Blog Archive for February, 2009

I grew up in Minnesota where we didn’t have farmers’ markets in winter. The long vendor stalls that bustle with people and an explosion of fruits and vegetables in spring, summer and fall are turned over to Christmas tree sellers shortly after Halloween. Up until December 24th, they hawk their spruces and firs under the buzzing fluorescents that turn on at 3 pm when the light starts to wane. Still festive, in its way, but nothing like a northern California farmers’ market in winter. Let’s just say I feel very lucky when Saturday rolls around and I trudge down the block to what is normally a fairly bland concrete park near a freeway overpass, and find it transformed into a vegetable mecca.

But not just vegetables, no! There are steaming chafers full of dishes from around the world, Cornucopias (literally) of fresh pastries and crusty breads, jars of homemade pickles and jams, local honey, artisan olive oils and vinegars, milk made from nuts (incredibly tasty, by the way), massages, cool art, music and even – at ours, anyway – an occasional petting zoo featuring bunnies, exotic chickens and a pony you can ride if you’re under 5’ tall. There’s also more color in that one block than you can shake a stick at, in case you’re in need of palette inspiration. It’s like having a culinary paintbox in your backyard.

Most bay area residents don’t need any convincing to frequent their local farmers’ market – it has become entrenched in the culture here, and the praises of the local markets have been sung for decades by the likes of Alice Waters and her many Chez Panisse alums. My mother was an early supporter of local farmers, back in the late 60’s when we lived in Berkeley (before the migration to the frozen tundra of Minnesota). She would get together with our neighbors on a Rockridge block and organize a weekly green grocer stop. Each week, a truck would arrive bearing the fruits (and vegetables) of the season: lettuces, peas and strawberries in April, corn, peaches and plums in July and tomatoes, squash and basil in September. Not only did the green grocer offer the very freshest and most nutritious foods to the neighborhood, but he also offered a gathering point and a means of building connections and community among the neighbors. They could even swap recipes for the ingredients of the week. In August, everyone needed recipes for zucchini, and to this day my mother’s zucchini bread recipe is unrivaled.

For those of you out there who do need some cajoling, there are some pretty compelling reasons to make a trip to the farmers’ market part of your weekend routine. First of all, farmers’ market produce is about the freshest you can get short of growing it yourself, and fresh food is not only tastier, it’s more – sometimes much more – nutritious. After harvest, produce can travel hundreds, and sometimes thousands of miles before it reaches market, and in that time, it can lose up to 1/3 of the vitamins and nutrients. The sooner you eat a fruit or vegetable after harvest, the better it is for you. In general, you can get a much wider variety of organic produce at farmers’ markets as well. However, this is not always the case, so if it’s not specifically advertised, it’s a good idea to check. Unless you’re buying from a commercial dealer, farmers’ market produce is almost always free from the sticky and often fungicide-laced wax that is used on a variety of conventional grocery produce, from apples to cucumbers to melons. And while you may not be able to fulfill your every craving, the goods available from local farmers are sure to be what’s in season now – the best, healthiest and often most economical choices. The variety is sure to put your local Safeway to shame, often including exotic varieties and heirlooms as well as the usual garden variety choices. I’m always delighted when I see an unfamiliar vegetable and can ask the farmer not only what it is, but how to cook it and use it in a recipe.

But perhaps the best reason to visit the farmers’ market is for the sheer aesthetic joy of it. The sensory riches of a farmers’ market on a sunny morning are incredible, and the sheer riot of colors and smells and people an experience to behold. Even in winter.
This week’s project: winter farmers’ market soup (don’t worry, I’ll get you my mom’s zucchini bread recipe by August…)

For more info on Bay Area farmers’ markets:
For information on national farmers’ markets:

Winter Farmers’ Market Soup (courtesy of my dear friend Kristina Kessel)

4 Tbsp. Unsalted butter or good olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
3 ribs celery, chopped
2 small carrots, chopped
3-4 small potatoes (Yukon gold work well), diced
1 large bunch broccoli (2 lbs.), peeled and chopped
1 quart chicken or vegetable stock
3 cups baby spinach, chopped
1/4 tsp. grated or powdered nutmeg
1/2 cup grated or shredded parmesan plus extra for garnish
1 tsp. salt (or to taste)
freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 Tbsp. Grated lemon zest
several tablespoons olive oil for drizzle

1. Melt the butter over low heat in a large saucepan. Once melted, add the onion and sauté until soft. Add the chopped celery, carrots, and potatoes and cook until wilted, about 10 minutes.

2. Add the broccoli (peeled and chopped stems and chopped florets) to the wilted vegetables and then add the broth, plus one or two cups of water as necessary to cover the vegetables. Cover the pot and cook for 30 minutes.

3. Add the spinach, nutmeg and salt and pepper, and cook for one minute more.

4. Puree the soup in batches in a food processor or blender, adding in the 1/2 cup of parmesan. Once smooth, return to the soup pot and add in the lemon zest. Return to desired temperature and serve, garnished with a generous drizzle of olive oil and shaved or shredded parmesan cheese.

By now, we’ve all gotten the memo: the economy’s not looking so good. So maybe it’s time to trade in the Saturday afternoon shopping sprees and take up a new hobby. Have you noticed the gathering hordes of crafters at the art stores, the new shops springing up devoted entirely to scrap booking, the plethora of hand-made totes on the streets? They’re all hallmarks of the growing interest in D.I.Y. (do-it-yourself) culture.

When I was a kid, my favorite past time was building things from random found objects. I loved making little model houses from shoe boxes and filling them with tables and chairs made from various-sized knobs (the wooden or ceramic drawer-pulls from the hardware store were the best!) and fabric-scrap curtains. Cotton balls made nice beanbag chairs (it was the ‘70’s, after all). When we tired of that, my best friend and I would ransack the bathroom cabinets for ingredients to make special potions, usually beauty aids of some sort. We found that Blue Grass lotion, rubbing alcohol and Jean N’ate made a pungent and invigorating facial tonic. I no longer recommend that recipe, however.

Once adolescence hit, though, my free time became more structured and scheduled, and that curiosity and innovation got redirected into more conventional tasks, like math homework. I bought Oil of Olay (and Clearasil!) at the drugstore instead of making potions, and I purchased nicely packaged Herbal Essence instead of pulling chamomile weeds from between the sidewalk cracks and boiling them to make hair highlighter. Yes, we really did that.

At its core, though, that curiosity and innovation is what human ingenuity is all about. Humans are builders. We like to make stuff. Throughout the history of our species we have used our hands and minds to create, improve and beautify our surroundings. In fact, we got so good at making things that over the past century we have created machines to do almost all of our building and making for us. We have developed efficient systems of operations and production that streamline the manufacturing process and minimize the need for handcrafting. For those items that do still require human touch, we have specialized so that each person does just one highly honed aspect of the making of a thing.

Brilliant! Now we have way more time for watching TV. And we have more uniform products made much faster and more cheaply. We have allowed the industrialized world to focus on more elevated pursuits: technology, education, branding and selling (to us, while we’re watching TV. See how efficient that is?)

But somewhere in our rush to rid ourselves of the drudgery of actually having to make things, we might have lost touch with an important part of our human makeup: the need to make things. We are all creative beings, and creation, whether it is dinner, a throw pillow, a dress, a bio-fuel vehicle, a bike or a garden, can be a deeply fulfilling experience.

I believe that many of us are hungering for what our culture has labeled as labor and drudgery: the act of putting your fingers to work and making something that didn’t exist before. And to fill this need we seek out inspiration and motivation through familiar channels: Martha Stewart, Home-Reno reality TV, cooking shows. But so much of our free time is spent passively consuming – shopping, watching TV, following the endless web of cerebral stimulation lurking on the Internet – that the simple and meditative physical act of something like knitting seems a revelation!

It’s hard to justify making things yourself. We are so used to tallying up dollars and cents, and hand-made items are not necessarily cost-effective. It’s really hard to make things cheaper than you can buy them at Wal-Mart. But that’s not really the point, is it? For $20-30 of fabric and a few of your nightly TV hours you can sew a fabulous one-of-a-kind dress. But more importantly, you have made something with your own hands that didn’t exist before. It’s a great feeling. Yes, there are frustrations, and yes, you will have to rip out seams and re-stitch and sometimes start over. But that’s what makes it so much fun when you’re finished and it fits you perfectly.

Last year I sewed my own wedding dress. Let me just say that it took way more than a few of my TV hours, especially since I’m relatively new to sewing clothing. It took me a solid week to get the pattern right, and I sewed 2 muslin trials before I started on the real silk. But the experience was incredibly rewarding, and the image of my then-fiancé sitting behind me with his mouth full of pins as he helped me fit the dress is one that I will never forget. Plus, I ended up with a gorgeous, one-of-a-kind, 100% silk wedding gown for $300, for those of you tallying.

The rewards of D.I.Y. are not limited to sewing, and certainly not to women. This is something I believe we all need to find time for in our lives, and the making can take many forms: building, painting, cooking, gardening, writing and getting crafty with the glue gun, just to name a few. They can all bring the joy and empowerment of creating things yourself. When you make something by hand, it is a form of self-expression, and quite often it becomes much more meaningful than anything you can buy in a store. You know it was made ethically and safely. And best of all, it’s something unique and tailored to you.