Field notes from California's North Central Valley

Archive for the category “Winter”

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.


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.


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.


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.

Forest for the tree: Jacob Mini Farm

When I first called Emily J. Amy of Jacob Mini Farm about coming out to cut a Christmas tree, she gave me a warning: These may not be my vision of Christmas trees. They’re not all perfectly conical. I wouldn’t find any noble firs or silver tips.

“They just don’t grow here; it’s too hot,” she said. “We grow what grows around here.”

That means Douglas fir, giant sequoia, incense cedar, and Scotch pine.

Sounded like just what I was looking for.

Jacob Mini Farm, open every day from Dec. 1-23, sits alongside Putah Creek between Davis and Winters, Calif. My husband, daughter, mom and I visited the farm recently to get Mom a Christmas tree.

We were warmly greeted at the entrance, told that every tree, big or small, is $35. Then we were handed a saw and told to set forth.

I’ve been to tree farms where single species are perfectly spaced in rows across a plot of land. I’ve also wandered through National Forest lands to hunt for my own “wild” Christmas tree—saw in one hand, permit and tag in the other. This was somewhat of a cross between the two—not quite forest, not quite typical tree farm.

The Christmas trees at Jacob Mini Farm stretch across roughly 5 acres, wrapped around the farmhouse, some sheds, and a small barn that houses a petting zoo of sorts—some docile donkeys named Barney and Elmer, a sheep, a goat and some chickens. And while my daughter, Lily, loved wandering through the “forest,” the animals were the highlight for her—she imitated them as only a 2-year-old can.

Sprinkled throughout the evergreens are pecan trees, which act as a shade canopy for the rather thirsty Christmas trees. Pecans tend to drop from the trees during the Christmas tree season, and u-pickers are welcome to collect them. Last year was a phenomenal year for pecans, said Emily. This year, not so much. But pecans tend to produce every other year, so the trees should be more generous next year.

Emily’s parents, Janet and Fred Jacob, first started selling trees from the farm in 1956, mostly to friends and co-workers. Over the years, more trees were added. Emily bought the farm from her mom about 15 years ago. In 1998, she added two areas that were previously fruit trees and pasture grass.

“It has just evolved,” she said.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the relatively unique way the trees are cut. U-pickers are asked to leave a whorl of growth at the bottom of their selected tree, so that future trees can grow from it.

This does mean more pruning work for Emily, but she decided to follow what her parents started.

“They were of the mind that instead of killing the tree, just use a part of it,” said Emily. “My parents wouldn’t have considered themselves ‘progressive environmentalists.’ In the ’50s that wasn’t a term you’d hear. But they were pretty conscientious about things.”

As my mom perused the selection of trees, my husband picked up some walnuts that had fallen on the ground and cracked them open for me and Lily. They were some of the best-tasting walnuts I’d ever eaten. Lily ran through the trees, petted the animals, and we all enjoyed the fresh air at this laid-back country tree farm.

My mom left with a 7-foot tall incense cedar, cut, carried and strapped to the car by my husband. We left with the sense that we’ll be back next year.


Jacob Mini Farm is open every day, from Dec. 1-23, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. It’s located at 34905 Creeksedge Road, between Davis and Winters, Calif. The farm is only open during December; if you’d like to come during another time of year, or would like more information, call them at (530) 753-3037.

For sale: U-cut Christmas trees, u-pick pecans, evergreen boughs and mistletoe. A small farm stand also sells whatever the farm has produced at that time, which is typically apples, walnuts, persimmons, oranges and pecans.      

Special considerations for Christmas trees grown in the Davis area: Unlike in their native areas, evergreens here don’t experience a hard freeze—and neither does their sap.

“The sap in the tree is equivalent to the blood in your body,” says Emily. “It runs nutrients through the body.”

So for locally grown Christmas trees, expect a higher than usual sap-flow and a thirstier tree during the first week or so after it’s cut.  After that, their thirst slacks somewhat.

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