Have you noticed how many people in this town claim to love produce in season? I am not one of them. I would prefer that everything that I like to stay perfect, and ripe, for all time, forever. A month ago, grocery stores all over town had bins filled with small, tart, incredibly fresh pink lady apples. Then they vanished, replaced by gigantic, eerily symmetrical watery waxed substitutes, clearly from some refrigerated produce depot. “Apple season is OVER,” said one of the produce workers, not unkindly, when I asked plaintively where the little apples had gone.
It was probably best for my health that they disappeared. I was eating three or four Pink Ladies a day, most notoriously first thing in the morning while riding my bicycle to work. I justified it to myself by thinking of the woman I once saw driving a Volkswagen down Caesar Chavez while eating corn on the cob, turning the steering wheel with her elbows.
So: apples are gone. What is delicious now?
“It’s spring,” says Mission chef Nicole LoBue, who teaches classes in canning and fermentation and cheesemaking at the Center for Urban Projects. “Most things are just beginning to come in. So you have edible flowers, baby lettuce, artichokes, asparagus. There isn’t much yet, so everything is precious and expensive. In the summer is when produce will get really abundant.”
Fava beans, reports LoBue, are just coming in. They’ll be gone by early May, and possibly even before then, and they are both extraordinarily frustrating, and extraordinarily delicious. Get ready to listen to all of your favorite podcasts in a row, because shucking them from their pods takes forever. The beans are always a) less than you thought you had and b) wonderful. They’re one of the oldest cultivated plants in existence (humans have been growing them since prehistoric times). They’re also not especially common in California as a crop (they’re mostly grown here for seed or as a cover crop as part of a crop rotation) so if you do crave fava beans at non-extortionate prices, growing your own, or culivating the friendship of someone who does is advised. Favas are not to be tinkered with too much – they are at their absolute bestsauteed in olive oil, garlic/onion, salt and pepper, and either tossed into pasta, or spread on a slice of exceptionally good (but not too distracting) bread.
On its way in, Lo Bue says, is the morel mushroom. Practical types can buy them, the more adventurous (and not necessarily results-oriented) go on the hunt. Morels are especially prone to appearing in areas that have recently had fires – legends abound of their cropping up in the charred wreckage of bomb sites, in particular. Ardent mushroom hunters throughout time have been accused of starting fires in the hopes of luring them. Other signs to look for: they crop up right after wet or rainy weather, they aren’t fond of pine trees, and they dig rotting logs and dead tree stumps. If you do go hunting, make sure to check them closely first to make sure they aren’t something extremely unpleasant that just looks like a morel.
Morels aren’t quite exactly mushrooms – they’re from the asomycete family. Among their siblings: truffles, brewer’s and bakers yeast, penicillan, Dutch Elm disease, and diaper rash. And yet they are so much more delicious than most of the above. They should never be eaten raw, and are at their best in fairly simple, fatty dishes. They are especially good served with asparagus.
On its way out of season is California citrus, but still in season is the “It-may-not-even-be-citrus-depending-on-who-you-talk-to” kumquat. Kumquats were once considered citrus, before being moved into a separate genus in 1915, and a low-level debate rages on whether to move them back again.
The kumquat originates in China (the name is believed to be a phonetic rendering of the Cantonese word for the plant) but were mostly sold in California as decorative plants until the 1960′s. That was when immigration of people from cultures with a history of eating kumquats instead of just looking at them reached enough of a tipping point that kumquat trees became re-branded as food as well as decoration. San Francisco’s microclimates don’t get warm enough to produce good-tasting outdoor kumquats, but a sunny apartment in San Francisco does. Those willing to bust out a paintbrush and hand-pollinate can be harvesting fruit with a farm-to-table distance of a few feet. And anyone passing through Davis, which has a perfect kumquat climate, can take advantage of numerous foraging opportunities.
Meiwa kumquats, the variety that LoBute recommends, are eaten whole, like grapes. They have a simultaneous sweet and mouth-puckeringly sour quality whose only analogue, to most American palates, is the genre of hyper sour/hyper sweet candy most often consumed during schoolyard dares.
Among the things you can do with kumquats: use them in Moroccan and other citrus-heavy dishes, infuse vodka with them, or candy them and then serving them over desserts.
Your reporter had a beautiful plan to make kumquat marmalade. That plan became undone when your reporter ate the entire box while reading cookbooks. Which is another – and quite possibly the best – option when you’re trying to appreciate something in the here and now. Why get fussy?