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FARMERS MARKET

A flavor burst of garlic, tomatoes and eggplant

August 27, 2008|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

Garlic: It's good, no two ways about it. But if all you've ever experienced is the stuff that comes from the grocery store, there's a world of nuance out there -- more than 600 varieties. Most common garlics are from what is called the "soft-neck" family, favored primarily because they are easier to pack and ship. "Hard-neck" garlics have a stiff center stem. They are the oldest varieties and generally have the richest flavors. But even in this larger group, there are sub-families. It's complicated. In some cases, varieties have been developed to suit growing conditions, but there is an amazing range of pungencies and flavor nuances. Summer, when garlic is harvested, is the time to explore them all.

$8 per pound (about $1 to $1.50 per head), Windrose Farms

Heirloom tomatoes: Though it is certainly a wondrous thing that some old-time tomato varieties that were all but commercially extinct five or six years ago are now almost commonplace in farmers markets (and even some supermarkets), a brief note of caution may be necessary. Tomatoes are grown, not manufactured, and buying a specific variety is not the same as buying a brand name. In other words, a good tomato still has more to do with the farmer than with the variety. And although a Brandywine in the right hands can be a life-changing tomato, when carelessly grown it is no better than most. To choose a good tomato, first look for the depth and richness of color, and not necessarily red. (Brandywines, for example, tend to be pink; others may be yellow or even green). Ripe tomatoes are usually heavier for their size and they have a certain give, particularly low on the fruit; they'll also have that fresh tomato smell. Whatever tomato you buy, maybe the most important thing is how you treat it when you get it home. Don't refrigerate tomatoes; chilling kills their flavor.

Peaking

$3 per pound, various vendors

Eggplants: Their popularity has been building for a while, but this seems to be the summer of the eggplant. You can find eggplants that are black, purple, lilac, green and white, that are long and thin, and round and fat. They can be as big as a softball, as small as an egg or even smaller: Some Southeast Asian growers have those cluster eggplants that are about as big as a garden pea. Texture seems to be the biggest difference, with some types dense and creamy and others light and almost stringy. When you're faced with an unfamiliar eggplant, ask the farmer. The best tip for choosing eggplant is to look for fruits that feel like they're bursting out of their skins. And remember that the eggplant is technically a tropical fruit. Don't refrigerate them for more than three or four days, or they'll start to develop soft spots from chill damage. If you're going to fry eggplant, slice it and salt it and leave to drain in a colander for an hour or so. But that's not necessary if you're going to grill or steam it.

$2 per pound, various vendors

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russ.parsons@latimes.com

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