Don't Screw Around with Spring 

Pick of the season at farmers' markets - and on farms, too.

I can't sense the arrival of spring in the same way I did in the Midwest, when little signs -- the melting of April's last snow, the appearance of the first crocuses -- sent the sap rising in my veins. So I rely on the farmers' markets. In an age when we can eat red bell peppers and mixed baby greens in mid-January, and when produce from Chile travels to Safeway to supplement California's double-duty growing season, it's reassuring to know that Nature herself hasn't completely forgotten the seasons.

You don't screw around with the delicate flavors of spring, you just let them emerge. Spring means to me sweet, crisp vegetables, their slightly bitter herbal notes brought out by little cooking and even less seasoning.

A couple of weeks ago I toured the Berkeley farmers' market to measure the season's progress in produce. Horatio from Kaki Farms in Gridley says that asparagus, spring's first delight and the one I gorge on almost daily, has just come in. His stall is selling bundles of thick green asparagus; to many, they're much better than the pencil-thin stalks that show up later.

But in Yolo County, where Riverdog Farm is located, the weather is heating up and the asparagus is itching to bolt. Snap peas and shelling peas are arriving to replace it, as are billiard-ball-sized artichokes, tight and purple. Sweet, mild spring onions will still be around for the next couple of weeks, as will the white Tokyo and red turnips, both of which can be eaten raw. New potatoes will hit the markets several weeks later. But the large wicker baskets filled with lettuces will be gone by mid-May, because lettuces are a cool-weather crop; farms closer to the coast will take over.

Berries are overtaking several of the stalls. "It's our first week back [at the market]," said Karen of Lucero Farms, standing over a field of tiny red Seascape strawberries. Kaki Farms is also putting out the first wave of giant red strawberries, and Horatio thinks that the blackberries should arrive in a week or two. Rebecca King of Terra Farms, near Davis, promises cherries in mid-May. Right now her stand is full of fava beans, peas, and green garlic.

Happy Boy, from San Juan Bautista, will be selling the first summer squashes -- ronds de Nice, pattypans -- by the first week of May, along with fava beans, new potatoes, and basil. Next to the last of the winter carrots, a shopper was eagerly packing a bag with Happy Boy's newest offering: thin-skinned, light green Fuerte avocados. Though these were still hard, "They're like butter when they're ripe," she said.

Almost all the vendors hawked the arrival of the heirloom tomatoes, each farm promising more varieties than the last. But we'll have all summer to devour tomatoes. Now is the time to celebrate high spring.Pick of the season at farmers' markets -- and on farms, too.

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