Produce at its Peak: Growing Conditions

by Hannah B., Produce staff

This week a customer asked me if the local spinach we have right now is a different variety than the kind we had last week, because the leaves are so much thinner and flatter, and also somewhat pointed.

Meanwhile, I spent some time researching Vidalia sweet onions to see what makes them different from other sweet onions.

In both of these cases, different varieties could be the answer - but growing conditions are really what have the biggest influence on flavor, texture and appearance of at least these two particular vegetables.

Which begs the question: What do we mean when we talk about growing conditions? It’s the amalgamation of weather, soils, hours of sunlight or anything else that occurs as the plant is growing. In the case of the spinach, it is the lengthening days and, yes, warming temperatures that are causing the changes. I suspect that this spinach was grown in a hoop house, where the temperatures would be quite a bit higher than outdoors. The Vidalia onions are grown in 20 counties in Georgia where the soil lacks sulfur, which means that they don’t develop the heat associated with other onions. We have Vidalias right now-enjoy them while you can, for they are only available for another month or so.

I’ve noticed that vegetables in the early spring are as a rule tender, mild, and very green,ramps being an outstanding exception to the mild rule. I’m not sure what the reason is for this scientifically, but poetically it makes sense that the first edibles to emerge from the soil would be cleansing and easy to eat. Some of the exceptional local products this week areasparagus, zucchini, and watercress-sounds like an excellent salad. Individually, here are some suggestions for quick preparations.

Asparagus is best when the stems are thick-a slender stalk is often starting to become stringy. You should prepare and eat this vegetable almost as soon as you acquire it. When I was growing up, we ate asparagus for every meal as long as it was in season. One way that we dealt with the bounty was to marinate it-steamed, laid in a pyrex baking dish and covered with a vinaigrette, it grew more flavorful overnight.

Zucchini has been coming in small but increasing amounts from Wisconsin Growers for the past couple of weeks. This looks to have been grown in a hoop house-it’s been too cold for zucchini plants to thrive outside yet. Fresh, young zukes should be cooked only briefly to preserve the texture, and with simple seasonings, so you can enjoy the flavor.

The watercress, wild-crafted from clear streams at Keewaydin Farms is the real thing. As the days grow warmer, it can become quite spicy, but this first batch is mild, with a radishy bite. Add it to salads, sandwiches or soups.

turmericWe love Kolo Kai ginger and turmeric. It’s not local, but it is fresh. Kolo Kai is an organic farm in Kauai. The farmers, Ben and Colette, harvest the roots to order and then ship it priority mail, so what ends up in our store is never more than a week old. This year, we couldn’t carry it during the winter, because it was so cold that the packages froze on the way to our store. We’re safely past polar vortices, so we’ve resumed ordering it, and wow, the turmeric is the best I’ve ever seen.

Lastly, pint containers of California blueberries have arrived. For as long as I’ve worked here, this has been the signal that the warm months have come to stay. My favorite way to eat them is mixed with Seven Stars yogurt and Nature’s Path heritage flakes. Something about the crunchy flakes and tangy yogurt really brings out the sweetness and juiciness of the berries.