Monthly Archives: May 2013

Destination: Burbank

 

 

Flipping through the extension catalog of the local junior college I spotted a Saturday class on “Supporting Your Local Farmers Markets.” The price was right (free!) so I signed up.

For an hour, the very knowledgeable and soothing Diana Rogers, manager of the Mar Vista, CA farmers market, talked to the group mostly about what makes a farm certified—a lot of paperwork and documentation of acreage, number of trees, variety of crops, etc.; organic (even more paperwork) vs. non-organic (which frequently uses organic practices but doesn’t bother with the oppressive paperwork) and the perils of genetically modified organisms (GMOs—a very polarizing subject). All very interesting, though not necessarily news to those of us in the food business. Then Diana announced that there were two buses waiting outside, so about fifty of us shuffled out and piled on like lemmings. By this time we were all getting to know one another and our eating habits—vegetarian, vegan, only consuming organic foods and various combinations thereof.                                            

Photo by Amy S. Landes

Photo by Amy S. Landes


Photo by Amy S. Landes

Art Deco fountain at Burbank City Hall         Photo by Amy S. Landes

After about 10 minutes heading east on the freeway, I turned to one of the vegans and asked, “Where are we going?” I knew the Encino and Santa Monica farmers markets took place on Sundays and Wednesdays respectively and for all I knew we were being kidnapped en masse. Finally, someone said that we were headed to the Burbank farmers market.

If you haven’t been to downtown Burbank for a while, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. It’s a manageable size and borderline charming. There’s a very attractive art deco city hall and a small town feel, at least on a Saturday morning. The Burbank farmers market is in the parking lot next to City Hall. It’s fairly small as farmers markets go, but at 30 years in existence very well established. There’s something about a farmers market setting that makes everything look so appealing and appetizing. I bought glossy Blue Lake green beans and asparagus thinner than pencils, hardly exotic, but so tempting in that milieu. There was a very long line to purchase eggs. Granted, they were organic and from free-range, pasture-raised and presumably pampered hens, but after all, just eggs. But again, in that environment, as coveted as jewels.

Tempting Blue Lake green beans. Photo by Amy S. Landes

Tempting Blue Lake green beans. Photo by Amy S. Landes

That’s what’s so great about farmers markets. The most mundane produce, being sold by the people that grow it in a setting that showcases the beauty of the agricultural arts. If one didn’t have it already, one develops an appreciation for these fruits, vegetables and other comestibles as objects of glamour and inspiration.

 Burb leafy greens cropped

We all trundled back to our buses, loaded down with our prizes and a sense of culinary possibility. And maybe the thought that Burbank might be worth exploring further.

 

 

Beating Out the Local Fauna

 

 

What is it about backyard fruit trees that makes the fruit taste so good? Part of it is that, “back to the Earth” feeling when you gather your own food. There is no intermediary between you and your sustenance. No farmer, packer, shipper, distributor, no retail store. Just you and the tree.

 

My neighbor across the street has a couple of apricot trees. Sadly, apricots are one of those fruits that almost always disappoint when you buy them in a store. They’re usually mealy and tasteless due to being harvested before they’re ripe so they’ll endure long travel. Then the commercial apricots are put into cold storage, which murders their taste and texture and they wind up in the produce department, looking lush and rosy but invariably leaving much to be desired.

Photo by Amy Sawelson Landes

Photo by Amy Sawelson Landes

But the apricots from my neighbor’s tree, now that’s another story. Most years the birds and squirrels get to them before I do, but this year Michael called to me from across the street and said, “They’re ready.”

Photo by Amy Sawelson Landes

Photo by Amy Sawelson Landes

 

 

These apricots are tiny—not much bigger than a kumquat, but they are so delicious. Each one is juicy and flavorful, with a tidy pit that separates easily from the fruit. I always   eat them in twos and threes and marvel at how ingenious Nature is to create such a thing. And how grateful I am that at least this year, the local wildlife (and my neighbor, Michael) shared this backyard bounty with me.


The Packaged Produce Predicament

Organic specialty lettuces

Organic specialty lettuces

There is no right answer to this question: Is the trend toward more packaged produce a good or bad thing?

Way back in the last century, I spent a winter in New York City working as an intern at a display design firm. I was still in college, so I didn’t have a lot of experience yet as a supermarket shopper. New York was where I first encountered packaged produce. Back then, during winter on the East Coast,  lettuce, tomatoes and such endured long, arduous journeys from Florida (or wherever) to reach the local grocery store on the upper West Side of Manhattan. The iceberg lettuce was wrapped tightly in plastic. Tomatoes and broccoli were also encased in an armor of refined petroleum products. Even though this was before the current obsession with eating fresh, there was no way I was going to eat those sad-looking vegetables. Better to wait till I got home to California to make a salad.

Fast-forward to the 2010s. Most supermarkets and smaller grocery stores boast lush, inviting produce departments all year long. Whatever is not in season in North America can be imported from other sources, usually Central and South America. At the same time, there is more packaged produce found in stores—even items that are locally grown. At a Pavilions market in Woodland Hills, California I spotted a bag of green beans on which was printed, “Orange County Produce.” Orange County is 45 miles away. Practically the only way for those beans to be more local would be if they were grown in back of the store.  

What does this mean? A lot of the trend toward packaged produce even local in high season is in response to the increased demand for healthful ‘convenience’ foods like washed, bagged lettuce, pre-cut fruits and vegetables, ready-to-grill kabobs in sealed trays. But it goes beyond convenience. Now that consumers expect strawberries all year round, they need protective packaging more than ever to arrive on the shelf intact from whatever far-flung point of origin. Those delicate baby lettuces need containers (or bags) engineered to protect integrity and shelf life. In response, packaging companies came up with containers that ‘breathe’, allowing gases (oxygen and ethylene) and water vapor to escape, yet keep the delicate greens inside from drying out. Then there is the issue of food safety. Do you really want to eat berries or tomatoes that have been manhandled on the store shelf? Some of today’s clamshell containers have the added feature of being tamper-resistant so that consumers are assured that the produce within is safe and undamaged.

Cropped bok choyTJ asparagus

Stroll through the produce aisles and you’ll notice that produce packaging does more than protect from physical damage and prolong freshness. The package becomes a merchandising tool, providing not only nutritional information but recipe ideas and serving suggestions. Just what do you do with that baby bok choy you saw at Trader Joe’s? What is special about this bagged asparagus?– it’s washed and trimmed, ready to roast or barbeque. Whole leaves of kale may be healthy, but their preparation intimidating. A bag of washed, chopped kale with recipes for salads and sauté right on the package can inspire someone to try preparing this nutritious vegetable. That 1 lb. bag of golden, cubed butternut squash is just inviting consumers to bake it or turn it into a delicious soup. If you’ve even noticed whole butternut squash in the produce department, there’s a good chance you may have dismissed it as too difficult to handle.

TJ bn squash

Trader Joe’s bounty of packaged vegetables

The environmentally conscious among you may say, “Packaging for fruits and vegetables adds to waste and landfills. It uses up resources, increases our carbon footprint, winds up in that giant, Texas-sized ocean trash vortex in the Pacific.” All true. However, packaged produce makes it easier to eat a more healthy diet any time of year. It helps fruits and vegetables stay fresh longer. It educates consumers and encourages them to try new things, creating demand for variety, more produce and healthy options.

As I said at the top, there is no correct answer. But the question is worth pondering.

Who says Coca Cola isn’t healthy?

 

Florida oranges

Photo by Paladin

In principal, I am not a huge fan of the giant food manufacturing companies. In the interest of full disclosure, I have worked– mostly with a degree of professional satisfaction–   for many years in the business of marketing processed food and creating advertising for the foodservice divisions of such companies.

I was around for the birth of “Seasoned Fries,” which are French fries coated in potato starch or spicy breading so that when they are fried, they are extra crunchy, flavorful and even more irresistible. I wrote ads extolling the virtues of the “two fry menu,” plate coverage and added value.

However, that didn’t stop me finding perverse glee reading Eric Schlosser’s, “Fast Food Nation,” which is billed as, “The dark side of the all-American meal.” And I am anxious to read, “Sugar, Salt Fat,” Michael Moss’ 400+ page disclosure about how the world’s huge processed food companies—including Coca Cola—formulate foods that addict us to just the things that aren’t good for us. I like to think that I’m capable of working earnestly on behalf of big food companies while gobbling up criticism of them because I am so open-minded. Not unlike being a loyal American during the Vietnam era while demonstrating against the war.

But an encouraging story came to my attention via an email from the Produce Marketing Association (PMA). It reported an article in the Detroit News that said Coca Cola, maker of Minute Maid and Simply Fresh juice brands, would be purchasing and planting 25,000 acres of orange groves consisting of 5 million trees in Central Florida at a cost of over $2 billion. This will reverse a trend toward land for citrus production in Florida being used for development.  The new groves and the juice production will generate over 4100 jobs in the state. And think of all the oxygen those trees will generate for the atmosphere! The Florida Citrus Commission has been working on a study on Coca Cola’s investment.

According to the Associated Press article by Tamara Lush that appeared in the Detroit News, a preliminary draft indicates that, “Over a period of 25 years the expansion will add more than $10.5 billion — or $422 million per year — to Florida’s economy.” According to Coca Cola, the company purchases a third of all of Florida’s oranges.

Retro orange ad 8214347856_18f26338ae_m

Coca Cola is dancing and their stock has shot up to a record high.  They deserve it! All of this looks great for everyone involved. Florida agriculture, commerce, jobs, even (to a small degree) the environment. Here’s a food industry giant that is using its economic muscle to grow the Florida citrus industry as well as American jobs. As far as a win-win-win situation goes, it’s the real thing.

Now I can sip my Coke Zero with pride.

Good to Goat

 

goat at petting zoo

Photo by Kris Horvath 81

I was wandering around the Encino, California Farmers Market last weekend. It’s not huge as farmers markets go, but it’s always a good place to stop for culinary inspiration. I came upon a booth, Drake Family Farms , that was selling artisan

Drake Family Farms goat cheeses

Some of Drake Farms’ artisan goat cheeses

farmstead goat cheese. What stopped me was the tag line, “Where Every Goat Has a Name.” How cute is that? I couldn’t resist.

Until fairly recently, it was my opinion that goat’s milk and cheese pretty much taste the way goats smell. Several dozen designer pizzas and salads over the years later, I have acquired a taste for goat cheese. The slight tanginess plays especially well with sweet/tart flavors of salads with candied nuts and apples in them. And goat cheese melts into lovely pools of creaminess on a pizza.

Drake Family Farms was sampling and selling 4 oz. containers of chèvre in various flavors including lemon/pepper, apricot/honey, basil, French herbs, garlic, jalapeño and my favorite, herbs de Provence. It’s the little bits of lavender mixed in with rosemary, thyme, fennel, basil and savory that does it for me. It imparts an especially luxurious taste spread onto crackers, crumbled into a salad or as part of a toasted portobello mushroom panini sandwich. These spreadable cheeses are almost like flavored cream cheeses, except that they are handmade in small batches, and contain less fat, cholesterol and carbohydrates than regular cream cheese and more calcium.

Back to “Every Goat Has a Name.” Checking out the website, the goats do indeed have names and you can buy them (or rather their offspring) if you are zoned right and so inclined. According to the Drake Family Farm website, “All the goats have names and are registered with the American Dairy Goat Association. We love our goats and give them a very high standard of care. Goats are like dogs with individual personalities and we consider every goat a pet. The herd consists of Nubian, Saanen, Alpine, and Snubian Goats.” The Drake Farm was started in Utah in 1880, but the farm in Ontario, CA began about 28 years ago with 143 goats brought over from the Utah spread. Dan Drake is a veterinarian specializing in dairy cattle during his “day job” but his real passion is raising his goats and marketing their creamy, flavorful cheeses .

Drake Farms' Danny Elkin & Jordan Kalish

Goat cheese experts Danny Elkin (L) & Jordan Kalish

At the Drake booth I met employees Danny Elkin from Boston and Jordan Kalish of Woodstock, NY (an aspiring vet!) who were handing out samples and knowledge about the Drake farm and chèvre. They seemed to share the enthusiasm for goats and their cheese, despite the chilly turn in the normally warm spring San Fernando Valley weather. The labels on the cheese containers say, “Artisan Farmstead Goat Cheese.” Danny and Jordan explained that “farmstead” means made on the farm with milk exclusively from the farm’s own goats.  “Artisan or artisanal” is a cheese that is produced primarily by hand, in small batches, using as little mechanization as possible in its production.

Presumably with milk from goats with names.