In Season: Get In While the Getting's Good

If Josh Alberg of Rubinette Produce has any advice for the height of the summer produce season, it's don't procrastinate.

"When the season starts, get your favorites early," he said. "Because if you wait, they'll be gone."

The time is now to get your heirloom tomatoes at the farmers' markets, and there's a plethora of peppers, eggplant, beans, corn and peaches tumbling in from local farms. Strawberries and cane fruit like raspberries and blackberries are nearly done, as are summer squash and cucumbers, so if you haven't got around to making your grandma's favorite dill pickles yet, you'd best get cracking.

Alsberg shook his head when talking about this summer's weather.

"It's been kinda strange," he said, recounting cooler temperatures early in the summer that got everything off to a late start, with some early crops experiencing a short, not-very-robust season. Tomatoes were delayed early on, and then 100-degree days like those we've had lately "put the kibosh" on some varieties that are normally prolific in midsummer, so expect a slightly shortened season.

He may have caught my sharp intake of breath, since he quickly reassured those of us who might be expecting to preserve a couple of hundred pounds to last us through the winter. Late summer and early fall cooking varieties like Romas and Astianas should be fine, as long as temperatures remain moderately warm and we don't get early rains. Whew!

Ground vegetables like carrots, beets and turnips are plentiful, as are greens like kale and chard. As mentioned above, pepper people will find piles of Jimmy Nardellos, bell peppers in all colors and Italian sweet peppers at the markets for the next month, and peaches, nectarines and corn should be around for that long, too.

Plums and table grapes are just getting started, as are local melons, and kiwi berries and ground cherries should start appearing soon. We can also look forward to freshly dug potatoes and onions by the end of the month, as well as winter squash like delicata and butternuts. Local apples and pears will be arriving from orchards by the end of September, though Alsberg said he's seeing a few local Gravensteins listed on his farmers' hot sheets, along with Zestar, Ginger Gold and Pristine varieties.

As usual with apples, though, Alsberg—whose social media handle is "fruit monkey"—warns that most of the varieties you'll see at the big grocery store have been in storage since last November or imported from places like Australia, Chile or Argentina, so make sure you check the country of origin if you want fresh, crisp apples for your table. He winced when mentioning one in particular, called Williams Pride, describing it as "mushy and mealy." Blech!

Spring Bulletin: Strawberries, Asparagus and More!

There is one word this time of year that Oregonians wait with bated breath to hear, and that word is…strawberries! Earlier this year, as we were coming out of an extremely mild winter, farmers were expecting the season to start as much as four weeks earlier than last year. Then came a spate of our usual cool, rainy spring weather that put the kibosh on that kind of talk.

Hoods on the vine.

So here we are at the end of May, with strawberry season finally starting to kick in just in time for Memorial Day weekend. Whew!

Though Josh Alsberg of Rubinette Produce cautions if you're planning on getting some of those treasured Hood strawberries for your shortcakes, don't think you can casually stroll into the farmers' market after brunch, because those precious jewels will be long gone. Better yet, he advised checking your farmers' market's newsletter to find out which farms might have strawberries and see if you can reserve them for pick-up at the market.

There'll be berries aplenty soon!

Alsberg said we're likely to see the first flush of raspberries around the end of May, too, which will signal the beginning of full-on berry season—loganberries and tayberries first, followed by marionberries around the end of June. Cherries should be coming on soon, too, starting with big sweet Chelans and the delicious Royal Brooks and Brooks, which should be around for three to four weeks.

The seasonal avalanche of vegetables has already begun, first with wild greens like nettles and fiddleheads, then the more domesticated asparagus, which is beginning to wane, Alsberg said. But fear not, since lettuces are "full on" right now, with romaine varieties coming soon, along with those cute, grillable Little Gems that make perfect individual servings drizzled with a classic Caesar dressing or a creamy miso vinaigrette. You'll also find baby butter lettuces and eye-catching speckled-leaf varieties like Flashy Trout Back developed by Oregon plant breeder Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed in Philomath.

Lettuce season is upon us.

Spring onions are also exiting stage left as they grow into their mature size, which will be dug up and cured for winter. Alsberg scoffs at so-called "onion scapes" as "glorified green onions" and instead advises getting the solid-bodied scapes of garlic and leeks, cooking them on the grill or roasting them in the oven, then drizzling with olive oil, a scattering of salt and a splash of fish sauce.

(Side note: Alsberg said that elephant garlic is more biologically akin to leeks than garlic. Who knew?)

Greens like arugula, spinach and sorrel are seeing their day in the spring sun, too, along with local fennel and peas—both sugar snap and snow peas—which should be plentiful for the next three weeks or so. Zucchini and other summer squashes like patty pan and the ribbed costata romanesco, all ideal for grilling or roasting, will be around for the next few weeks, with cucumbers coming on strong by late June.

"To skin or not to skin?"

Shoots are on the way out, said Alsberg, so if you see some, grab 'em. And look forward to fresh favas soon—with "to skin or not to skin" being the hotly debated topic. (I've come over to the "leave the skins on" camp, especially for the smaller beans.) The sprouting versions of broccoli, broccolini and cauliflower should be available aplenty, with the new crop of potatoes coming in soon, with more later. Herbs, too, if my garden is any indication, are going gangbusters, which will call for making pestos, chimichurries and infused vinegars.

Alsberg inserts a last caution about tomatoes: Wait to buy farmers' market tomatoes in season. There are apparently some year-round hothouse tomatoes that are showing up, so he advises holding your horses until the end of June, with July being the the prime time for the red orbs of deliciousness to arrive for their annual three-month summer sojourn. I can't wait!

Local Food is Gaining Traction in an Uncertain Time

Last night about 9 pm my phone alerted me that I'd received a text. I went over and checked it. It read:

"It's Jared with your meat delivery. It's been a loooong day but finally toward you with two quick stops. Prob by 9:30. That pushing too late?"

A variety of meats are available from local farms and ranches.

My boxed order of a chuck roast and five pounds of pork sausage from Nehalem River Ranch arrived on my porch about 20 minutes later. Rancher Jared Gardner, sitting in the cab of his truck and tapping the address of his next stop into his phone, said he'd left his home in the foothills of Oregon’s Coast Range at 6:20 that morning and had been on the road ever since. He had four more stops to make before he headed back.

In the shadow of a global pandemic, local farmers and ranchers, while they've lost a major revenue stream due to the shuttering of the restaurants that had made Portland a must-stop on the short list of national food scenes, seem to be experiencing a renaissance of sorts among locals looking to source food that hasn't been shipped long distances and handled hundreds of times before it hits store shelves.

Farms offering Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscriptions are reporting record sales far exceeding previous years, many even selling out ahead of the start of the season. Many of the farms that depended on restaurants have pivoted to offering CSA subscriptions, or setting up online ordering systems with delivery at drop-off points around the city, or even making deliveries to customers' homes.

Hillsdale Farmers' Market has adopted a drive-through model.

Farmers' markets themselves are adapting to the new rules and regulations surrounding the coronavirus, some going so far as to switch to online ordering and drive-through pick up, with others spreading out vendors and policing social distancing, all in the interest of supporting local farms while keeping shoppers and vendors safe. The Oregon farmers' market association has worked with state regulators on a set of guidelines and policies intended to keep markets operating as essential services, similar to grocery stores and gas stations.

Older folks, who find shopping in their neighborhood stores untenably stressful, are among those flocking to home delivery or curbside pick-up. With many supermarkets pushing out delivery of orders for a week or longer, and socially distanced lines of shoppers waiting to get into stores stretching around the block, online shopping is becoming an increasingly sought-after solution.

Businesses like Milk Run, a marketplace and distribution system for products from  local farms and producers, and greengrocers like Rubinette Produce and Cherry Sprout, have seen a huge increase in customers looking for high quality local food. Perhaps for the first time, people are perceiving it as an attractive attribute that farm-direct produce and meats haven't gone through the massive system of transportation, packaging, warehousing, distribution, store warehousing and in-store stocking, at each stop needing to be handled by workers.

West Coast albacore is MSC certified as sustainable.

Local fishing families are getting on board, too—no pun intended—offering a variation on the traditional CSA that is being called a CSF (for fishery). One, Tre-Fin Day Boat Seafood, offers a years' subscription of two sizes of boxes of their sustainably sourced fish (there's also a one-box "trial" offering). "This is the food we wanted to feed our families, and it just wasn't available," said co-owner Barrett Ames about why he and Mike Domeyer started the company.

Cory Carman of Carman Ranch in Eastern Oregon has recently begun offering home delivery in Portland of six different boxes of pasture-raised meats designed to fit the needs of a wide variety of customers, from traditional chuck roasts and steaks to other boxes offer chicken, pork or their own custom-cut "lady steaks," which are small steaks from premium cuts like the tenderloin, ribeye and New York strip. (Read my profile of Cory for Civil Eats.)

Like Jared of Nehalem River Ranch, Cory is working within this "new normal" that we're all learning to navigate while still maintaining her commitment to a food system that works for her business, her community, the environment and the soil. Rather than worrying about what's coming next in this uncertain time, she wrote, "It seems better to imagine the world we want to emerge from this chaos, and to lean into it. Strangely enough, for me, that world isn't dissimilar to the one I’ve always imagined with vibrant community and nutritious food at its center."

Get a shopping guide to certified pasture-raised meat producers in Oregon.

Top photo: CSA share from Diggin' Roots Farm. Photo of meats from Carman Ranch. Photo of drive-through market from Hillsdale Farmers' Market.

In Season: Fall Has Fell? More Like Exploded!

Like many farmers I've talked with in the last couple of weeks, Josh Alsberg of Rubinette Produce seemed shell-shocked at how quickly summer has left the scene. "It fell off the cliff real fast," he said, recalling how our usual leisurely stroll from summer into fall seemed more like a bad writer's solution to tying up the loose ends of a messy script.

Espelette peppers make a fabulous fermented hot sauce.

A high mountain pass, a hairpin curve, screeching brakes and a looping, slow-motion tumble into the canyon. (Like one person's summary of the voluminous Anna Karenina: "Anna. Train. Squish.")

It's certainly not all doom and gloom, though. Alsberg emphasized that farmers' market shoppers will find that some peppers are still available, as are some local table grapes that weren't mush-ified by the cold rains, but you'd best catch them now or say sayonara until next year.

Josh's favorite apple? The Rubinette, of course!

What you will discover at farmers' markets are a panoply of apples and pears from local orchards, along with fresh ciders by the gallon. And, on October 19th at Providore Fine Foods, Alsberg is hosting a tasting of more than two dozen varieties of heritage, heirloom and hard-to-find apples—specially priced for the event—as well as local ciders and a variety of apple-y treats from Tim Healea at Little T Baker. Another reason to go? Five percent of the day's sales will go to benefit the Sauvie Island Center, which provides local children with unique experiences that helps them make the connection between the food they eat, farming and the land.

Black futsu.

Look for squash to come on strong—Alsberg hates the term "winter squash," preferring instead the term "hard squash" to differentiate it from the softer-textured summer squash like zucchini, costata romanesco, crookneck and pattypan. He rattles off delicata, acorn and butternut as the more common exemplars of the hard squashes, but gets a gleam in his eye when he talks about his fondness for more unusual (and usually better-flavored) varieties like Black Futsu, Tetsukabuto, Gill's Golden Pippin and Robin's Koginut, an organic variety developed by rock star vegetable breeder Michael Mazourek of Cornell University.

If you're looking for the best flavor, it's always better to know your local grower, Alsberg believes. "When it's industrially grown the flavor goes out the window," he said. Big growers are looking for yield and an ability to sustain less-than-ideal shipping conditions; flavor is way down the list of their priorities, he says.

Castelfranco chicory.

Chicories are also going to be abundant, and you'll find local farms offering not just radicchio, escarole and frisée on farmers' market tables, but pale green-speckled-with-red heads of Castelfranco, the long green romaine-like Sugarloaf (known as Pan di Zucchero in Italy) and the pink-to-deep-rose Rosalba. Tardivo is another variety that's gaining popularity, with its long, thin, arching leaves and thick white ribs. (Alsberg claims to have created the hashtag #ChicoryIsTheNewKale, and who am I to argue?)

Local mushrooms are going strong, plentiful enough that you can look for good pricing on chanterelles in the coming weeks. Persimmons are also looking plentiful, and you might begin to find pawpaws from a couple local farms. Pawpaws, also called the Indiana banana, are the largest edible fruit native to North America with a flavor that tastes like a cross between a mango and a banana, and breeders have been adapting them to the Northwest's maritime climate.

Purple sprouting broccoli.

When I exclaimed at the bunches of purple sprouting broccoli that I saw on his shelves, Alsberg launched into the glories of brassicas, saying that they're just beginning their season and should be abundant for the next few weeks. The bottom line is, don't mourn the passing of summer, because there's plenty to be excited about in the chilly days to come.

Providore Fine Foods, which includes purveyors Rubinette Produce, Pastaworks, Flying Fish, The Meat Monger, Little T American Baker and Hilary Horvath Flowers, is a sponsor of Good Stuff NW.

In Season: Summer Avalanche Warning

It wasn't an auspicious beginning to a meeting. As I sat down to talk with Josh Alsberg, aka "Fruit Monkey" and proprietor of Rubinette Produce in the wondrous land of food that is Providore Fine Foods, he said he had sad news.

"Strawberries are done," he deadpanned.

Hood strawberries.

My shocked expression caused him to quickly add, "I mean Hoods. The heat cut them off." Then Alsberg assured me that we will be seeing other varieties like Seascapes and Albions through the summer and into September, though the harvest this year is looking slimmer than usual—the word he used was "trickle"—so he's advising you strawberry addicts out there to get to the farmers' markets on the early side to get your fix.

In happier news, he said the bounty of other berries is about to bury us, and he's started to see raspberries, blackberries, tayberries and loganberries on farmers' fresh sheets. He expects marionberries and local blueberries to appear en masse by the 4th of July, and the "bloobs," as we refer to them here at home, should stick around well into August.

Blueberries ahoy!

A caveat: Alsberg emphasizes that the summer's heat will affect all the berries—it can make strawberries more woody. He said the best time to buy berries at the markets is on the early side while they're still cool, then process them soon after you get home so they're not sitting around in the heat. As for freezing, his advice is to spread the berries out on sheet trays—the industry refers to it as "IQF" or "Individually Quick Freeze"—before freezing and bagging. (I hasten to add that Monsieur Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm would disagree…)

Cherries aplenty.

Alsberg also crows that "cherries are on!" and we should be seeing local—he includes Washington's Yakima-area fruit in that definition—red-fleshed varieties like Attikas, Royal Brooks and Chelans at farmers' market stalls. Pro tip: Alsberg shares that local cherries tend to be more expensive at the beginning of the season when the harvest is just getting going, so if you can hold off until after July 4th, you should see prices begin to drop somewhat. (Wink wink, nudge nudge.)

Costata romanesco squash.

It's not all fruit out there, either, and despite his Fruit Monkey moniker, Alsberg is equally excited about the coming avalanche of vegetables about to bury us in local green (and yellow and red and…). We're in the throes of squash season, he says, with zucchini, crookneck, eight-ball (a type of ball-shaped zucchini), pattypan and costata romanesco (a ribbed green summer variety) flooding in. You'll also find alliums in abundance, with scapes of all sorts—leek, shallot, garlic, etc.—sticking around for a bit, soon to be overshadowed by fresh, as opposed to cured, Walla Wallas, red onions, scallions and fresh shallots.

Purple sprouting broccoli.

There is the slightest whisper about local tomatoes starting to appear, but Alsberg said that it'll be mid-July before they'll be available in any quantity. Peas, asparagus and favas, those fleeting bright green delights of spring, are on their way out, as are the spring roots like radishes and turnips, but cucumbers are coming and local lettuces are in their glory right now. Romano beans and their compatriots are just starting to appear, as are all the herbs, including my favorites, basil and tarragon, along with local celery and carrots, as well as newer faces like sprouting cauliflower and purple sprouting broccoli (referred to as PSB in certain circles).

Alsberg didn't realize he'd made "ze leetle joke" when he said that "new potatoes are starting to turn up" (ha!), but shoppers should find yellow, red and fingerlings aplenty. With warming temperatures, rhubarb will be getting scarce, but don't despair, local eggplant is coming, as are melons (by the end of July) and apricots.

A rainbow of potato varieties.

Other bits and bobs to look for include orach, a red-leaved plant in the same family as spinach and chard, and arugula. Local corn will be coming around the end of July, as will the plethora of peppers from sweet to hot. You'll start seeing plums in mid-July with the full panoply appearing in August along with table grapes.

My advice? Boot up your spreadsheets and make a plan to use some of this local goodness now with schemes to preserve some for winter!

In Season: Bound, Hop, Jump, Leap, Vault!

No matter how you say it, spring in the Northwest is a much-anticipated season. Gardeners are getting out their seed packets and determining how many yards of compost their backs can withstand—see this post about holding off on the tomatoes for now—and cooks are dreaming of the bright green herbs and greens that will soon festoon their tables.

Seeing nettles and fiddleheads already popping up in my social media feeds, I figured it was time to talk with produce guy and fruit monkey Josh Alsberg of Rubinette Produce about what he's seeing on his local farmers' fresh sheets. So grab a pencil, kids, it's time to make our spring farmers' market shopping lists!

Raab-o-Rama

Josh knows my weaknesses, so of course the first thing he pulls out is the list of the various raabs, rapinis and rabes on offer. We could both hear Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm snorting that the only true raab comes from turnips, the rest are the inflorescence of plants, defined as "a group or cluster of flowers arranged on a stem that is composed of a main branch. Morphologically, it is the modified part of the shoot of seed plants where flowers are formed."

Raab with mushroom sauce.

So, with that, in alphabetical order, look for these inflorescences at the markets: bok choy, brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, kale sprouts, mizuna, red choy, spigarello, tatsoi and turnips, among others.

Josh notes that each tastes slightly different depending on the parent plant's particular flavor profile, but all have that amazing, vibrant flavor and crunch when pan-fried—I like to brown a little homemade bacon and chopped garlic first, then add the greens, chopped or not—or, in the case of the bigger sprouts, roasted quickly in a hot oven.

Whew!

More Greens

As for other greens, look for watercress, various mustards, mizunas both green and red, arugula, and a new one to me, wasabi arugula—Josh said it has the tangy bite of that Japanese root. (Note to self: must try.) Lettuces are just barely coming on but will be available shortly, and spinach, which is a bit more cold-tolerant, is here now.

Fiddleheads.

With spring running about a month later than last year, wild things are going crazy trying to catch up. Look for the aforementioned fiddleheads, as well as "triangle leeks" or wild onions, which have a curious folded vertical green, as well as nettles. These will be available at the markets, but if you're headed out on a hike, here's a guide to foraging wild onions and garlic.

Calçots, that spectacular Spanish scallion relative pioneered in Oregon by Manuel and Leslie Recio at their late, lamented Viridian Farms, are appearing, too, so make some salbitxada sauce and throw a spring calçotada! Spring onions like Walla Walla and red onions should be appearing soon, but green garlic is here now—use them like scallions or make a pesto to toss with pasta or serve it alongside grilled meats and fish.

Purple sprouting broccoli.

Dribs and drabs of local asparagus and purple sprouting broccoli—refer to it as PSB if you want to sound cooler-than-thou—are just now coming into season, but Josh advises that you need to get to the markets early to get the little asparagus available, at least for the next couple of weeks before the full harvest comes in.

Bundles of fresh spring herbs like parsley, oregano, chervil, thyme and chives are beginning to show up, so chimichurries and other herb sauces are definitely called for. Microgreens and young shoots of favas and peas should also make your list. They will only get more abundant as the season rolls along.

Roots and More

Radishes, spring beets and the small, white hakurei turnips as well as their greens are terrific roasted and served with the herb sauces mentioned above. Small local bulbs of fennel will be here toward the end of the month.

Rhubarb.

One of my favorite vegetables-that-cooks-like-a-fruit, rhubarb, is flashing its red stalks, and Josh said a green variety that, unlikely as it seems, is a bit more sour than the red variety, is also being grown locally.

Look for local mushrooms like maitake and lion's mane are coming in from forests and fields, and I've heard whispers that this year's morel harvest may be a big one. Though Josh warns that false morels, or verpa bohemica, a species of fungus known informally as a "false morel" is sometimes sold as a true morel, so be sure to ask your vendor.

Strawberries?

Still two to three weeks off, according to Mr. Alsberg. Look for them at the end of April or the beginning of May. He said that Unger Farms in Cornelius is the driver for strawberry season in the Willamette Valley, and the first to appear will be Albions, followed by Seascapes. The first Hoods will most likely be available around Memorial Day, though—and this is a mantra we should all take to heart—"everything is subject to Mother Nature."