the Earth in relation to the sun. They are more complex, complicated by the acceleration and slowing brought on by the weather.
This year’s cherries are appearing a full two to three weeks ahead of last year’s: That heat spell in early May pushed the trees into an early harvest. The cool weather that followed may or may not have put everything back on track. We’ll have to see in a month when peaches and nectarines start.
Then add the effect of California’s diverse geography: Melons from the Imperial Valley are already appearing in markets. Some years they are very good, but in general, I prefer the ones that come in July and August from the Central Valley -- maybe just because I don’t really feel like slicing up a cool, gorgeously floral cantaloupe until the weather is almost too hot to bear.
Within each of these mini seasons there are even finer divisions. Just because something has become available, that doesn’t mean it’s at its best, or even that it will be this year.
At the market, almost every week brings a new cycle of expectation, followed by either elation or disappointment. Will the Blenheim apricots be in this week? Next week? Will they be good this year? If they’re not, maybe the Santa Rosa plums will be next week, or the week after. Nothing is promised at the farmers market; that is part of the challenge -- and the fun.
The funny thing about this whole mini-season business is that different cooks have different calendars, based not on any kind of logic or fact but on pure, hungry emotion.
Whims rule. Definitions are highly personal (and highly idiosyncratic). Speaking strictly for myself, for example, I can’t wait until the best green beans come in -- particularly those from Harry’s Berries. But I really don’t give a shuck for sweet corn, which always has other people lined up around the block. Go figure.
But even this is changeable. Ten years ago, I was rabid for the first fava beans. Had to have them. This year it’s sugar snap peas, partly for flavor, partly out of sheer laziness -- I just got sick of all that peeling and then peeling again.
In the kitchen, this seasonal parade plays out in several ways. The first, of course, is that by following the season’s highlights, we end up eating very, very well. The corollary is that we also end up cooking very, very simply, which is exactly as it should be.
When the gods (or star farmer Art Lange) give us a perfect Arctic Rose white nectarine later this month, let’s face it, the only thing some fancy preparation will do is mess it up. There are times -- and fruits -- that demand only a knife and a chilled plate.
That’s not to say that this is just a sweet thing. The same is true for vegetables. Lately, in addition to sugar snaps, I’ve been hunting out English peas. When I find some that are really fresh -- sweet and not starchy -- I cook them in a way I learned from a friend, cookbook writer Sylvia Thompson.
Put whole peas, in their pod, in a skillet with about an inch of water. Add a little butter and cook until the pods just soften, only 2 to 3 minutes. Sprinkle generously with coarse salt and serve. Eat these by sticking the whole pod in your mouth and pulling it between your teeth, stripping off some of the green covering and popping free all of the peas. It’s addictive.
I’m also digging the new potatoes that are coming in. I like them thumb-sized, so they steam quickly. Stir these around in a bowl with some minced shallots, chopped herbs and softened -- not melted -- butter. The butter forms a kind of sauce that naps the potatoes. Season with coarse salt, so it has some crunch, and I can’t imagine anything more delicious.
Now is also when we get sweet onions from the Imperial Valley. You sometimes see these at the farmers markets labeled “Maui onions,” but that’s just a case of a geographical inferiority complex. Actually, it’s not all that misleading. Both are the same onion, grown in different places. (This is true of every other sweet onion in America, with the exception of those from Walla Walla, Wash.)
These sweet onions should not be cooked. The thing that makes them so special is that they are low in the acrid chemicals that give onions their distinctive bite. Since those chemicals go away when they’re heated, you might just as well cook with the cheaper onions. Save the sweets for salads or layering in sandwiches.
It’s just about time for the best avocados too. Smash them roughly and then spread the coarse puree on warm toast. Add salt and freshly ground black pepper. Wow.
For dessert? Bing cherries. Pick the ones that are the darkest red and still very firm. Good Bings crunch when you bite them. If you get tired of eating them out of hand, try warming them briefly in a red wine syrup that’s been scented with a bit of vanilla bean.
And just think. By the time you get done with all of that, maybe the Blenheims will be ready.