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On winter's stage, spring puts on an early show

Thanks to unseasonable warmth, shoppers are filling their bags with strawberries, tomatoes, new potatoes, asparagus and artichokes weeks sooner than usual.

February 26, 2003|Valli Herman-Cohen | Times Staff Writer

Nearly a month ahead of schedule, Mother Earth has split with Old Man Winter.

Judging by the softball-size artichokes, plump tomatoes and tiny pea tendrils that are filtering into area farmers markets, Mr. Winter, and his hearty appetite for roots and dark greens, left town without saying goodbye.

"There's definitely a big climatic weirdness going on," said Chip Fieberg, a volunteer at the Wednesday Santa Monica farmers market stall of Malibu's Vital Zuman farm. Another spring indicator -- the California poppy -- has popped up at the farm weeks early, he said.

Fresh temptations such as slender asparagus, earthy new potatoes and huge, intensely red strawberries are filling market stalls and shoppers' bags. An unusually warm January gave area farmers a head start on crops that don't usually show up while we're still finishing Valentine's Day chocolates.

"Wintertime is sort of 'all quiet on the produce front,' " said Susan Ayles, an employee of Harry's Berries in Oxnard. At the Glendale market Thursday, she sold her extra-sweet, low-acid, $4-a-pint Gaviota and Seascape strawberry varieties. Other vendors at the Santa Monica market, as well as the Glendale market, were selling different varieties of strawberries for $2.50 a pint that were enormous but not as sweet.

At Wong Farms in the warm desert town of North Shore, Calif., some of the region's first vine-ripe tomatoes are already landing in chef's salads and pasta pots, said Ralph Bieggar, who mans the Wong stall at the Glendale market.

"Normally, these tomatoes are not available until mid-March," he said of the Shady Lady tomatoes, which cost $2.50 a pound (a buck if they're bruised). Some customers were buying a single tomato, a not-so-stingy purchase given that each one can weigh 12 to 14 ounces.

Though some artichoke farmers have already picked all but the stragglers, the cabbage-size specimens from Underwood Ranch Produce in Moorpark are some of the biggest around -- and the farm is just beginning its harvest. Uncommon greens are responding well to the milder weather, and so are customers, said employee Nance Shirley as she explained how to cook the Japanese spinach called mizuna and the dandelion-like tatsoi at the Glendale market.

Other more unusual greens such as pea tendrils ($1.50 per bunch) and the $1.75 broccoli raab are nabbed by chefs early in the day at markets, said Bill Coleman, of Coleman Family Farms in Carpinteria, Calif., who was selling them in Santa Monica.

In many parts of the country, spring isn't spring until the lilacs and the new potatoes are on the table. The fragrant flowers won't bloom until April, but Alex Weiser, of Weiser Family Farms in Edison, Calif., has specially harvested loads of olive-size purple new potatoes, peewee Russian banana fingerlings and French La Ratte potatoes.

He and his staff delight in telling Santa Monica shoppers how to make children love mashed potatoes the color of Barney -- boil their purple Peruvians with a tablespoon of vinegar and then mash away. The vinegar helps retain the color.

But the delights of spring are just beginning. If those purple potatoes are a hit, don't let April pass without snagging some other exotic and fun finds. The Weisers promise that their yellow, red or purple-skinned carrots are sure to be a smash -- even if you're not a kid.


New potato soup

Total time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

Servings: 6

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup chopped onion

1 cup chopped carrots

1 cup chopped leeks

2 cloves garlic, minced

4 cups low-sodium chicken broth

4 cups vegetable broth

1 pound new potatoes, quartered

1 cup fresh peas

1 cup coarsely chopped watercress leaves

Parmesan croutons, optional

1. Heat the oil in a large saucepot over medium heat. Add the onion, carrots and leeks, and cook until the vegetables are tender, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook another 5 minutes.

2. Stir in the chicken and vegetable broths. Heat to boiling, then reduce the heat, cover, and simmer 30 minutes. Stir in the potatoes and continue to cook, covered, until the potatoes are tender, 20 minutes. Stir in the peas and simmer 5 minutes. Stir in the watercress. Serve topped with the croutons.

Each serving: 216 calories; 398 mg. sodium; 3 mg. cholesterol; 8 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 30 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams protein; 4.9 grams fiber.


Artichoke tapenade

Total time: 1 hour

Servings: 6

4 artichokes

Juice of 1/2 lemon, plus 1 teaspoon, divided

1/4 cup olive oil

1/4 cup chopped pitted green Sicilian olives

1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon minced fresh thyme


Freshly ground pepper

A few fresh thyme sprigs

Toasted French bread sliced

1. Trim the tops and stems of the artichokes. Stand the artichokes upright in a steamer, and steam until a leaf easily pulls out from one of them, about 45 minutes. Remove the artichokes; when cool enough to handle, remove the leaves and discard. Scoop out the chokes with a spoon. Peel and remove any tough skin from the stems and bases of the artichokes, placing the cleaned bottoms in a bowl of water with the juice of half of a lemon as you work.

2. Cut the bottoms into quarters. Pulse in a food processor until pureed but slightly chunky. Add the olive oil, pulsing to mix.

3. Spoon the mixture into a small bowl, and stir in the olives, garlic, 1 teaspoon lemon juice, minced thyme and salt and pepper to taste. Spoon into a serving bowl and garnish with thyme sprigs. Serve with toasted French bread slices.

Each serving: 104 calories; 142 mg. sodium; 0 mg. cholesterol; 10 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 5 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 2 grams fiber.

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