Produce at its Peak

The Produce department wetrack
Wednesday, April 9, 2014 --Today, it is 70 degrees outside and sunny, and there is no snow in the ten-day forecast.

Surely, that means that it really is early Spring, which is one of the most challenging and interesting times of the year to work in a produce department like Seward’s. Transition and gap are key words. We’re transitioning from one growing region to another, which can mean gaps in availability.

For instance, the Braeburn apples from Washington that had been in storage since their harvest in the fall have run out, and we won’t have them in again until the South American harvests start to be shipped north, probably mid to late April. If you count back six months from April, you come to October, which is just about when the fresh crop of WA Braeburns was newly available. Makes sense-Chile and Argentina’s seasons are opposite of ours. So, if you’re a die hard Braeburn fan, you’ll be able to get them soon, and in the meantime, there are still lots of other apples available from Washington. Lady Alice has been particularly well loved by the produce stockers this year.

Pear season has been over in the northern hemisphere for six months or so, which means we’ve got the South American crop coming in now. The red Bartletts seem especially soft and luscious at the moment. They are mild, to be sure, but they go well with cheese or walnuts, and are sure to please little children.

Transition and gap isn’t just for fruit-if you’ve been in recently looking for red onions, you’ve likely been disappointed. The storage onion supply from the west coast is clearly dwindling, and they just don’t have enough reds to ship. Local red onions are long gone. But take heart-in the wet rack (top picture, above), you will often find red spring onions. Not to be confused with scallions or green onions, these are simply young, green harvested red onions. If they’d been left in the field they would eventually become the storage onions that you usually see in the root rack. I take the presence of such onions to mean that the onion fields of the west coast are yielding, and we’ll get some in due time. It’s likely that the first shipment of storage reds will come from Mexico, where it is already summer.

There was hardly a gap at all this year between the Wisconsin Growers parsnips that were harvested and stored in the fall and the overwintered ones from the same farms. Parsnips have the lovely quality of being unharmed, and in fact improved, by remaining unharvested in the ground for the winter. The cold makes them sweeter. They have been cleaned thoroughly by the growers, and are creamy white. In my opinion, they are best roasted, but they can also be shredded in potato pancakes or hashbrowns for an interesting variation.

There is a triad of items that will always mean Spring: Living waters English cucumbers, CA fava beans and really tasty berries. We’ve had Living Waters tomatoes for a while now, but the cucumbers come a little later. They are tender and sweet and need no peeling. In fact, to peel an English cucumber is to miss out on a part of the enjoyment of them.

Fava Beans are an unusual bean. Most beans like warm soils, but favas thrive in cool conditions, which is what brings them to market so soon in the year. To eat them, first remove the beans from the large, leathery pod, and then steam them for a few minutes. Heap them in a bowl and eat them with a pecorino or queso fresco, as a snack. The skin of the bean is usually best removed, making them a good finger food to leisurely enjoy with a friend on the picnic table. A glass of white wine would not be a bad idea either.

Berries start to come into season at this time of year, and while Strawberries are a steady occupant of the produce shelves, if you happen to be here on a day when Blackberries are in, you should treat yourself. They should be large and shiny and look as if they are about to burst that dark juice all over the package. If you manage not to eat them all out of hand, throw them in muffins or pancakes, or delicately add them to a fruit salad at the last minute.

Citrus is still good, although it will be transitioning out of season in the next couple of months. The Temple oranges are amazing-they remind me of orange popsicles in the best possible way. They have lots and lots of seeds, which can be a drawback, but they are good candidates for juicing, eliminating that nuisance.