Has it really been 20 years? I recall with fondness a most memorable holiday spent in Israel in the fall of 1992. We could not have picked a better season to be there. Leaving Los Angeles the day after Yom Kippur, we found Jerusalem bustling with preparations for Sukkot. The terrace of every apartment sported a sukkah, and we ate breakfast each morning under fruit-laden branches, our lavish Israeli buffet feast mirrored in the sukkah above. Truly we had reached the Promised Land at its most lush and bountiful season.
Sukkot, the week-long festival beginning at sundown September 30, is mentioned in the Torah (Leviticus 23:34-39). Immediately following the fast of Yom Kippur, Jews the world over begin constructing sukkot (booths) in preparation for the joyous feast that begins four days later. How our forefathers must have rejoiced to enjoy the fruits of their labors, closer to the heavens, as the growing season culminated in bushels of plenty.
While you’d hardly know it from the diet of our Ashkenazi ancestors (beets and cabbage being notable exceptions), Jewish cuisine, at least in the Mediterranean, from Biblical times has had a long love affair with vegetables, and what better time to show them off than during Sukkot. And what better way to celebrate this thanksgiving of the harvest than with a trip to your local farmers’ market.
Today I accompany Amelia Saltsman – writer, cooking teacher and author of The Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Cookbook (Blenheim Press, $22.95) – on a stroll through the market. But there are frequent interruptions, because this is the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, and Saltsman is the undisputed queen of this market and instantly recognized by farmers and shoppers alike.
Every grower greets Saltsman, who has immortalized them in her cookbook, which is as much an homage to the farmers, their histories and their commitment to excellence as it is a collection of fuss-less, original and artful recipes inspired by the amazing varieties they produce. Fresh Porcini and Potato Soup. Slow Baked Quince with Honey and Cognac. Dried Plum and Toasted Almond Cream Tart. Recipes that showcase ingredients over method, with Saltsman guiding us from the familiar to the exotic.
A deliveryman whizzes by carrying mounds of bush-like, herby-looking bouquets.
“Fresh garbanzo beans,” Saltsman informs me. “You can find unusual things at the farmers’ market that you would never find anywhere else. It’s not that they’re so rare – they’re just rare here. And even the very ordinary things sing with great flavor – carrots, potatoes, eggplant, tomatoes – it makes all the difference in the world.”
But the main reason to shop at a farmers’ market is the taste, she says. “Because the ingredients are so fresh, they will keep for a surprisingly long time, because they’re picked at their peak. Their entire shelf life is spent in your home, not being shipped.”
With the approach of fall, we spot the first Bartlett pears, giving Saltsman a “bittersweet feeling,” because they’re displayed next to summer’s Dapple Dandy pluots we gorge ourselves on. (Alas, by the time you read this, they’ll be gone, but make note to self for next year!)
Shopper Sue picks up a lavender and cream-colored, teardrop-shaped eggplant and asks Saltsman, “What do I do with this?”
“That’s a Rosa Bianca – it’s very creamy inside,” Saltsman informs her. “Cut it in cubes and sauté it – it gets tender quickly – or roast it in thick slices. It just melts in your mouth.”
Select one with a fresh, green calyx, she advises. “An eggplant needs to be hard and heavy for its size with no bruises. What makes them bitter is their size as they age. Aren’t you a little more bitter now?” she asks me.
“Get advice from the grower,” she says. “A good farmer will give you an honest answer, what’s early, what’s late, what’s at its peak. If they steer me right, I’ll come back.”
Think only long, thin carrots are sweet? Jerry from Rutiz Farms picks me a bunch of short, fat Chantenays. “You don’t even have to peel these,” notes Saltsman, offering me a crunchy bite. Delicious!
“My message is, the time you spend shopping here is time you save in the kitchen. The ingredients stand alone. Why would I want to clutter them up? It’s really fun to find unusual things, but even the everyday ingredients resonate with flavor and health. Worried about obesity? Check. Done. Worried about the planet? Check. Done. Plus you’re supporting the local economy. You’re multitasking when you’re eating like this.”
Persimmon, Pomegranate and Pecan Salad
Yield: 8 servings
4 ribs celery, preferably inner whiter ribs with leaves
2 small or 1 large Fuyu persimmon
½ cup pecan or walnut pieces, toasted
½ pound mixed baby salad greens
About 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil or nut oil
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
½ cup crumbled feta cheese (optional)
1 To remove pomegranate kernels, make a cut near blossom end of fruit, submerge pomegranate in bowl of water and break fruit into large pieces. Use your fingers to loosen kernels, then drain and reserve. They will keep refrigerated up to 3 days.
2 Use vegetable peeler to peel celery, then slice paper-thin on diagonal. Place in salad bowl along with leaves.
3 Core persimmon, cut vertically into quarters then crosswise into thin slices. Add to bowl along with nuts, greens and as many pomegranate kernels as you like.
4 Grate zest from lemon in long, thin strands into bowl. Drizzle on oil, squeeze lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Toss well and sprinkle with cheese, if using.
Roasted Seasonal Fruit
Yield: 8 servings
3 pounds assorted fruits or a single type
1 cup berries or Concord red grapes
¼ cup honey, warmed
1 or more sprigs lavender (optional)
1/3 cup Muscat or other dessert wine
Yogurt Cheese (recipe follows) or other mild cheese such as fromage blanc, ricotta, or goat cheese
1 Heat grill to low. Halve and pit or core fruits. If using apples and pears, quarter them; if using persimmons, peel and slice them. Place fruits, cut side up, in shallow baking pan suitable for grill. Scatter berries on top and drizzle with honey. Crush buds of lavender sprig over fruits and pour wine over all.
2 Place pan on grill rack and roast, basting occasionally with pan juices, until fruits are tender and browned, about 45 minutes. (Or bake in 375˚F oven for 30 to 40 minutes, then, if desired, place under hot broiler to brown fruit.) Transfer fruit to platter and top with additional crushed lavender buds, if using. Accompany each serving with dollop of cheese.
Yogurt Cheese: Use 2 cups whole-milk or low-fat plain yogurt. Line a fine mesh sieve with double thickness of cheesecloth, allowing ends to overhang rim, and set sieve over deep bowl. Spoon yogurt into sieve, cover with ends of cheesecloth and refrigerate at least 6 hours or up to overnight to drain whey.
Source: The Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Cookbook by Amelia Saltsman