Forgotten flavors, blazing colors and the magic of the Southwest bring romance to the produce department at this time of year.
Nevada County’s pepper season (a few weeks behind the famous Hatch, New Mexico harvest) has begun and Riverhill Farm has a plethora of peppers, sweet and hot: nardellos and gypsies, poblanos, anchos, serranos, jalapeños, carmens and cayennes.
Carmens are a sweet Italian variety — big, thick-fleshed, and delicious. Jo McProud of Riverhill Farms says you can use them any way you would a red bell pepper, “but be prepared to be swept off your feet.”
Also astonishing now are the local heirlooms. Varieties include tomatoes, apples, pears, grapes, figs and more. They’re not the standard fruits you’ll find in supermarkets, grown en masse in huge agribusiness operations. No, they’re varieties developed from decades (even centuries) past.
Some of the recent heirloom tomato arrivals from Riverhill Farm have names as colorful as their skin and flesh: pink Brandywines and mortgage lifters, black krims, Cherokee chocolates, purple Cherokees, striped germans, yellow Brandywines, and bi-colored, yellow-striped copias. San Marzanos, a type of Roma tomato that’s perfect for sauce, should be ripe early next week.
Heirloom tomatoes may be the best-known, but they’re not the only ones. There are also celestial figs from Sunrock Farm; green kadota figs from Country Rubes Farm; Niagara grapes from Harvey Biddle; Rhode Island greening apples and bonnamour pears from the Felix Gillet Institute farm; Piel de sapo melons and white doyenne and passe cressane pears from Filaki Farms; red and green oakleaf lettuces from Riverhill Farm; and cipollini onions from Sweet Roots Farm.
Why the interest in foods of the past? There’s much more to it than nostalgia. There are a few reasons. As BriarPatch produce buyer Cia Harden puts it, “They often have unique flavors. A lot of the farmers who discover heirloom varieties get excited about them, and want to share their excitement with others.”
Another reason has to do with preserving varieties that have valuable genetic traits, such as the ability to withstand very cold winters.
“There’s real merit in keeping varieties alive and available that have been squeezed out simply due to the ease of mass producing others,” said Harden. “The industry ‘standards’ can be more cost effective to produce, and the heirloom varieties can be more delicate.”
Are people willing to try fruits that look different, and may cost more?
“A lot of our customers are aware of the importance of growing heirlooms,” said Harden. “It’s a way of expressing solidarity with Mother Nature, like supporting organic foods and farming.”
We also have an advocate for heirloom fruits and vegetables right in our own backyard. It’s the local Felix Gillet Institute, which was founded by Amigo Cantisano of North San Juan. Named for the Gold Rush era nurseryman who brought numerous varieties to the foothills, its mission, in its own words, is “Dedicated to the appreciation, preservation and propagation of heritage edible and ornamental perennials from the Sierra.” To learn more, go to www.felixgillet.org.
Red Pepper Harissa Sauce
This fiery hot sauce from Tunisia is traditionally served with couscous, but Harissa also complements tofu or steak. Use it to season black beans, soups, and stews.
2 large red bell peppers
1 Anaheim pepper (or an additional red bell)
1 jalapeño pepper
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
Pinch of cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Preheat the oven to 425°F. Line a sheet pan with aluminum foil. Place all the peppers on the pan and roast in the oven for 30-45 minutes, turning frequently, until the peppers are blackened all around the outside and the flesh is very soft. Remove the roasted peppers from the oven, put them in a bowl, and cover with plastic wrap. Let stand for 15-20 minutes.
While the peppers are cooling, combine the spices, lemon juice and vinegar in a food processor or blender. When they are cool enough to handle, peel and discard the skins, stems and seeds. Add the cooked flesh of the peppers to the food processor, and process on high until well blended. Slowly blend in the olive oil and season with additional salt and pepper to taste.
Stephanie Mandel is the marketing manager at BriarPatch Co-op.