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Locally Yours: Spring brings with it new crop of local produce

By: Carol Arnold
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There is nothing like the first weeks of the new growing season. I eagerly await the arrival of the spring crops as they begin to appear in their time-honored order. Two weeks ago at the farmers' market the Rodriquez Brothers' first sweet, ripe, red strawberries were snatched up by eagerly waiting customers. Word spread through the market that Mrs. Thao had fresh, deep green asparagus for sale. Artichokes would be widely available in the coming weeks. It won't be long before the Triple Crown berries make their appearance. Stop right there. Hold your happy spring horses because last week my family and I flew to the East Coast to look at colleges for our daughter, a junior at Placer High. We left 60-degree weather only to get off of the plane in Boston to find freezing winds and a high of 37. Vermont and New Hampshire still have two feet of snow on the ground. One morning it was below 20 degrees. We drove past farms whose fields were mud bogs and boarded-up farm stands. The numerous greenhouses stand empty. It is still winter there, with no local produce to be found. What a sharp contrast to our verdant green hills and farms that produce all winter long. We had at least nine farms represented at the market from November through March. We only had one day, after heavy winds and rain, that some farmers needed to stay home to clean up storm damage. Week in and week out we have had bountiful produce. Not only do we have produce but we also have variety, even in the depth of winter. Today, before we rush headlong into the new crops of spring, let's celebrate one more time the bounty of winter produce at the Farmers' Market with one of my favorite recipes from Florence, Italy ” Ribollita Soup. I stumbled upon Ribollita Soup at a small restaurant in Florence in 2003. I was so taken by the taste that I spoke to the chef about the recipe. It is basically made from whatever foodstuffs are available in the kitchen that day, including stale bread. The quantities are very flexible, but two points are not flexible. You must sauté the onions in olive oil in a separate pan to deepen the flavor of the soup and you must use cannellini beans for their unique flavor and to give the dish more substance. I often blend the soup mixture with an emulsion blender and then add the toppings. This creates a smoother, silkier version and highlights the olive oil and onion. I also recommend using a high quality olive oil in this soup; the fruity flavor will add a lovely base note to an already incredible dish. Enjoy this wonderful dish and say farewell to winter. I hope to see you Saturday at the Auburn Old Town Farmers' Market, open 8 a.m. to noon in the jury parking lot on Auburn-Folsom Road. Please remember, eat local first! Carol Arnold is the general manager of the Foothill Farmers' Market Association. She can be reached at clarnold@yahoo.com. Ribollita Soup This soup is made in two stages. You can make it earlier in the day and then finish it right before eating or even make it the day before you would like to serve it. 3 small red potatoes, diced 3 cups Savoy cabbage, coarsely chopped 3 cups kale, coarsely chopped 1 14.5-ounce can whole tomatoes, coarsely chopped, with juices 1 14.5-ounce can cannellini beans, un-drained 3 cups Swiss chard, coarsely chopped 1 1/2 red onions, sliced thinly, divided use 2 stalks celery, diced 3 cloves garlic, minced 2 carrots, diced Leaves from 3 sprigs fresh thyme 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided use 3/4 loaf hearty Italian bread, cut into one-inch pieces (Pugliese works well) 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes 1 teaspoon salt, more for taste Clean, wash, peel and roughly chop all of the vegetables and place into a large saucepan along with salt. Cover with water and cook for 40 minutes at a fast simmer. Remove from heat and add the beans. Set aside. Fry one sliced onion in 4 tablespoons of olive oil with the red pepper flakes in a large ovenproof casserole dish (I use a Dutch oven); add the thyme leaves. Stir the bread cubes into the onion mixture; now pour the vegetable soup over the bread and onion mixture, stir well to combine and cook gently for about 10 minutes. Remove from heat. You may either refrigerate the soup at this point or continue the recipe. Right before serving, top the soup with the remaining sliced onion and drizzle with the remaining olive oil. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes.