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Shopping for Stevia on a Wet Saturday

February 28, 2001|DAVID KARP

The past week's rains made life miserable for farmers market vendors by hindering harvests and discouraging customers. On a wet and windy Saturday, nevertheless, the Santa Monica Organic market drew a steady stream of shoppers who wouldn't miss their fix of fine produce.

James Birch of Three Rivers featured De Cicco broccoli, a rich-tasting Italian heirloom with many small florets, less compact but much more tender than standard varieties. Maryanne Carpenter of Camarillo had exquisite Blankoma beets with sugary white flesh, almost creamy when cooked. She also sold fine baby vegetables: Brussels sprouts, leeks, fennel and lettuces. Early customers grabbed the ripe, custardy sapotes from Santiago Coleman of Carpinteria, who set out a superb display of herbs and greens, including Moroccan mint, Forellenschluss lettuce (romaine-like but speckled like a trout) and spicy Persian cress, or shahi.

Desert-grown vegetables shine in late winter and spring, and market regulars know that Jerry and Melanie Lahr of Desert Hot Springs carry all sorts of odd goodies: crescent-shaped, flavorful anellini (that's right-not cannellini) string beans; European wild mustard, leggier and more pungent than regular mustard greens; and diverse heirloom tomatoes with extraordinary flavor for February. Deborah Chamberlain of Wong Farms, from North Shore, sold mild, sweet hydroponic tomatoes as well as green frying tomatoes.

Laura Ramirez of Bryn Mawr took top honors for her avocado display, including Fuerte, Hass, Zutano, Bacon and her favorite, Pinkerton, which has large, easy-peeling, buttery fruits. She also sold small but tasty cherimoyas, giant Minneola tangelos and Persian sweet limes.

From North San Diego County, both Laney Villalobos and Jerry Herbel brought excellent berry-flavored Moro blood oranges as well as Fuerte and Hass avocados. Armando Garcia had gorgeous pink-fleshed Cara Cara navel oranges with tutti-frutti flavor and wonderfully sweet and juicy Page mandarins.

A recent addition to the market, Kevin Learnihan, sold fresh spiny lobsters that he trapped off Dana Point; mavens debate the relative merits of these clawless, warm-water crustaceans versus classic Atlantic lobsters. Bill Jenks of Riverside sold many unusual herb and vegetable plants, including the amazing stevia (also known as sweet herb of Paraguay), which contains stevioside, a substance 300 times sweeter than sucrose. It's gaining a reputation among dieters and diabetics, who dry and powder the leaves and use a pinch instead of sugar.

Santa Monica Organic farmers market, Arizona Avenue between 2nd and 4th streets, Saturdays 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

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