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John Klima
Posted on Monday, January 12, 2004 - 08:41 am:   

Hey Barth:

Just thought I'd go ahead and start a place so I could badger...um...bother you with questions about produce.

First, what the heck is a paw-paw? I saw some at my grocery a few weeks ago. From their description (on the card next to the fruit) it sounded interesting, but I decided against it since I had never heard of them.

Second, any suggestions on preparing rutabagas?

After these questions get answered, I have questions on picking good figs, passion fruit, etc., but I'm taking it slow on you to begin with. If you ever get a chance to come out east, I'll take you to Wegman's so you can be envious over their produce.

Cheers!

JK
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barth
Posted on Monday, January 12, 2004 - 10:27 am:   

hey john! you know i love talking about food, so this thread is a great idea.

we sold paw paws in our store once a long time ago, but customers didn't know what to do with them. so my experience with paw paws is pretty limited and i never actually ate one. i know they're related to cherimoya (same family, native to the new world, etc etc), and cherimoys are one of my favorite tropicals. they have a great tapioca/custard flavor and texture - although when they're bad, cherimoyas taste like vomit. one of my coworkers says paw paws are very much like cherimoyas, so make sure you don't let them overripen, or you'll miss the glory.

but i can't advise you in how to pick a good one, unfortunately. any other nightshaders out there got the skinny on buying paw paws?

picking fresh figs 101:

i gotta make my organic pitch here. figs, and similarly precious fruits and veggies, are utterly better when grown organically. organic fig farmers are a small, specialty niche (no duh), so unlike commercial farms, their trees get babied, the soil is completely nurtured, and healthier plants mean a better tasting fruit yield (double no duh). but as for selecting specific fig varieties:

black missions. get em dark and soft, and don't be afraid if they're a little wet. those perfect, dry, slightly bluish black-missions are gorgeous, but they're not ripe. think ugly (this is a pretty good motto for most fruit, actually: some of the best fruit i've had in my life was eaten on the way to the store's dumpster.) stay away from dry and wrinkled figs of all stripes.

kendota/green figs: i get em when they're oozing a thick clear liquid from the calyx. these figs are like bombs of syrup when they're ripe, but too young, and they're as fun as sugarless gum.

brown turkey figs: i never touch em. they're the chump-fig that wholesalers pawn off on the unsuspecting when black missions have gone out of season.

(on a totally unrelated note, we're getting incredible citrus up here right now - grapefruits in particular, but the minneolas and statsumas are killer too - and if MN gets good citrus, you KNOW its a bumper crop nationally. man, the rio star g-fruits taste like they've been sprinkled with sugar.)
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John Klima
Posted on Monday, January 12, 2004 - 11:28 am:   

Cool stuff. The paw paws I saw were probably ready to go then, but I was just a little afraid of this blackened squishy thing sitting in the produce section. Thanks for the notes on figs. We tried to make a fig dessert this last summer and it tasted like greasy mush. (baked figs drizzled in a caramel/rose water sauce...should be good, right?)

We're gonna make a root vegetable gratin this week: potatoes, yams, parsnips, fennel, maybe some rutabaga. Should be a good thing.

I agree on the citrus thing; we've had some great oranges and grapefruit out here. My in-laws live in AZ, and they have kumquats, lemons, limes, and grapefruit in their yard. When we were out there a year ago, we started every day with half a grapefruit. The things were almost the size of dodge balls. The lemons were the size of your typical grapefruit. Good stuff. We got tangerines from the high school band (50-count box, but it seems like 100s of 'em) so we've been making tango-cran vodka drinks.

I live for cooking. I made pain perdu yesterday with some cranberry-orange bread, it was amazing!

JK
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barth
Posted on Tuesday, January 13, 2004 - 08:55 am:   

fresh-off-the-tree grapefruit. you're a lucky man. i had that great honor in houston a long time ago. experiences like that are what turn ordinary people into fruit snobs.

oh my. cran-orange french toast?? decadent. i'll have to try that soon.

>The things were almost the size of dodge balls.<
dodge balls!

btw, i meant to add a note about rutabagas yesterday, but i got all caught up in the figginess of the moment. if you just cut em, you're ok, but if you shred/grate your rutabagas for the gratin, make sure you kind of squeeze out the excess water (use a strainer to press the mess). they're a lot wetter than spuds so they can turn a meal into hot wallpaper with all their juice. rutabaga hashbrowns with onions, garlic, and bell peppers are great but need a good straining. other rutabaga uses? you can puree cooked "blond" roots together (parsnips, rutabagas, turnips) in one batch, puree cooked carrots and jewel yams in another, then swirl them together before serving. ooo. aah.

(fun root trivia: when i worked produce in texas, the older folks called rutabagas "swedes." when i asked one old dude why that was, he said, "i dunno. maybe because they're big, pale, and boring?")

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davehd
Posted on Thursday, January 15, 2004 - 06:28 am:   

Theresa Neilsen Hayden has posted a tasty bunch of links on citrus at Making Light ya'll might be interested in.
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barth
Posted on Thursday, January 15, 2004 - 10:44 am:   

blood limes? i think i contracted blood limes once, but i've never actually eaten one. ew.
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John Klima
Posted on Thursday, January 15, 2004 - 01:17 pm:   

Last night when I got home my wife had roasted two 9 X 13 pans of veggies: potatoes, yams, fennel, parsnips, and rutabaga. She tossed some shallots in there for good measure. They were very good. Since it made about twice as many as we'll like to eat before they go funky, we're going to make half of it into soup.

JK
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Deborah
Posted on Thursday, January 15, 2004 - 05:41 pm:   

JK -- Here's something you might try with those veggies: puree with chicken or vegetable broth and add curry powder and garam masala to taste; heat through; enjoy. I make roasted squash/pear curry soup that way, but it occurs to me that it would be good with other roots.

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John Klima
Posted on Thursday, January 15, 2004 - 07:39 pm:   

Deborah:

That's almost exactly what the soup recipe is that we have...eerie. This weekend we're going on a minor gastronomical adventure: some Asian and Indian markets near us, as well as a cool liquor store that carries out-of-state groceries like Zapp's potato chips.

JK
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Deborah
Posted on Thursday, January 15, 2004 - 08:06 pm:   

That is funny -- great minds, great taste buds, I guess...

Enjoy!

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DaveHD
Posted on Thursday, February 05, 2004 - 11:56 am:   

Sucks to your weak-ass satsumas, Professor Produce. The California Royal Mandarin orange I just ate has given new meaning to my life.
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Mike Jasper
Posted on Thursday, February 05, 2004 - 12:43 pm:   

My wife and I started shopping at the local Whole Foods, buying only organic stuff, and I can't tell you how much better EVERYTHING is. I don't know why we waited so long to do this (we finally did it as a pre-pregnancy thing, for my wife, not me). And because Whole Foods is a chain, it's nowhere near as expensive as I'd feared. We actually spend LESS money there than we do at the local Harris Teeter, and the Teeter carries much much less organic stuff.

It's nice feeling like I'm not poisoning myself with my food anymore!
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barth
Posted on Friday, February 06, 2004 - 08:02 am:   

dave,

indeed! the royal mandarins are transcendant. i'm also pretty astounded by the red navels we've been getting and the temple orages, too (seeded but sweet, and grown men have drowned in the juice).

and i'll remember your blasphemy against the almighty satsuma, pagan.
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produceHQ
Posted on Friday, February 06, 2004 - 08:28 am:   

hey mike,

your mission, if you choose to accept it.....

if you live near carrboro, check out weaver street market some time, though maybe it's not a convenient place to shop for ya (i'm not sure where you are in NC, but in the co-op world, weaver street is a grocery with a great rep). despite its corporate megaliciousness, Whole Foods' mark-up, especially on organic produce, is utterly outrageous. in chicago, WF is known as "whole paycheck." here, the twin cities co-ops routinely kicks WF's ass on price.

and as long as you're turning into a bonafide foody, take note of where WF buys its produce from, too. local = fresh. WF here hardly ever has food grown within 100 miles of the twin cities.

i'd be very interested in what you discover, if you want to pop back here and issue a report, agent mike.
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John Klima
Posted on Friday, February 06, 2004 - 08:58 am:   

My wife and I have rediscovered a vegetable market on Route 1 in North Brunswick, NJ. It's very close to where we live, but the last few times we had gone, its quality had dropped. We went back this last weekend, looking for lemongrass for a Thai soup ($1.49 for a bundle of 6 foot-and-a-half long pieces) and were amazed at how good they were again. They are cheap, and cater somewhat to the large Asian population that makes up the middle of NJ (Indian, Thai, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, etc.), so they have a great variety of unusual produce. They have a small fish counter with good prices, and now they've added a small butcher and sushi bar. Very excellent. We may start doing all our produce shopping there since it's so close.

If you live in middle NJ, it's on Route 1 directly across from the giant Johnson & Johnson plant. Here's their website (they have 4 locations in NJ) but it's somewhat lacking (the website that is):

http://www.gardenfarmmarket.com/door/

JK
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barth
Posted on Friday, February 06, 2004 - 11:37 am:   

very cool, john. could be that, because they're so small, you caught them on a bad day when the product wasn't moving. that's how Whole Foods keeps its rep for good produce: they cull product heavily to keep it fresh, then cover themselves with a higher mark-up for the loss. the best way for a small market to compete against giant supermarkets is to build a good rep for freshness and quality - and for wise shoppers like you to seek them out. gotta reward that effort, eh?
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Mike Jasper
Posted on Sunday, February 08, 2004 - 04:11 am:   

Okay, Barth, here's the report:

Went to Whole Food yesterday, looked at all the signs above the organic produce, and about 90% of 'em said "California," with some "Washington"s thrown in there (apples), and maybe 1-2 "North Carolina"s (some hydroponic lettuce...). That was disappointing.

I'll do some checking into whether Raleigh (where I live) has any co-ops. I know they have a kick-ass farmer's market that we'll be hitting in the spring and summer and fall. Carrboro's an hour-long drive, too far for a grocery run, unfortunately. But the plan is for us to eventually move to the Carrboro-Chapel Hill area in the coming years anyhoo, so we'll be set up with some good eats then.

I still dig the healthy produce and meat, though!
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barth
Posted on Sunday, February 08, 2004 - 05:57 am:   

yeah, not surprising. does NC have local produce this time of year? if so, you wouldn't know it at WF, i guess. (do i have an agenda? naah...)

we go through a similar kind of evaluating process at my store. what's more important local conventional or organic from california? in MN, there's no getting around it of course: this time of year, we gleefully take the organic cali product. but come summer it becomes an interesting balancing act, since many customers buy only organic for environmental/health reasons. but then figuring in the amount of energy expended on getting organics across the country, other customers would rather have local conventional product and support the MN/WI farmers.

if i were in your shoes i would probably do the same thing: suck it up and shop at WF until the local veggies started rolling in. and moving closer to weaver street market is a good idea too.
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barth
Posted on Monday, February 09, 2004 - 10:16 am:   

special alert. biodynamically-grown pixie tangerines from beck grove in fallbrook, california. seedless citrus, small, but packing a serious taste-whallop. be forewarned...

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barth
Posted on Tuesday, May 11, 2004 - 09:58 am:   

funny you should ask about CSAs, dave, since i was just updating an article on the subject for our website.

for the studio audience: CSA = "community supported agriculture," where urban beasts like DaveHD buy a share of a local farm's entire crop and receive an agreed upon amount of produce delivered either to the urban beast's door or to a convenient drop point nearby. i've never done this myself (come july i'm swimming in perfectly ripe produce that would otherwise be headed to the dumpster), but i love the concept: you eat what's in season, from your ecosystem, instead of what your consumer monkey-brain *thinks* it wants from across the planet, and it forces you to improvise as a chef week by week. cool cool cool, imho.

the pricing problem you mention, dave, is the main drawback of CSAs - and of buying local food for that matter. really it's the problem ALL local producers (farmers, grain millers, bee keepers, musicians, writers, film makers) face in this country: a one-hundred acre farm can't compete with the volume produced and the massive distribution system controlled by the giant ag producers in california, texas, and florida. even small producers IN those states can't compete unless they farm on a "factory" level with hordes of migrant workers making $2/hr, so that the enormous economy of scale and cheap labor keeps their prices in the tank, where the american consumer demands them to be.

carrots are a great example to show the trade-offs of buying locally here in MN. most organic produce departments nationwide carry Cal-O brand carrots Cal-O which is by no means a monsanto or cargill, is a monolithic producer none the less. they have farms that stretch hundreds of miles north and south along skinny lil valleys in southern california and into the baja. this allows Cal-O to take advantage of year round growing seasons, and thus, come august, you'll be able to find their carrots for less than a buck a pound (i think we sometimes go as low as .79/# at le wedge), because they have so many different elevations and climate zones hitting their seasonal orgasms simultaneously, and because they have 8 quadrillion trucks to ship those carrots all over north america.

in minnesota, we have one growing season for carrots. it hits in mid-september, bam, and it's over - so that's going to boost your cost (limited availability). because the stinking glaciers ruined everything, minnesota's soil is way too sandy for carrots, so getting ANY local carrots here is a wonder (your CSA is in WI, i bet, isn't it, dave), let alone organic ones which by definition can't employ hi-tech, chem fertilizers to compensate for MN's shitty carrot-soil. so that boosts your cost too (more chem inputs for conventional growing or higher labor costs for developing composts and natural fertilizers for organic). because so few MN growers even bother with carrots, those that do tend to be small farms with few options for transport, so poor distribution boosts the cost, too.

with all that in mind, i say that if you value local ag and economies, and if you're getting a price that's within .50/# of what the california markets dictate, you're getting a deal from your CSA. (on the other hand if you have three terrific children to feed and you're a writer and your wife is a teacher on summer leave, then you have real cause to pinch pennies.)

on the other other hand, in the price you quoted above, you're lumping everything that your CSA sells together in one price per pound. CSAs tend to grow some fun items (strawbs, plums, peaches, etc) that are too perishable or cost too much on the economy of scale for MN retailers to take a risk on. so while you might be paying too much for carrots, you'll be getting a sweet deal on, say, blueberries, which, across the upper midwest, took a real beating due to two very cold winters if they're included in your CSA, blues alone might make back what you lose elsewhere. in short, you'll have to look at the range of products they offer to make that call.

you're a smart guy so i'm sure i'm only telling you what you already know. but you could always ditch the whole CSA thing, become a "freegan," and dumpster dive your summer produce at whole foods. they cull like nazis and toss out great stuff over there!

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