farmophile

Field notes from California's North Central Valley

Archive for the category “Farm to table”

Fruit to chef: K&J Orchards

Farmer Tim Deasy met me and my family at the gate of K&J Orchards in Winters, his face dripping with sweat. It was 105 degrees F, and he’d just returned from Napa, where he’d delivered 40 pounds of white peaches to The French Laundry, often regarded as the best restaurant in the United States. He travels about 750 miles a week delivering fresh peaches, plums, pluots, nectarines, cherries and more to restaurants and farmers markets in the Napa-Sonoma region and Bay Area.

There are perks to the job. Sometimes, the chefs he delivers to feed him. “I figured out if you stare at something long enough, they’ll eventually ask, ‘Are you hungry?” said Tim.

In the past 10 years, K&J Orchards has grown from delivering fruit and nuts to three farm-to-table restaurants in San Francisco to upwards of 110 restaurants today. Chefs like Annie Somerville of Greens and other foodies also track K&J down at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco and other markets in the Bay Area and Northern Nevada.

“We provide access to heirloom varieties or unique things,” said farmer Aomboon (“Booney”) Deasy, Tim’s wife. “Like when chefs ask me for green almonds or green plums to use in salads, or peach leaves to infuse syrups and sauces.”

K&Jfruit

Booney’s parents, Kalayada Ammatya and James Beutel, are the “K” and “J” of the operation. The couple started the farm in the early 1980s on about 40 acres in Yuba City, which continues to be their main site for growing apples and pears. They bought the 20-acre property in Winters in 1995 and set about converting about half of the then-walnut farm to stone fruit production.

While James, a former pomology professor, has retired from the farm, Kalayada continues to graft rootstock, plant seeds, and do farmers markets. Meanwhile, Booney and Tim have now taken on the primary responsibilities for the orchard.

Aomboon and Tim Deasy of K&J Orchards

Defying the heat, or perhaps common sense, my husband, 3-year-old daughter and I walked out to the orchard for a tour.

Strolling among rows of apricot trees, Tim described when he first learned Booney was from a farming family.

“When I first met her in college, I asked her what she did — I thought maybe a coffee shop or something. She said, ‘I sell cherries …'”

“He thought I had a lemonade stand, like selling cherries by the side of the road,” added Booney.

“Yeah, but she left out about 180 other varieties of fruit we now grow,” finished Tim. “But it’s fun.”

As we walked, apricots blushed in the late afternoon sun. Booney plucked one from the tree — a Flaming Gold variety–and handed it to me. Sweet, sun-infused, juicy burst. Later, when we got home, my husband bit into one of those apricots, and the juice squirted all over the counter. “Haven’t seen an apricot do that before,” he said.

Apricots, K&J Orchard

In the orchard, cherry trees, now picked clean, were ready to retire for the year. Booney said that while Washington cherries are just beginning, the season for cherries in California will be over by the end of June because yields state-wide are low this year — and prices higher —  due to a mild winter. On the upside, the surviving cherries are huge and delicious, not having had to share resources with many other cherries on the tree.

Plenty of other fruit is on its way for the year. Along our tour we saw small green balls of what will become golden meyer lemons hanging from branches, nectarines and peaches preparing for their imminent debut, spiky balls of early chestnuts, and generously spaced plums, their skins a deep purple.

Plum tree, K&J Orchard

This generous spacing of fruit on the tree is one reason the region’s best chefs seek out K&J Orchard’s fruit. Call it a flavor trick that is mind-blowingly logical: Rather than allow the trees to heave with fruit and compete for water and nutrients, they thin the fruit so the best resources go to those that remain. This, said Booney, results in a bigger, sweeter, better stone fruit.

For every thinned nectarine that never sees a chef’s table or canvas shopping bag, K&J still has plenty to go around. From the scorching 105 degree heat, we stepped into the orchard’s 45 degree refrigerated walk-in. After welcoming the blast of cold air, our eyes set on thousands of pounds of peaches, plums, apriums (a cross between an apricot and a nectarine) and pluots (a cross between a plum and an apricot), all stacked in white trays, ready for distribution.

K&J stone fruit, packed

Booney said it was Tim’s idea to target directly selling to restaurants. With images of chefs with Food Network and Hell’s Kitchen-like personalities, it was a somewhat intimidating prospect at first, she said.

“But all the chefs we work with are so down-to-earth,” said Booney. “They really appreciate the fruit, respect it and where it’s from, and they’re really intrigued to learn how it’s grown.”

At the end of our tour, we passed a row of white pomegranates, which should be ready by late August.

White pomegranate on tree

The white pomegranate has pale pinkish seeds inside rather than the deep red of its more famous sibling, is reportedly sweeter and less tart, and won’t stain your fingers.

It’s a tasty twist on a beloved classic and is one example of why Tim shouldn’t expect to reduce his work mileage any time soon.

Back at home, Lily bites into a K&J plum. Pickier than a Napa chef, she proclaims them "yum."

Back in Davis, Lily bites into a K&J plum. Pickier than a Napa chef, she proclaims them “yum.”

You don’t have to go to a fancy restaurant to have a taste of K&J Orchard’s fruit. Catch them at farmers markets in San Francisco, Palo Alto, Alemany, Los Gatos, Menlo Park; and at Nevada farmers markets in Reno, Gardnerville and Minden.

Born this way: Soil Born Farms

Across a field of potatoes, broccoli and green beans, came the crack of a bat and male voices hollering from a dugout. In the middle of a farm tour at Soil Born Farms in Rancho Cordova, a baseball game was underway at nearby Hagan Community Park.

Urban farm meets baseball game

Across another field, this one filled with wispy asparagus, swiss chard and collard greens, bicyclists swooshed past along the American River Bike Trail.

American River Parkway cyclist

Both were reminders that this is an urban farm, one attempting to connect a bustling and active community to its agricultural roots, and getting them to grow and eat fresh, seasonal food along the way.

Soil Born Farms veggie signs

My family and I visited Soil Born Farms at American River Ranch for its annual Day on the Farm Celebration this past weekend.

Soil Born Farm signs

The nonprofit, educational, certified organic farm pulled out all the stops, with workshops on everything from composting and raising chickens to seed saving and the importance of bees. Cooking demos taught new ways to tempt kids and adults to eat their veggies. Participants could meet the farm animals, tour the youth garden,

Soil Born Farms youth gardenas well as the farm,

Soil Born Farms tour

visit the newly constructed outdoor classroom,

Soil Born Farms, outdoor classroommake eco-friendly crafts, hear some live music, eat organic hot dogs and ice cream, and, of course, stop to smell the flowers.

Lily and the poppies

Shawn Harrison and Marco Franciosa began Soil Born Farms in 2000 as a for-profit farm, transforming it into an educational nonprofit in 2004. It has grown to operate two urban farms on 55 acres in Sacramento and Rancho Cordova, with a focus on promoting urban agriculture, sustainable food systems and healthy food education.

The historical American River Ranch has been farmed since the 1840s. Soil Born Farms leased the land from Sacramento County in 2008.

On any given week, the farm may have a class or event intent on teaching people how to “grow your groceries.” Among the June class roster are topics such as weed management, the business of starting a small farm, and how to make herbal medicine.

But the owners, farm apprentices and volunteers here aren’t just teachers; they’re doers. They also operate a CSA program; sell at the Sacramento Natural Food Co-op and Midtown farmers market; operate a farm stand; and help Sacramento-area restaurants like Grange, Magpie Cafe, and Mulvaney‘s do the farm-to-table thing.

Soil Born Farms education coordinator Sarah Barnes, our farm tour leader, is in her third season with the farm. She began as an apprentice in 2011, when she spent the summer living in a tent on the farm. Before coming to Soil Born, the Connecticut native was a fourth grade teacher in New York City, who knew little about gardening, much less farming.

“The more I learned about how our food system works, the more I wanted to learn how to grow food myself,” she said. “I wanted to be on a farm that was not just commercial but also had educational programs. So here I am, on the other side of the country, in Sacramento, California.”

Farm to fork: Almost-spring lamb

I’m a list-maker. Most of what ends up in my refrigerator and cupboards begins as a carefully constructed grocery list, often only slightly modified from the weeks before.

Perhaps because of that, I find it freeing, even luxurious, to go to the farmer’s market with no other plan than to find what looks most delicious and build a meal around it. Especially a Sunday meal that can be slowly, lovingly concocted and savored, with none of the get-er-done mentality of a weeknight dinner.

It didn’t take long for me to find a starting point at the Davis Farmers Market this past weekend. Esparto-based Chowdown Farms, from whom I regularly buy some great-tasting chicken, had just processed their lamb and were offering chops, ribs, shoulders and other cuts. I tend to think of lamb as a spring meal, but when it’s ready in February, I’ll take it. Although a slow-roasted shoulder would have been cheaper and likely still tasty, I was curious about the ribs, so I got a small package of them to give us a little taste.

A side accompaniment beckoned nearby, creating a rubbernecking situation at the Capay Organic booth: Broccoli Romanesco. The words “horny cauliflower” popped into my mind upon seeing them, lined up like armored broccoli. They look like they’d be more at home in a coral reef than in a field of soil. They are a striking-looking vegetable, and I’m a sucker for a pretty face.

Broccoli Romanesco

Romanesco in hand, I decided to make my go-to side of roasted vegetables, so I found some baby potatoes from Stockton-based Zuckerman’s Farm and some fresh Brussels sprouts (sorry to say, I didn’t catch the sprouts’ farm name, but at least I remembered to take a photo.)

Brussels sprouts

The classic accompaniment to lamb is mint jelly, which my husband and I don’t like, so we pulled out the ol’ iPhone and looked up “apple-pear chutney,” then bought a couple of Asian pears from grower Riffat Ahmad. Sadly, the pears are among the season’s last, but we’ll hold on until the end!

Our meal set, we took one last look to see what’s in season: purple cabbage, kale, leeks (note to self: make vichyssoise soon), citrus, fennel (note to self: figure out what the heck to do with fennel), chard, all manner of winter greens.

Red cabbageSprung a leekSwiss Chard

On Sunday, I set about making our fairly simple meal. When you start with really good ingredients, I think mussing them up with a lot of sauces, cheeses, spices and whatnots just covers up the good stuff.

Spring vegetables

So here’s how to do what  I did:

Season lamb with olive oil, salt, pepper, and fresh rosemary. Let it rest while chopping veggies.

Lamb ribs

Chop Brussels sprouts in half and Romanesco into florets.

Blanch baby potatoes in boiling water about 5 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water. Cut potatoes in half and mix with the Brussels sprouts and Romanesco. Drizzle olive oil, herbs (I used herbs de provence), salt and pepper to season. Roast at 425 degrees for about 40 minutes.

Veggies for roasting

While vegetables cook, make the chutney. (Or don’t, it really didn’t turn out that well.)

Remove veggies from oven, and tent with foil while broiling lamb.

Place lamb about 4 inches below broiler. Broil for 3 minutes each side, turning once.

Then, by all means, eat!

Roasted lamb and spring vegetables with spicy apple chutney

Taste & tell: Top 10 farmophile finds of 2012

I struggle to describe what is so special about the food of Northern California, other than to say it’s fresh. And by fresh, I mean a few hours or minutes separation from its host plant. As chef Alice Waters in Berkeley so elegantly demonstrated in a sensible yet revolutionary idea: Good food is fresh food, and typically, fresh food is local food.

Beets

But it’s not like there isn’t good, fresh food everywhere, at least during some part of the year. We grew food astonishingly well in Northern Nevada. And in Missouri, my mother had a lush garden of green beans, tomatoes, and lettuce. I also have many childhood memories of picking apples, strawberries and peaches with her. In those places, as here, I looked forward to the seasons and the harvests that came with them.

But unlike California, the growing season in those places tends to be six months or less. Not year-round. “Seasons” there meant rain, sun, snow.  In California, at least to me, they mean asparagus, tomatoes, apples. The growing season never ends, so it’s always on my mind, and in my mouth.  I’ve never experienced fresh food so consistently, which is perhaps why I value and appreciate it more than ever.

Or maybe it’s because I now have a family to feed, so my food choices become theirs, and therefore are elevated in importance.

Or maybe it’s because I’m older and increasingly impressed by food at its most simple — fresh, just plucked if possible, and served in a way that lets it speak for itself: roasted chicken and root vegetables; strawberry shortcake; mandarin slices over a spinach salad; a crisp, unembellished, perfect Asian pear.

Whatever the reason, I feel lucky to be here to taste and tell.

So, in this retrospective time of year, which also happens to mark the 1 year anniversary of Farmophile, I offer my Top 10 Farmophile favorites and finds of 2012, in no particular order:

1) Mandarins grow here, and they are ridiculously sweet and easy to peel. I know this may sound silly to you native Californians, but I never thought I’d find citrus fruits in the northern part of the state, let alone during the winter. But there they were in Newcastle, at the Sierra foothills. Now I see them all over Davis. What a great, unexpected shot of vitamin C at a time I need it most.

Mandarin harvest

2) The best-tasting avocado is the one you can’ t get at the store. Fuerte avocados didn’t live up to their name when it came to long-distance packing and shipping. Despite delicate skins, they make a strong yet smooth — like butta’– impression. Grant’s grandparents have one growing in the backyard of their Southern California home, and we reap the benefits, fall through winter.

Fuerte avocado harvest

3) A field of asparagus. Having planted it myself in a small corner of my garden, I knew how asparagus grows—little fingers reaching out of the ground, pointing straight at the sky. But I’d never seen a whole field of them until we visited Capay Organic. What  a treat to walk through them with scissors and cut their spears, gathering them like big bouquets in our hands.

organic asparagus

4) Apricots can be sweet. Before moving to California, the only time I really ate apricots was when they were dried, which were fine but nothing I could ever get excited about. But at Impossible Acres in Davis this summer, I learned they can be sweet and even—gasp!—juicy. Good to know.

apricot

5) And this one hasn’t made a blog post—yet—but the Ikeda’s farm stand near our house in East Davis is one of the best things about Davis in general. Miss the farmer’s market? No problem, you can find fresh, local produce here year-round, plus amazing pies, tamales, take-and-bake chicken pot pies, and specialty salsas. I love it.

Ikedas

6) Another one for the commercial Darwinism file: Franquette walnuts. The Chandler and Hartley varieties beat out the Franquette at grocery stores because they can be harvested earlier in the season and more abundantly. But the Franquette packs more healthy oil into its nut and tastes just as good, if not better. We found them on a gorgeous fall day at Buzzard’s Roost Ranch.

Franquette walnuts in tree

7) Sacramento has a niche, ethnically diverse group of people who crave the shelling beans grown each summer by R. Kelly Farms. And for good reason: their cranberry, black-eyed peas, butterbeans and purple hull beans are amazing additions to Indian dishes, soul food, or for that matter, just about any savory meal. Canned beans have nothing on these guys.

Purple hull beans

8) Willow Pond Organic Farm. I’m not about to claim the best apple-picking orchard in Apple Hill, given that I’ve only visited the place twice. But Willow Pond was a welcome respite to what can be a busy scene in El Dorado county.

Willow Pond, Apple Hill

9) The Nigerian dwarf goats at Castle Rock Farm in Vacaville made me completely rethink my preconceived notions of goats as head butting, ornery little beasts. These animals were sweeter than my cat, easier to handle than my dog, and produce loads of healthy milk.

10) And for a pure find: Pacific Star Gardens in Woodland. We went for strawberries with a group of friends, and every bite was sweet, every one of us was happy, and we came home with buckets of berries that we’re still turning into smoothies. Awfully nice farmers, too. We will definitely be back here next May.

buckets o' berries

And because it’s Christmas and I love the place, I’ll throw in a bonus one: Jacob Mini Farm in Winters. We’ve gotten our Christmas tree from here for the past two years. They only grow what grows in the region (no perfectly coiffed noble firs here), like cedar and Scotch pine. But my family loved the forested feel of this place, not to mention the added benefit of a forest floor covered in pecans. A handy snack they’ll sell you by the pound that you can eat while searching for the perfect tree.

u-pick Christmas tree

There are so many other fruits and farms I want to explore in 2013. On my list are kiwi, pomegranate, pistachio, cherry, tomato, melon and peach farms. I also have my eye on some ranches raising grassfed beef and Berkshire pork. But if this year has taught me anything, it’s to see where the season takes us.

Southern send-off

It’s not often that I write an immediate follow-up to a blog post, but I haven’t been able to get R. Kelly Farms‘ cranberry beans out of my head. When I cooked them after posting an entry a couple of week’s ago, I had the sense that I’d posted too soon.

First of all, while undertaking the pleasantly mindless task of shelling them, I was smitten with the dainty pink freckles dotting their pods and shells. Then, after cooking them using this recipe, along with a little bacon, herbs and garden tomatoes, I was reminded of the transportative–if not transformative– power of food. (Unfortunately, I was too busy eating and reminiscing to photograph the meal.)

Biting into these beans took me back to Mississippi and the night I helped my mom move the last of her boxes out of the house she’d shared with my father for 11 years until that year, 2007, when he died.

It was the night before I was to drive her and her cats, Franklin and LB,  more than 2,000 miles across forests, prairies and deserts to her new life in the West.

You might think I wouldn’t want to be transported to such a time and place, yet beans similar to these cranberry ones comforted us that evening.

With the house an empty shell, we were taken in by Mom and Dad’s next-door neighbors, Billy and Faye. My parents didn’t really know these neighbors very well for most of their time at the house–just passing hellos and “how’re the grandkids?” exchanges. That changed when Faye had a bout of sickness, and my parents helped with meals and such. Then when Dad got sick, they more than returned the favor — helping with odds and ends around the house when the chemo dragged him down, and — most importantly– being the sort of support my sister and I couldn’t be while we were so far away.

So on that late-summer night, Faye cooked us a simple but outstanding Southern dinner. Several other Southern dinners I’d had during previous visits to Mississippi were more of the processed cheese + gelatinous cream-of-x-soup variety, bless their hearts. But this meal’s ingredients came largely from Faye and Billy’s sizable garden.

Strangely, I can’t remember if Faye served us meat that night, though I’m sure she must have — it’s sacrilege not to in Mississippi. But I do remember the beans. I think they were butter beans. And, like the beans I recently ate, they had never seen the inside of  a can and had never been dried, resulting in a wholly different–and in my opinion, better– flavor. With the beans, she also served cornbread, collard greens, crispy fried green tomatoes, and bright red tomatoes. It was the perfect Southern send-off — one of hospitality and heart at the end of a summer, at the end of one life for our family and the beginning of another as my mother moved West and into a great unknown.

These foods that grow right outside our doorsteps and that go straight from garden to skillet, remind us of where we’ve been. It’s why local foods are more than just a mile-radius number or a label slapped on a package of produce. The real local foods carry with them the flavor and histories of the people who grow, serve and eat them. They comfort us and take us back as we keep moving forward.

Farmer’s market to mouth, #1: Winter comfort

With my husband laid up after minor surgery last weekend, a farm visit was out of the question. It seemed like a fine time to let the farmers come to us. Luckily, the Saturday morning Davis Farmers Market is open year-round, and true to reputation, it happens to be one of the best around. I went in search of winter comfort food.

I used to go to the farmer’s market because it made me feel good–to be outside, to “do the right thing” and support small farmers, to buy stuff in season. I still go for those reasons, but my driving force these days is becoming far more selfish: I come for the food. Maybe it’s my age; perhaps my palate is finally growing up. But every time I go to the farmer’s market lately, I have some surprising food moment. I bite into elevated versions of what I’ve had all my life: The pears are crisper, the carrots sweeter, the apple cider more substantial. It’s food, only better.

This weekend I wanted to cook an all-local meal that was easy to prepare, used just a few ingredients and featured some of my favorite standouts so far at the Davis Farmers Market.

Here’s what’s on the menu: Roasted chicken with carrots, golden beets and fingerling potatoes, all seasoned with salt, pepper and Yolo-pressed olive oil.

My first stop was Cache Creek Meat Co.’s vendor booth for a whole chicken. Cache Creek farmers Kristy Lyn Levings and Brian Douglass raise their happy, free-range birds on a small farm in Yolo County. I’d had their chicken before. I’m an average, by no means outstanding cook, so I could only attribute the juicy, tender, savory outcome I’d experienced before to the bird and its producers, not to my culinary abilities. Naturally, I came back for more. I lucked out and got the last one, a 4.5-pound lovely.

Next, I found some fingerling potatoes from Stockton-based Zuckerman’s Farm. I decided to roast them with some golden beets that caught my eye at the Rancho Cortez booth. I also chose some melon-colored carrots from local farm Fiddler’s Green. These guys grow tons of things, but they deserve a special mention for opening my eyes to the true potential of carrots. I first bought a bunch of their rainbow carrots–in purple, red, orange and yellow–a few weeks ago, and I was shocked they were so good. I felt like someone who has only ever eaten tomatoes from a grocery store in the winter must feel biting into a July brandywine.

So I took my little bundle home and laid them on the table to admire before chopping them to bits.

Lily “helped” with quality control.

I seasoned the chicken with melted butter, olive oil, salt, pepper and rosemary, stuck half a lemon from our backyard tree in its cavity, and roasted it for about 1.5 hours (20 minutes per pound).

Mid-way, I added to the oven a pan of chopped beets, carrots and potatoes, which were tossed with olive oil, salt and pepper, and roasted that for about 45 minutes.

I made a little gravy with the pan drippings, some flour, chicken broth and sherry.

Dinner was served. We were happy. And there was plenty of chicken left over to make my man-on-the-mend some easy enchiladas the next day.

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