Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Rainy Day Musings

It's raining here today, so no lawn mowing on my day off and probably some split tomatoes in my little patch out back. On the commercial scene, Ohio sweet corn is in (and has been for several weeks) and it is delish. Those of you who've followed this blog at all (very few, judging from my follower's list) may remember my surprise at how early southern peaches showed up this year (not long after the California, which is unusual). I'm sad to say the quality of the South Carolina and Georgia peaches doesn't seem to be up to the usual standards. They look great and, after some early concerns about shelf life, seem to be holding up well, but people, the flavor just isn't there! If you have California, or even better locally grown, peaches available, try those compared to the southern. The Cals are, I think, much more flavorful this year, if more expensive (shipping costs and all).

Ohio tomatoes are in, too, with mixed quality, some just good, some really good, some flat amazing. My personal tomatoes are doing just fine, although the weather has conspired to create too many splits and some flower-end yuck. Needs to get hot and dry and stay that way and this summer that just may not happen. But I'm getting good yellow toms (Lemon Boy), Green Zebras, Sweet 100s and Romas, if fewer than I expected, so I can't complain. The best Ohio tomatoes we've been able to get at the moment appear to be coming from Amish farmers in the Ashland County area, a bit north of here. Demand appears to be high and wholesale prices are strong (meaning high), good for the farmers but not so good if you need to buy and re-sell and make a profit too, especially considering the economic situation around here.

Indiana melons (a type of muskmelon/canteloupe for those of you outside the Midwest) are going strong, beautiful and tasty. Remember the keys to picking the best -- slipped off the vine (no vine left), good beige (no green) under dense webbing, a little soft on the ends, strong canteloupe fragrance from the stem -- and you can't go wrong.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Berries starting -- hurrah!

Black raspberries came through the door Saturday (from Wooster) and more came in today (Tuesday) from Chillicothe. I expect we'll have the blacks for a month or six weeks, and the red raspberries (due by the weekend, according to our Chllicothe guy) until almost the end of the summer, with a week or so of non-availability between the early and late crops. Blueberries could be a problem, because we don't have a regular supplier who will deliver lined up.

The latter comment, as well as the mysteries of getting local berries on a more consistent basis (difficult in Ohio), seems to me to be the basis for a potential business. I worked this business in Portland, Oregon, for a number of years before moving back home to Ohio, and independent grocers throughout northwest Oregon and southwest Washington really depended on a guy named Patrick Fink for their berries -- and boy did he have them. I think he knew every berry grower in that corner of the world, and he served as their market-maker.

Makes me wonder if I could do the same (or something similar?) here. More thoughts on this sort of thing in the future.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

More early stuff

Well, it's been a while, hasn't it? Sorry. The past month or so has been busy and work and home, and the blog has suffered. But continuing in the vein of earliness I discussed in the May 19 blog, both local strawberries and corn were early (again, I should add) this year. There are technical reasons for this seeming earliness, because when I was a kid (back in the Dark Ages of the 1940's and 1950's), strawberries were never ready until June 1 or a day or two on either side of it, then lasted until about July 4, and local sweet corn was rare before late July.

Many strawberry growers these days (at least in Ohio) are using a technique called roto-cropping for an earlier yield on their fields. This involves a roughly six-month rotation between strawberries and some other crop, like melons or squash. At the end of the summer season, the late products are plowed under and strawberries planted in their place. In the spring, the strawberries leap from the ground and produce a prodigious first-year crop, almost out of control in quantity and size -- big in both respects. They're pretty tasty, too, although it's arguable whether they're better than the strawberries produce over the four- or five-year time span of traditional growing methods.

Many believe bigger berries aren't as sweet as the smaller berries of the past, but that may just be nostalgia. Certainly, I think the berries grown using roto-cropping are plenty tasty, but I have to say I did my usual freezer jam production a few weeks ago at the peak of the season and it was an utter failure. Anyone have any use for pint upon pint of strawberry syrup? No, me either.

Whether this failure was my fault or something about the berries I can't say, but the same thing happened last year to a lesser degree even though I followed directions to the letter both times. Maybe it was me. Oh, well.

Anyway, once the berries are finished (simply exhausted or beaten up by rain once too many times), the vines are plowed under and a second crop planted.

Sweet corn is a little different story. Corn is one of those crops that can be largely customized by hybridizing, and numerous early varieties have been developed in the last ten years (roughly), pushing the appearance of fresh sweet corn forward by a month or so. Now, this corn is mostly (and maybe exclusively, since all I've seen has been) available in the so-called peaches and cream bi-color format. I think it's a little bland compared to the later bi-color varieties and some -- not all -- of the late summer white and yellow sweets, but it still beats the alternative of corn shipped in from 500 to a thousand miles away.

Summer's here, finally, and we'll have good sweet corn until the end of September or, luck holding, into October. Not to mention the raspberries, blueberries, blackberries and other local yummies starting to show up now. Personally, I'm looking forward to the tomatoes in my back yard, which are setting tons of fruit and should start showing some ripeness by mid-July. Yumm.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Musings about the seasons, and RAMPS!!

Maybe it's just me, but it seems that many of the seasonal cultivated vegetables are appearing on the market considerably earlier than usual. Vidalia onions, for example. I've seldom seen them on the market earlier than, well, about now, but we've had them at the store for a couple of weeks already. South Carolina peaches, for another example. I'd say June 1 at the earliest under most circumstances, but here they are on display a couple of weeks before the end of May. They're a little hard yet, but they're gonna be good once they soften up a little. Local rhubarb and local asparagus, for two more. I didn't expect either one until around the end of May, but we've had them both for the last couple of weeks already

Makes me want to revise my internal timetable for things like local berries, cherries, grapes, peaches, and apples, the gourmet fruits of the Midwest. Is it global warming, or is my timetable totally kerfluffled to begin with? I don't know.

More postings on this as conditions warrant.

We're had several shipments of Morels in the last couple of weeks (more or less on time), and local guys have brought in some really nice 'schrooms, as well. They're goooooood!!

But we've also had a couple of opportunities to buy Ramps, those pungent and completely delicious wild leeks found wild only in the East, usually in damp spots on the forest floor after canopy has mostly closed (they like both damp soil and shade). Which got me to thinking about the long-term viability of stripping the woods of foods like, well, Morels and Ramps.

As far as I know, Morels are (not yet) cultivated by anyone and and enough escape (so far) from mushroom hunters that they're not in any great danger. In the West, Morels seem to like disturbed areas in the woods, of which there are many, and in the East, seem to be associated with dead elms, of which there are (still) many. So (for the time being), I think they're safe and abundant.

But Ramps are a different case. They're members on the allium (onion) family, which means they flower on a tall stalk, take months to set and mature their seeds, and replant themselves in the immediate vicinity of the mother plant by falling from the stalk to the ground. Pull a Ramp (or worse, all the Ramps in a patch) and you may have destroyed the whole thing. My Ramp customers have noted in the past few years how they seem to be becoming less abundant and readily available (the Rangers at the Smoky Mountain National Park have noticed too, and banned Ramp hunting within the park beginning in 2002).

One result has been investigations into cultivating Ramps. One is "Cultivating Ramps: Wild Leeks of Appalachia," by Jeanine M. Davis and Jacqulyn Greenfield (, a paper written in 2002 which details research into taking Ramps out of the wild and into the gardens of specialty growers.

Seems to me it would be a fairly small but potentially lucrative type of farming, although the advice seems to indicate a 40-acre wood of the right type might be the best place to farm. Not the traditonal kind of thing, not at all.

But I've wondered about it this spring. Hmmm! Wonder if I could buy a chunk of suitable woodland.....

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Water water not everywhere

News item --

Farmers in (California’s) drought-stricken agricultural basin will finally get a meager supply of federal water to help irrigate crops this summer. Federal officials said storms in March allowed them to increase the amount of water sent to customers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Water districts that supply some of the nation’s largest farms in that region will receive 10 percent of the amount they are entitled to under government contracts.

Article in The New York Times, Associated Press, 4/22/09

California has been -- and still is -- the premier producer of the nation's fruits and vegetables, to the point where a water problem in California (and California has always had water problems -- see Cadillac Desert, by Marc Reisner circa 1986 for an exhaustive discussion of the problem) can create a situation where prices skyrocket at the nation's grocery stores.

Few Americans are likely to be seriously inconvenienced by this, for we remain a wealthy country and compared to most other places in the world, spend a shockingly low percentage of our income on food.

But I believe it illustrates a need that many recognize but few at the political level where things can be done, i.e. our national and state "leaders," wish to acknowledge. We as a nation (and let's include Canada and Mexico in this as well) are dependent upon California foodstuffs to a degree not dissimilar to the U.S. dependence upon Middle East oil. We as nations -- North America -- need to diversify our sources.

More in future blogs....

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Why are so many organics encased in plastic?

It's been a puzzle to me for years why so many fresh foods -- fruits and veggies alike -- come in plastic containers of one sort or another. And especially why organic products are so often encased in plastic.

I was wondering about this a couple of days ago while putting up organic strawberries stuffed inside one-pound plastic boxes. I personally think plastic boxes are fine for shipping -- they do help prevent the dreaded squish effect of unpacked berries, after all -- but....

Aren't organics supposed to be a better alternative for the health of the planet, not to mention the health of the people? They cost more, sometimes a lot more, but isn't that the price we should be willing to pay for loving care bestowed by hand as opposed to care bestowed by chemicals? Doesn't such close companionship inside those plastic containers just encourage the mold and mildew to which tender organics are more susceptible owing to a lack of fungicides in their growth, ripening and shipping phases?

I now work for a store that slaps all its berries (except local berries) out for sale inside plastic -- and without careful examination every day, suffer the usual fate of plasticized produce, bruising and its companions rot and mold. This is the first place I've ever worked that didn't take the time to spill berries into molded paper pulp containers before offering them to customers -- and I go along with it because the truth is that it's easier, faster, and most importantly cheaper to toss out pre-packaged berries than it is to take the time to sort through them with the care and respect I believe they deserve. This probably makes me a sellout, but I need the job.

I think you as customers should start asking pointed questions about this practice, particularly as it concerns organics. Start with, Why should I buy an organic product in a plastic wrap when that plastic is likely produced using oil from the Middle East? And go from there.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

FDA posts details on pistachio recall

Good news for everyone worried about salmonella-bearing pistachios. The FDA has posted a list of pistachio customers for products processed by Setton Pistachio during 2008.

Considering the ambiguousness, ineptitude and inaccuracy of federal actions with regard to food safety over the past decade or so, this is refreshing news.

What truly interesting to me about this recall (and those of the recent past) is that companies exist to provide protection for companies like Setton and Peanut Corporation of America (PCA)., for example, samples and examines a wide range of products for exactly the bugs that brought both Setton (which to its credit is cooperating with FDA) and PCA (which appears to want to stonewall its problems) to unflattering public attention.

Would you be willing to pay a few cents more to be assured the food products you buy are safe for actual consumption? I would.

Saturday, April 4, 2009


People, people, people! I love you, but I gotta tell you, some of the things you all do in the produce department drive me absolutely crazy!

Lookit, we do our best to have fresh, attractive, tasty product for you to buy and consume, but some of you -- not all -- don't seem to appreciate the time and effort required to keep things looking good and being good.

Like the lady I came across one afternoon who was picking up pears -- one of the most delicate of fruits -- and apparently finding them wanting, tossing them from side to side atop the other pears. I mean, the thrown pears were smashing into the unthrown, bruising both beyond belief and destroying pears that others might have purchased, if they weren't so nasty looking. I asked her if there was a problem (politely) and she informed me that none of our pears were any good. I said, well, they're certainly no good now, so how do you define good? She wanted something firm (hard as a rock, as it turned out), so I said I believe we have some of those, but you won't find them until you get to the very bottom, and in the meantime, we have a case or so of pears that are definitely no good now. But, I continued, I would be pleased to get out some that might be more to her liking. She walked off in a huff.

Or the woman who came in one afternoon and informed me that I had ruined her dinner party. This was a surprise, since I hadn't been invited, so I asked (politely, I thought) exactly what I had done to ruin her party. It was the lettuce, she said. Which lettuce, I asked. The one with the rot in the center, she said, and then informed me she thought we ought to reimburse her the full cost of all the food she had purchased. I told her all I could do was reimburse her the cost of the lettuce and apologize, which I did. I'm sorry. That really got her going, and after about five minutes or so of being scolded for the condition of the lettuce that -- I had to point out -- she had bought, not me, I suggested (politely, I thought) that maybe she needed to shop somewhere else for awhile.

Or the people who seem to make a point of squeezing the tomatoes until they burst, looking, I suppose, for the perfect combination of softness and firmness. Or the people who lean on the tomatoes, placing their hand on top of a carefully stacked pile and putting their full weight down. Guaranteed squish, all the way to the bottom.

Or those of you who just have to have two of the oranges on the bottom row and then complain when the whole pile collapses on your feet.

Or those of you who complain that we don't fresh morel mushrooms in December (the season usually starts sometime in March or April and ends sometime in May or June).

I don't mean to imply in any way that we in the business are perfect. To my regret, I have been rude to customers several times over the course of my time in the business, and if you are one of those to whom I have spoken sharply or meanly, or simply ignored, I apologize. I'm not like that, really.

And people, I know we're Americans and we can do damn near anything we want and get damn near anything we want year around, but some of us seem to make a habit of being unpleasant or unthoughtful or simply unaware of how we are affecting things for everyone else. If you are among the "some," please, I ask you politely, stop it!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Okay, so watermelon

Watermelon are one of the true treats of summer, although they are available all year long from growers in Texas and or Mexico. They remain closest in appearance to their cousins cucumbers, especially the long seeded summer melons. But how do you know a good one?

Well, as with the other melons, there is no good way to be absolutely certain the melon you're looking over is top-notch (aside from slicing it open and tasting it. I have to admit that slicing it open and tasting (combined with careful examination of external clues) was how I came by my methods of estimating the probability that any given melon was good.

So where to begin? Pick up the melon (pick up several melons) and judge whether it (they) are heavy enough. If you've picked up one that is significantly lighter in weight than the others, put it back and try another. This is a measure of the moisture in the melon, and the heavier the better.

Next, roll the melon over and look at the surface. Brilliant colors? Good. Nice contrast between the darker greens and the lighter greens? Also good. Does the melon have a prominent yellow ground spot? You're getting there! Any obvious soft spots or brusing? No? Keep going. Nice and firm in your hands? Looking good so far.

Now, holding the melon in one hand (or lying on a flat surface if it's too heavy to hold with one hand, in which case lightly hold your hand on the surface), thump the side several times with the tips of your fingers. The melon should "ring" audibly and you should detect the vibration with the hand holding (or touching) it. I listen for a tone at roughly a frequency between B-flat and D below middle C. Below those tones (and this is where judgment enters the picture), I believe the melon is probably a bit over-ripe, although an exceptionally large watermelon may be perfectly okay. Much above those tones, and it's likely to be under-ripe.

If the melon doesn't "ring" the greatest likelihood is that the flesh inside is broken -- cracked, maybe multiply cracked. Pass.

There are several types -- flesh colors -- of melons. Red, of course, in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, seeded and seedless. I think the seeded varieties taste better, and of course you get the seeds to spit, one of the joys of summer. They are rarely available in the supermarket, where seedless red melons now rule. Pink melons, usually seedless are a variation on the red theme, and tasty enough. I had a customer once who insisted on pink flesh, claiming that true gourmets all knew pink was superior. No opinion about that on my part.

Yellow flesh watermelon are more rare, and (at least in my experience) often arrive at the store way over-ripe. A discerning observer will notice the skin of yellow melons usually have more narrow dark green stripes and wider light green stripes than red melons, and the shape is more round than oval. If you find a good one (same rules for selection apply), you've got real treat in store. Definitely a watermelon, but much sweeter.

My first job in produce was at a farmer's market with a guy who specialized in watermelon, and we judged perceived sweetness by, first, tasting the melon and, second, rubbing a little juice onto the glass of a portable refractometer and looking through the lens to observe the brix, a measurement of dissolved sugar in the juice. Good red melons fell typically into the range of 8-10 brix, while good yellow melons typically read in the range of 12-14 brix. Doesn't seem like much, but the difference is definitely noticable on the tongue.

Then there are orange melons, the rarest and sweetest of all at any level of marketing, in my experience. Orange melons are usually a bit smaller than either red or yellow, round like a yellow melon but striped more like a red melon. Same rules of selection apply, and listen carefully for a good clear below-middle-C "ring," because too many of the orange melons that do show up the supermarket (if they show up all) are way under-ripe. A good one, however, will be sweet-sweet-sweet. Brix on a good orange melon will usually fall into the range of 14-16 brix, although I remember distinctly one that showed just under 18 brix. Wow!

Hell of a way to get part of your daily requirement of fruits and vegetables, I can tell you!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Hello! Let's talk melons

It's mid-March and a few months before the really good melons start to come around. You'll be able to find some at local farmer's markets, and I urge you to try the local produce. But in most parts of the U.S., they'll be in grocery stores or supermarkets and grown in California, Texas, Mexico, or possibly Arizona. Note -- I don't wish to imply that I think it's right that these melons come from places that are, essentially, deserts (see Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner, copyright 1986, Viking Penguin, Inc., for a majorly exhaustive examination of what makes growing such water-dependent plants possible where rainfall is so scant), but it is a fact that, generally speaking, those are where supermarket melons come from.

Moving past politically charged questions about where the water to grow these luscious products come from, what are melons anyway? And more importantly, how do you, as a buyer, increase your chances of buying a really good one each time you visit the store?

Part the first, all melons, cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon -- all of them -- are basically cucumbers, highly selected and hybridized cukes, falling into different genuses, to be sure, but all, nevertheless, cucurbitaeceae. You can see this sometimes with the long, red seeded watermelons of late summer, which look like nothing more than a giant, bloated cucumber.



I'll get to watermelon in a future post, but for now I'd like to concentrate on the muskmelon types, which include among others such delicacies as Cantaloupes, Crenshaws, Casabas, and Galias, along with one I've never seen or tasted, the Montreal Melon, a muskmelon once popular up and down the East Coast but largely supplanted by more durable varieties some years ago.

So part the second, how can you tell a good one? I wish this was a simple question to answer, particularly with regard to what we call cantaloupe (Europeans have a different melon called cantaloupe), but there are a few fairly reliable tests for tastiness, especially with mid- to late-season California cantaloupes.

First, did the melon slip off the vine? If the stem end shows a depression with no trace of stem remaining, that is a very good sign.

Second, does the melon look right? It should be symmetrical in shape, nicely rounded with even webbing all around (except for perhaps the ground spot) and evenly colored under the webbing. A sort of brownish-beige is just about right. No bruised or soft spots, please: Firm is best.

Third, does the melon give under gentle pressure on the stem or flower end (or both), and then spring back? This is an indication of internal readiness, of flesh that is ready to just melt in your mouth with that unique canteloupe spiciness, ample juice, and a bite that is next to heavenly with its combination of firmness and yielding softness.

Fourth (and last), how does the melon smell? I usually check the stem end for this. If the fragrance is strongly aromatically cantaloupe-y, chances are you've got a good one.


Honeydews were developed in France, and as with many things French (apologies to my few French acquaintances), are a bit enigmatic to Americans. Commercial honeydew tend to be hard as rocks both inside and outside, so I suspect most grocery store patrons wonder why anyone would like them.

Perhaps unfortunately, patience is required to obtain a good honeydew -- meaning that in most cases, you have to buy one, put it someplace cool and dry for a few weeks to complete the ripening process, and then consume it.

Still, sometimes you can find good ones. Here's what to look for.

Forget the honeydew with the creamy white skin; it'll be a stone inside. Look for one that's trending toward light yellow. If you find such a specimen, give it a gentle squeeze. If it gives slightly and springs back when you back off on the pressure, look around the flower and stem ends for a faint webbing -- faint, mind you, barely there. Examine the melon for bruises or soft spots, and finding none, head for the checkout.

A few years ago, one of my regular honeydew customers was an elderly guy, just about as poor as you can imagine, but rich in his knowledge of honeydew. We always bickered about the price and I (sucker!) nearly everytime dropped my asking for him alone to a couple of cents more than I paid for the melon. I appreciated his pluck and his knowledge of a melon most people don't appreciate at all, not to mention the knowledge he passed along about color and softness and long-term storage (cool,, dry, dark). I haven't seen him for a couple of years, so I hope he's still alive and still buying honeydews.


Crenshaws (sometimes spelled Cranshaw) are closely related to honeydew, but totally different. They are one of my favorites, uniquely sweet and faintly spice-y in flavor (I think vanilla, but I'm not the last word on this). They exhibit a unique shape, almost flat on the flower end and coming to a well-defined point on the stem end. They range in color from light yellow to yellow but almost orange, with a light orange flesh that can extend right out to the skin with almost no rind at all.

What you are likely to find in the supermarket are Crenshaws that are a little short of fully ripe (they don't ship well when completely ripened), so they are likely to have a skin color in the light yellow range rather than the yellow just short of orange that is, in my opinion, the more desirable color to look for.

A personal note -- I've only seen the orange-ish Crenshaws once in 17 years in the business, and those were considered overripe by the shipper, so they were both inexpensive and totally tasty; that was at a small specialty produce store, so our customers had a special treat for the week and a half we could get them.

Aside from color, what to look for? Crenshaws typically are not as aromatic as cantaloupe, so fragrance doesn't enter the picture, but general appearance and feel -- firm, with even color, no bruising, no obvious soft spots -- is the place to start.

Here's what to be especially vigilant for -- webbing. Crenshaws, like others in the canteloupe family, develop webbing, but the tastiest are likely to exhibit faint webbing, generally confined to the flower and stem ends. I'd be suspicious about a crenshaw with webbing that covered more than about 25 percent of the melon surface or that was more than faintly evident.

Crenshaws tend to be more expensive than honeydews or cantaloupes, and although brands don't matter much in produce, sometimes they do. The Peacock brand is, in my estimation, consistently the best, and this is an unsolicited endorsement. Peacock is usually around in August and September.


Casaba melons are in the same grouping as honeydews and crenshaws, but with a strongly lobed bright yellow skin, white-ish to medium green flesh, and a uniquely musky flavor. Not everyone, I have to say, likes the flavor -- it's strong and overwhelms the senses at first bite -- but it can grow on you and is definitely worth a try.

The same general rules of selection apply to casabas as to crenshaws, although crenshaws are, I think, better if they are totally firm. The flower end often opens up more on casabas, creating a circle around a little prominence of yellow flesh that you don't often see on melons. Look for the (faint!) webbing, mostly in this case, around the flower end for the best examples. Again, unsolicited endorsement, I think Peacocks are generally the best available.


Galia are relatively new to the melon scene. They began to show up (or at least I first noticed them) in the early 90's and were incredibly expensive at first. They've settled into a more competitive price position as time has passed (and greater production was achieved), so if you haven't had one yet, they're definitely worth a look-see-taste-try now.

Galia were developed in Israel sometime during the 70's (according to Wikipedia, and to my understanding of their origins), and seem to combine the flavor characteristics of both muskmelon/canteloupe and honeydews, but sweeter and more succulent than either of these more conventional types. The skin (ripe, of course) is light green to greenish-yellow under a webbing that is perhaps best described as spider-webby, and the flesh is greenish-white near the seed cavity fading to medium green near the skin. Like most melons, the good melons will give slightly under pressure and spring back when released.

Galia rinds are small, so this is a melon you can enjoy almost all the way out to the skin, like a really ripe crenshaw. And galias, perhaps because they're highly hybridized (hybrid vigor, people!), tend to be large. Where cantaloupes and honeydews seldom exceed a pound and three-quarters in weight (about 700 to 750 g or maybe a little more), galias routinely top 2 pounds, and many run to two and a quarter pounds (one kg) each.

'til next time

This by no means an exhaustive list of melons, just the ones I happen to like best. Any questions you may have, I'd be glad to try to answer, and any comments or other tips are warmly welcomed. Watermelons next! Until then, enjoy!

Steve the Green Grocer