What's Tasty at Sigona's Farmers Market

July 25, 2012

The Joys of Melon Season: Part I

The Joys of Melon Season: Part I

Nutritional Value and How to Select Them

By Robbie Sigona

I honestly love this time of year. The weather is warm and fantastic every day, the San Francisco Giants are battling for first place and the first melons of the season are arriving in our stores.

And let me just say this: they are tasting really, really good right now.

We get our melons from Turlock Fruit Company in, you guessed it, Turlock, CA. Owner and grower Don Smith is a second generation melon aficionado who decided to follow in his father’s footsteps. 94 years after his dad first started the company, the family business is as strong as ever. Heck, there’s even a third generation (Steve) and fourth generation (Alec) Smith continuing the legacy that started back in 1918.

We’re going to dig a little bit deeper in the unique history of Turlock Fruit Company – as well as their rare heirloom melons – in the next installment of our e-newsletter. For now, let’s focus on the deep nutritional value of melons and what to look for when you’re buying them the next time you visit Sigona’s Farmers Market.

Honeydew

Let’s start first with honeydew. Our honeydew that’s tasting magnificent right now is packed full of vitamin C, which of course is great for giving your immune system a turbo boost. This orange-fleshy goodness is a mighty anti-oxidant and provides your body with potassium (essential for proper cell function). You might be surprised to know that folks with high potassium levels typically have blood pressure lower than their peers, hence another reason to go melon crazy this summer.

My person favorite right now is the orange flesh honeydew. While it looks somewhat similar on the outside to typical honeydew, the inside color, taste and smell is actually more reminiscent of cantaloupe. Find one with a cream-colored rind and sugar-packed aromas and you’ll be enjoying yourself in no time.

Cantaloupe

If you’ve been disappointed with cantaloupe up until now you can’t miss with our current crop. This is truly the time of year to go for it.

Cantaloupes are a classic fruit loaded with vitamin A and C. The vitamin A will help you to keep your visor laser-sharp; for women who are pregnant, it will assist with developing and growing the little tike inside of you.

Cantaloupes are also a good source of:

  • Vitamin B6
  • Folate
  • Niacin
  • Fiber

Speaking of fiber, did you know that the average American only consumes around 14 grams per day? This falls far short of the recommended daily intake of 20-38 grams. With fiber so essential to digestion (and preventing not-so-fun issues such as constipation, hemorrhoids and inflammation of the digestive tract), why not get your daily dose through delicious and healthy tasting cantaloupes!

What to Look For

Something we see every now and again in the store are folks who aren’t exactly sure which honeydew or cantaloupe to select. They know these fruits and healthy. They know they taste sugary-delicious. But sometimes they all look pretty similar. If you don’t know what to look for, it can be like sticking your hand into a fish bowl, pulling out a random raffle ticket and hoping it’s a winner.

That’s why if you stick to these basic tips the next time you’re in the store, you’ll be going home with a prize every single time:

  • Melons should have just a slight give when you squeeze them. Are they hard as a bowling ball? Move on and look for another.
  • Look for ones that are as blemish-free as possible.
  • A sugary aroma should waft into your nostrils as you smell them.
  • Once home, run the melons over cold water to clean off any dirt.
  • It’s smart to store them in the fridge right away. Cover them in plastic and consume within three days.

With melon season looking so phenomenal right now, we’ll be talking in our next e-news about heirloom varieties you won’t find at just any grocery outlet. You’ll learn how Turlock Fruit Company has kept these amazing fruits popping out of the ground for decades on end and why you need to try them as soon as humanly possible.

In the meantime, don’t forget to try out our recipes for Sweet Local Orange flesh Honeydew with a Drizzle of Reduced Balsamic as well as Local Melon Red Wine. We’ll guarantee you’ll be in melon heaven!

July 11, 2012

Home Sweet Home Ranch

Home Sweet Home Ranch

Sweet Home Ranch farmer Paul Buxman places nature and family first to provide you with the sweetest, most perfect stone fruits in the entire Bay Area!

By Robbie Sigona

Sweet Home Ranch farmer Paul Buxman

“You know how I stay cool all day on my tractor in 100-plus degree heat,” Paul Buxman asked me from his Sweet Home Ranch in Dinuba, CA just south of Fresno. “I place a towel under my hat and fill it full of ice every hour. The cold water just drips down onto my head and shoulders. Sometimes I’m cold even when it’s 112 degrees out!”

The only things more delicious and sweet than Paul’s humor are the nectarines, peaches, plums and additional stone fruits his farm grows on his 55 acre ranch.

That’s because unlike fruit that may be stored for up to three weeks and picked green, produce from Sweet Home Ranch is plucked from branches at the peak of ripeness. Then, in the blink of an eye, it’s delivered and placed on our shelves here at Sigona’s for you and your family to enjoy. With produce that fresh, no wonder it’s bursting with so many exquisite flavors.

Having forged a close friendship with Paul over the years, I know one of the things he prides himself on the most are his growing techniques. Every piece of produce from his farm is certified California Clean. In a nutshell this basically means that all his succulent fruits are grown sans organic or synthetic pesticides. While Paul’s produce may not be certified organic, his unique and intricate growing techniques are still environmentally friendly and yield the best-tasting fruits you’ve ever had.

Before I could practically finish asking Paul his opinion on which stone fruits are looking especially good right now, he exclaimed excitedly, “The Diamond Ray nectarines! It’s packed full of calcium, zinc and additional minerals that your body craves.”

Having tasted these beauties myself, I can personally attest that you’ll want to try one the next time you’re in the store. I’d also highly suggest the Snow Princess and Ice Princess peaches as well. These fragrant white-flesh peaches possess floral notes with a touch of honey and rose.

Paul says that his peaches are about as perfect as they can be right now due in large part to ideal climate conditions. “While they’re roasting out there in the Midwest and the East, we’ve had a relatively mild summer here so far with only a few days over 100. All early ripening fruits prefer 90-degree weather, which we’ve had, and this allows for 2 to 3 more days on the trees to give them those flavor profiles that people expect and love.”

Sweet Home Ranch is constantly striving to attain the perfect peach, plum, nectarine and more. From tweaking watering patterns to pruning techniques, Paul leaves no leaf unturned.

Paul is equally attentive and dedicated to creating a nourishing family environment for his workers. This enables them to live and thrive as vibrantly as the peaches that are eventually picked from the trees.

“There’s a huge labor shortage in the farming industry right now. This is because the system currently requires six to eight weeks of hard labor, but then workers are laid off. That’s no good,” Paul stated emphatically. “So we find ways to have our employees working year-round – along with two months of vacation for them to travel and visit their families.”

To counter those days of “dead time” when most employees would be laid off, Paul and his wife Ruth diversify their peachy portfolio by making precious preserves. This off-season work increases the amount of days his employees can be compensated for their efforts.

Along with providing his employees with a steady stream of income, Sweet Home Ranch also makes sure its valued workers are surrounded by a safe environment. You might be astonished to know that when it finally gets just too darn hot out there, Paul sends his workers home – paid! “What’s more important: the loss of a few peaches or the potential for heat stroke? Without our workers we’re nothing.”
Sweet Home Ranch now has employees that have been with the company for over two decades. Many of these loyal folks now have kids working for the company. (Hey! That sounds just like Sigona’s Farmers Market!)

As Paul so eloquently put it, “It really is heaven on earth here, except for days when it’s 110 degrees out.”

We look forward to seeing you in the store this summer for the best stone fruit you’ve even tasted. And don’t forget to check out our recipes, including Honey Vanilla Fromage Blanc and my Uncle Carmelo’s Simple Stone Fruit Salad.

June 27, 2012

Get Grillin’ with Local, Fresh-Picked Corn

Get Grillin’ with Local, Fresh-Picked Corn

Shuck it, grill it, put it in a salsa — one of the summer favorites is arriving daily at our stores and it doesn’t get any sweeter than fresh-picked. Plus, get a free tote of corn just in time for the 4th of July!

By Robbie Sigona

Ah, summer. Barbeques send swirls of mouth-watering scents through the air, kids run through sprinklers, you favorite fruits are now coming from local growers and iced tea is brewed in the summer sun. Speaking of barbeques, did you know you can cook almost anything on the grill? This includes corn on the cob. There is no reason to heat up the kitchen more than it already is by boiling a large pot of water. Just throw those cobs on the barbie!

Corn is fantastic when grilled, whether it’s left on the cob or sliced off to be used in salsas, salads or other dishes. We have some delicious corn recipes on the blog, including Green Beans with Roasted Corn and Green Onions inspired by Food Network’s Guy Fieri.

Let’s Get Corny

Did you know that a stalk of corn only produces one good ear? It’s true! Our local farmer John Spina only harvests the biggest and best ear from the stalk. Or how about this: did you know you really only need to let corn swim in boiling water for about 2 minutes if that’s the cooking method you choose? Well, corn doesn’t really need to be cooked at all before you eat it – in fact, if you’re in the employee room during corn season, you might just see a Sigona peel back the husks and start eating an ear of corn as is…no cooking required.

There’s nothing like fresh-picked corn on the cob, either dressed up with a smear of butter and a dusting of salt & pepper, or grilled and incorporated into a summer salad. Judging by the popularity of our corn display the majority of you agree. We get daily deliveries of white corn from our friend John Spina of Spina Farms in Morgan Hill. The corn is picked in the morning and delivered to our stores in the afternoon so we have fresh corn every day.

Such a quick turnaround is significant because fresh corn is sweeter. This is because once picked, the sugars in corn begin converting to starch. Same with asparagus. Moral of the story: corn is best eaten as fresh-picked as possible.

One of the biggest myths about corn is that it needs to be cooked for a long while before it’s edible. Even the freshest ear, when cooked too long, can taste starchy and stale. Grilling corn allows its natural sugars to caramelize, which adds another layer of flavor and makes for a more chewy texture. Again, just don’t keep it on the heat for too long. Slice the grilled corn off the cob and incorporate it into a citrus-based salsa and you’ll be the talk of the town!

Meet the Farmer

We’ve worked with the Spina family – John, his father and his son (all named John) – for nearly 40 years. They have a small produce stand of their own in Morgan Hill, too, and used to buy some items from us at our old roadside fruit stands along Old Monterey Highway…back when we were called Coyote Berry Acres. A lot has changed for us since then, but our relationships with farmers have stayed the same. We wouldn’t be where we are today if it weren’t for our local farmers.

John Spina

John Spina of Spina Farms

Corn got a late start this summer, just like most California produce, but John says the stalks are doing well now and should be in steady production until November.

“We have 150 acres on which we’re growing a few different varieties of white corn this season,” said John. “We grow different varieties each year to find which respond the best to the conditions and farming techniques. Quality is very important to us and we pick only when the corn is at its peak so Sigona’s and its customers get the best.”

In general, white corn is more tender and sweeter than yellow corn, which has a more chewy texture and hardy corn flavor. My Uncle Carmelo remembers when white corn was a rare find in markets; it wasn’t until the 1970s that the demand for white corn grew and farmers began planting more white than yellow. Until that time, yellow corn was the norm – Golden Bantam was popular in the 1950s and Golden Jubilee was the rage in the late 1960s.

In addition to white corn, Spina Farms grows peppers, tomatoes, beans, squash, Indian corn and 67 (yes 67!) different varieties of pumpkins and gourds, many of which you’ll see decorating our stores come fall.

The Spina family also operate the Spina Farms Pumpkin Patch on their farm in the fall, featuring train rides on the Spina Pumpkin Express, hay ride tours of the pumpkin patch and Indian corn field, pumpkin decorating and more. It’s a great destination for the family in the fall and it’s open beginning the last weekend in September through the month of October.

Remember to take advantage of the coupon we’re offering this week…just in time for your 4th of July celebrations! Bring in your coupon and when you spend $30 or more you can walk away with a free tote bag full of corn. Also make sure to check out our recipes for corn, such as Sautéed Corn with Cherry Tomatoes and Basil and Fresh Corn Salad with Black Beans, Tomato and Cilantro.

May 30, 2012

Local Cherries Hitting the Shelves

Local Cherries Hitting the Shelves

California cherries have been on the scene for a few weeks, but now is the time we show off our locally grow gems from Gilroy and Morgan Hill!

By Robbie Sigona

Local cherries – one of the fruits we know you look forward to all year – are finally hitting our shelves. Any day now we expect the first fruits from the legendary Andy’s Orchard, farmed by Andy Mariani in Morgan Hill, as well as gems from an outstanding crop grown by Richard Borello in Gilroy.

We’ve had a selection of California-grown cherries in for a few weeks. The first delivery came from the Bakersfield area, followed by Fresno and then Stockton. The locally grown cherries, however, arrive at Sigona’s within 24 hours of being picked – some are even picked in the morning and delivered that afternoon. I know I can’t wait to sample one from the box that’s still warm from the sun hitting the tree.

While cherries from outside our immediate local reach are quality fruits, we always look forward to working with our local farmers from Morgan Hill and Gilroy. Big, sweet, beautifully colored cherries…there’s almost no match for their quality and flavor.

“The crop is really sizing up nice this year; we should start harvest the first week of June and have some of our crop at Sigona’s by this weekend,” said Richard Borello, a local, third-generation grower in Gilroy.

Andy Mariani echoed Borello saying, “The crop is huge and the cherry size is good, considering the how much fruit there is. Also, harvest is late this year, by about five to seven days; we’ll start picking for local markets the first week of June.”

Mom, where do cherries come from?

In order to get the best cherry for your buck, it’s important to understand the season, growing regions and how weather affects the fruit.

The Bakersfield area is always the first to market around early to mid-May. That region’s fruit is sometimes rushed to stores because it’s the only game in town. Two to three weeks later we see some fruits from Fresno and Stockton, usually the Brooks variety, then Bings. Cherries from that area are usually pretty darn good, but sometimes the heat of the East Bay makes for soft fruit.

Bings have a beautiful, deep red color and a crisp crunch.

Shortly after the East Bay fruit arrives we welcome local fruit from the Santa Clara Valley. As the local harvest nears an end, cherries from Washington state start to make their rounds. Washington is a major player in the cherry market and produces some beautiful fruit, but when Washington fruit hits market, Californians start getting cherried out. However, it’s when the Washington and California markets collide that the price goes down about by half. This is typical of any produce item; when we have enough abundance to supply demand, the price always drops.

Earth, Wind & Fire Sunshine

Generally speaking, Eastern Washington has to deal with more extreme weather, at least cold-wise, than much of California. That region has cold winters followed by a temperamental springtime in which Mother Nature can bring freezing temperatures that kill new cherry buds, thus decreasing the size of the crop.

Just as with California, Washington state can also experience extreme heat and the occasional thunder storm during June and early July, a deadly combination for cherry growers.

Splits-Doubles & Spurs at Half Price

Rain, followed by high temperatures, can cause splits in cherries – those little (sometimes large) slits you find at the top near the stem or on the bottom of some cherries. Basically, the split is caused by the cherry bursting after it soaked up extra rain water and was then warmed by the sun. These cherries are still edible, but are only stable for about three days before they start to turn. You’ll see a lot of them at flea markets or small farmers’ markets sold at half price because most packing warehouses don’t accept splits.

Hot temperatures can also cause abnormalities in cherries, such as spurs and doubles, most of which stem from hotter zones such as Stockton, Lodi or Patterson.

“Doubles and spurs are caused by a lot of heat during the previous summer,” said Mariani. “As fruit is picked, buds for the next year begin to form. If there is a lot of heat, the buds split and make two stigmas. If both stigmas are pollinated you get a double-fused fruit, equal in size. If only one is pollinated then you have a spur, a small unformed cherry bud on one side of the developed cherry.”

Rainiers, the delicate, yellow & blush colored cherries, are perfectly sweet and juicy.

There is nothing wrong with fruits that have spurs or doubles, they just look different (though you don’t want to eat the spur). Cherries can also be damaged by wind and the sun. Wind causes bruising and scuffing, or limb rub, on the fruit and the sun can actually cause sunburn.

“Growers kind of go through a gauntlet of natural phenomena to get good fruit in the end,” said Mariani. “So far this year we have minimal wind damage.”

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe

Bing, Garnet, Rainier, Brooks, Tulare, Van…do you have a favorite variety? Bings are a popular choice for their crisp crunch, deep red color and sweet flavor that’s paired with just the right amount of tart. The Brooks cherry, usually the first to market, is firm with a red color that’s lighter than a Bing, and then, of course, there is the delicate, yellow- and blush-colored Rainier. It has a sweetness that’s not overly sweet, but a handful definitely has enough to satisfy your sweet tooth.

Look for the other varieties in our store and let us know which is your favorite! We have a couple cherry recipes on our blog too for those of you who want to do something other with cherries than pile them in a bowl. Be sure to check out the recipe for Local, Wild King Salmon Alaskan Salmon with Roasted Cherries and Pistachios, courtesy of Danielle Krupa, owner and founder of Wellness Made Natural, LLC. It’s simply delicious!

See you in the store!

May 16, 2012

Last of Springtime’s Local Artichokes

Free Bag of ‘Chokes

Last of the local springtime artichokes available now — plus, get a bag free this week.

By Robbie Sigona

There are many reasons why I love artichokes. The flavor of locally grown artichokes – baby or regular-sized – is unmatchable, but the reason I love them the most is because of how a few simply steamed chokes brings everyone to the table for a fun appetizer.

To celebrate this incredible vegetable, we’re offering a free bag of four ‘chokes this week (May 16 – 22) with your coupon when you spend $30 or more!

There is nothing better than watching children peel off a leaf, choose their favorite dip, scrape off the artichoke meat with their teeth and toss the used leaf in the dump bowl – they love it! It’s one of those hands-on dishes where it’s ok to be messy and share a laugh together.

Artichokes are available year-round, but the best time of year for fantastic artichokes is now. Nearly 80 percent of the artichokes grown in California come from Monterey County, home to Castroville, the “Artichoke Capital of the World.” The climate in Monterey County is perfect: the warm and cool air masses meet there, creating summer fog and cool, not-so-dry weather. Artichokes love it.

One of the best-known farms in Castroville is Pezzini Farms. It was founded in the 1930s and is still run by the Pezzini family. We’ve partnered with Pezzini Farms for years to bring in fresh-picked artichokes that are picked, packed and delivered to our stores in less than 24 hours!

If you drive along Route 156 in Castroville, you’ll still see the original farm stand, which has been in operation just about as long as the farm has. Some customers return generation after generation, making it a family tradition to visit the Pezzini family farm stand. There’s just something really special, especially for children, in going right to the farm.

Tony Pezzini, who runs the farm with his dad Guido, says they’re a relatively small operation, so they exert greater control over the harvest.

“We put a lot of care into it. We really baby the plants and artichokes – and we’re able to do that because of the smaller size of our operation, and I wouldn’t want it any other way,” said Tony.

Pezzini farmers pick in the morning and call it quits no later than 1 o’clock in the afternoon. Then the artichokes are taken directly to the cooler, where they are packed inside. That’s what’s different about Pezzini’s artichokes. Some of the bigger farms have to harvest all day long, leaving the harvested artichokes in the field, only to be scooped up at the end of the day for hydro-cooling. By then they’ve been in the sun and have lost some flavor and nutrients.

A quick turnaround from field to pre-cooling helps stop the breakdown process brought on by ethylene gases, which are released by harvested fruits and vegetables. It also helps lengthen their shelf life. Picking in the cool mornings is a natural way to pre-cool the artichokes before they’re moved to the cooler to finish the pre-cooling process.

Artichokes are rich with fiber, potassium, vitamin C and magnesium. In fact, with one medium choke containing about 10 grams of fiber, the FDA has rated artichokes an excellent source of fiber.

Now, back to the baby artichokes. Besides being absolutely adorable, they’re all-edible. Baby artichokes are basically all meat as the inside hasn’t begun to sprout its fuzzy blossom. Babies also haven’t grown thorns yet so there is no reason not to enlist the kids’ help in preparing baby artichokes. My uncle, Paul Sigona, makes the best baby artichokes I’ve ever tasted. His secret…no parboiling, just sautéing after they’ve been striped down to the tender part. We have a few baby artichoke recipes on our blog too.

There are many ways to cook artichokes and even more ways to enjoy them – dip them in butter, mayo or aioli, stuff them with bread crumbs, garlic and olive oil, or eat steamed artichokes plain with a squirt of lemon– no dip necessary! Check out our artichoke recipes, including one for: Grandma Pauline’s Traditional Sicilian Stuffed Artichokes.

May 2, 2012

Broccolette: The Amazingly Healthy & Quick Veggie

Broccolette: The Amazingly Healthy & Quick Veggie

It tastes good, it’s easy to cook and it’s good for you too! Whether called broccolette or broccolini, this locally grown veggie is an easy and nutritious addition to weeknight dinners.

By Robbie Sigona

As healthy as broccoli, but without that cabbage-y note, broccolette is a great way to revitalize weeknight dinner plates as a quick, flavorful and nutritious side veggie. Plus, this all-edible vegetable can be cooked and ready to go in just minutes.

All in less time than it takes to steam broccoli!

For a simple side, all you have to do is blanch a bunch in boiling water for three minutes, drain and sauté with a little olive oil, garlic, red pepper flakes and seasoning. Viola! It’s ready. Uncle Carmelo did this for Easter, but he blanched the broccolette ahead of time and popped it in an ice bath until it was time to eat. Just before we sat down to eat he sautéed the broccolette to reheat and add flavor. Simple and delicious!

While broccolette may be green, it’s surprisingly packed with vitamin C. Only one cup, about eight stalks, provides 130 percent of the daily recommended requirement. Plus, one cup is only 35 calories and presents a significant amount of fiber and vitamin A.

You Say Broccolini, I Say Broccolette

“What’s in a name? Whether our featured green veggie is called broccolette, broccolini, baby broccoli or mini-broccoli, it’s still a cross between broccoli and gai lan (also known as Chinese broccoli).

Broccolette, the name given by our local supplier, locally based Earthbound Farm, is like crisp (not firm), delicate broccoli, but sweeter and less fibrous. It has a flavor similar to broccoli with a hint of pepper and mustard, but without broccoli’s cabbage-y note. It’s its gai lan heritage that provides its sweet factor and lightly crisp disposition.

Broccolette is grown year-round, but it is in especially good supply from local growers just south of Hollister, Calif., this time of year. When our region experiences cooler weather, Earthbound works with growers from warmer growing areas, such as Southern California and Yuma, Ariz.

My Uncle Carmelo and my dad Joe remember when we first brought in broccolette. We worked with one of the early growers from Salinas from whom we also received large deliveries of broccoli each week. The brothers knew that this new cross between broccoli and gai lan would be a hit among our customers so they brought it in and haven’t looked back since.

Steam it, Stir-Fry it, Put it on a Pizza

The best part about broccolette is it’s all edible, stems and all. The ends may need a bit of a trim before cooking, but that’s it. Broccolette can be eaten steamed, parboiled, stir-fried, roasted or raw, and is versatile enough that it can also be used as a snazzy topping for pizza.

Just keep in mind that it shouldn’t be overcooked. Broccolette should remain juicy and crunchy for most recipes. Make sure to check out our broccolette recipes, including one for Broccolette & Charred Lemon Flatbread Pizza with Roasted Garlic Spread.

We hope you come in to pick up a bunch or two of broccolette. With its easy prep and pleasant flavor, it’s guaranteed to be a go to for fast weeknight dinners. See you in the store!

April 18, 2012

Local, Fresh-Picked Asparagus Now at Sigona’s

Local, Fresh-Picked Asparagus Now at Sigona’s

Local asparagus is now at Sigona's! Look for fresh spears from Salinas and Stockton.

by Robbie Sigona

Local asparagus is in and I can’t wait to tell you about it. Although we’ve enjoyed asparagus all winter, now is the time you will see prices really tumble and quality soar.

It’s exciting knowing that our true season is starting; the asparagus will naturally be fresher and that’s because it’s picked in the morning and delivered that evening. We know we might say this about a lot of the locally grown produce, but this local asparagus really is the best.

Asparagus, just like corn, begins to convert its sugars to starch from the moment it’s picked. So, the sooner you eat it after it’s picked the sweeter and more tender it will be, especially compared to asparagus that traveled a distance to the store.

Might as well call it backyard-grown

The local spears we have in now are from Salinas, CA, (they’re gorgeous!) as well as from Victoria Island Farms near Stockton, CA. Victoria Island Farms’ asparagus is known as Delta-grown asparagus – a regional specialty that is world-renowned for its quality produce because of its rich soil and ideal weather.

It’s a combination, really, of travel distance, weather and soil that makes for our region’s outstanding asparagus. The weather and soil here make for ideal growing conditions, all of which contribute to sweetness.

Did you know?

One of the telltale signs of fresh asparagus is its squeak. Yep, perfectly fresh asparagus squeaks a bit when lightly squeezed, not unlike the way a good artichoke squeaks when squeezed. You can learn more about how to select asparagus in my asparagus produce tips box.

Also, did you know that asparagus is a member of the lily family? It was first grown in the Mediterranean region more than 2,000 years ago. We’re glad this spring veggie made its way to the Americas with early settlers.

As for nutrition, asparagus packs a punch of goodness. In addition to the supply of vitamins A and C, iron, zinc and fiber, one of its most famous attributes is the amount of folate (a.k.a. folic acid). Folate is important for pregnant women as it’s been found to aid in the prevention of birth defects. It also helps complete the development of red blood vessels and can help fight against heart attack or stroke. So…eat up!

Enjoying the spears

I love the really thick spears just boiled slightly…you really don’t want to overcook them! I’ve also grilled and barbequed thinner spears after they’re rubbed with olive oil, salt and pepper — they’re delicious.

Asparagus is also a sweet addition to omelets, breakfast tacos and frittatas, and is nice in cold in salads or stir-fries combined with a little red bell pepper. The color contrast is fantastic!

It’s hard to miss on asparagus now. I just caution not to overcook them and enjoy the season. Check out our asparagus recipes, including Quinoa Salad with Arugula, Asparagus and Avocado from local food blogger Amy Sherman.

February 22, 2012

Taste This: Belgian Endive Grown in California

Taste This: Belgian Endive Grown in California

Feeling in the dark about Belgian endive? Read on to learn about this mysterious vegetable.

By Carmelo Sigona

Belgian endive became popular American party fare in the 50s. Back then, it was shipped in from Belgium and was very expensive; the well-to-doers would often come by my uncle’s produce stand asking for Belgian “on-deev” to recreate the latest and greatest hors d’oeuvres.

As a working boy from San Fran I couldn’t imagine what these people would do with this strange little thing, or how it could begin to feed a family. Little did I know it had many uses, but we’ll get to recipes in a bit.

Today we source our Belgian endive locally from Rio Vista, Calif., about 10 miles outside of nearby Brentwood. It’s much more affordable now too!

While some say Belgian “en-dive” and others say Belgian “on-deev” (technically, it’s pronounced “on-deev”), the most important part of the proper name is actually Belgian. Endive alone is the name of an entirely different piece of produce.

Deciding on pronunciation for the vegetable may seem complicated enough, but just wait until you read about how it grows. This delicate, mildly bitter vegetable doesn’t grow in a field as most other fruits and vegetables; in short, it sprouts from the root of another plant, but only when the root is replanted in a dark warehouse.

It’s true. Really!

Belgian endive was discovered by mistake. In the 1830s, as the story goes, a chicory farmer in Brussels, Belgium, stored chicory roots indoors to dry for use as a coffee substitute (chicory flavoring is also still widely used, and is a key ingredient in a drink popular in New Orleans). The roots were left longer than normal, and to the farmer’s surprise the roots grew new sprouts, sprouts that looked nothing like leafy, green chicory, which is also known as curly endive. These new sprouts were made up of white, firm, yet tender, leaves with a mildly bitter flavor.

The leaves of Belgian endive are white because they’re grown without sunlight (with no sun, the chlorophyll does not turn the leaves green). The red Belgian endive is also mostly white, but the red tips are a result of a cross between Belgian endive and radicchio di Treviso, a longer, leaner and leafier version of common radicchio. Though some retailers call it French endive or simply red Belgian endive, California-grown red Belgian endive is more commonly marketed red California endive.

There isn’t much difference in taste between the red and the Belgian endive, but the color difference does add a nice contrast when the two are used together in a dish. The leaves can also be peeled and laid individually on a platter along with jicama, celery, cucumber or carrots to be used as scoops for a dip such as hummus or guacamole. Another popular presentation is stuffed Belgian endive or Belgian endive boats. Check out the recipe for Belgian Endive Boats with Herbed Cream Cheese and Smoked Salmon.

I like Belgian endive best when eaten raw to maintain the integrity of its nutritional benefits, crunch and structure, but don’t stop there. Belgian endive is also exceptional when braised, baked, sautéed or grilled. Check out our recipe for Honey Roasted Belgian Endive from Stephanie Nuccitelli, a Sacramento-based food blogger for 52 Kitchen Adventures.

Belgian endive presents a host of nutritional benefits. It’s loaded with loaded vitamins B and C, calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc, folate and selenium. It’s also low in calories, low in sodium and low in fat. This mildly bitter vegetable is also a good source of potassium (one head delivers more than 50 percent of the potassium found in a banana) and furthermore it helps prevent the absorption of cholesterol into the blood stream.

Aren’t you glad the Brussels farmer left his chicory roots to dry too long? I know I am! Be sure to check out my nephew Robbie’s produce tips for Belgian endive too.

Free! Award-Winning, Locally Made Cheese: Foggy Morning

Free! Award-Winning, Locally Made Cheese: Foggy Morning

Nicasio Valley Cheese Co., makers of Foggy Morning, have partnered with us to offer a free round of their cheese next week (Feb. 29 – March 6, 2012) with your coupon. You’ve got to try it!

By John Nava

Nestled in the valley of West Marin is Nicasio, Calif., home to the Nicasio Valley Cheese, Co., a new up-and-comer in the world of locally made fromage. Nicasio Valley Cheese Co. produces eight varieties of cheese, and it’s their award winning, organic Foggy Morning, a fromage blanc-style cheese, that we’re offering for free next week (Feb. 29 – March 6, 2012) with your coupon!

All Nicasio Valley Cheese Co. cheeses are made from 100% organic farmstead cow’s milk (for a cheese to carry the title farmstead, it must be crafted on same property the milk is produced). In the Nicasio Valley Cheese Co. case, the milk and cheese are produced at the Lafranchi Ranch, a third-generation, family-run ranch founded in 1919 by Fredolino Lafranchi, a Swiss-Italian who immigrated to America at the age of 17.

The Lafranchi family owns and operates both the ranch and the Nicasio Valley Cheese Co. creamery. To the best of the Lafranchi family’s knowledge, Nicasio Valley Cheese Co., is the only certified organic farmstead cow’s milk cheese producer in the state of California.

Some of the best cheese comes from West Marin

West Marin, where the Lafranchi Ranch is located, has become a well known cheese region; it’s home to some big name producers, such as Marin French Cheese Co. and Cowgirl Creamery.

Rich Lafranchi, a ranch partner and director of sales and marketing for the cheese, explained that the area, years ago, was the original San Francisco “milk pail.” All dairies were based on sustainable grazing and produced phenomenal milk. Unfortunately, demand dropped for Marin milk with the arrival of milk from the Central Valley. Many dairies had to find alternate uses for milk.

“Our family talked about getting into the cheese business for years, and finally, with the help and guidance of a cheese maker from Switzerland, we produced our first batch just two years ago on February 18, 2010,” said Lafranchi.

Before production began, the Lafranchis spent a summer in Switzerland with Maurizio Lorenvetti, their Swiss cheese consultant, where they learned the Swiss-Italian way of cheese making.

“We make Swiss-Italian cheeses to stay true to our family ancestry,” said Lafranchi. “Our cheese is influenced by the traditions of the area where Switzerland meets Italy, it’s neither traditionally Swiss nor Italian. Our Foggy morning is based on a fromage blanc, our Formagella is a distant cousin of Camembert, Nicasio Square is similar to Taleggio, Loma Alta is a distant cousin of Brie and our Nicasio Reserve is an Alpine-style cheese.

“Frankly, all cheese develops the same way, but the different variances and nuances are based on terrior – the land from which the milk comes,” added Lafranchi. “It depends on what grasses the cows eat, what time of year it is and so on.”

Down on the farmstead

Family is the name of the game on the farmstead. Rick Lafranchi’s brother Scott Lafranchi is the chief cheese maker and plant manager, while brother Andy operates the dairy. Their two sisters, Dee and Jan, help market and sell the cheese at a few Bay Area farmers’ markets.

With the decision to pursue cheesemaking, the family converted the old 3,700 sq. foot barn into the creamery and fashioned recycled shipping containers into an aging, or ripening, rooms (visit Nicasio Valley Cheese Co.).

While the majority of the fresh milk from Lafranchi Ranch is sent to Clover Stornetta in neighboring Petaluma, a bit of the fresh, pasteurized milk is delivered to the ranch creamery each day for cheese production.

Though Nicasio Valley Cheese Co. is a newcomer to the cheese scene, it has already earned second place for its Foggy Morning cheese at the American Cheese Society competition in Montreal, where it was up against cheeses from both Canada and the United States.

“We’re part of a great cheese making region, and we want our ranch and dairy to be a part of that,” said Lafranchi. “Our goal overall is to position ourselves as a viable contributor in the region, creating an opportunity for future generations to be a part of.”

In addition to the eight varieties Nicasio Valley Cheese Co. produces, it just released a garlic & basil Foggy Morning (available now at Sigona’s) and is working on another full-flavored cheese featuring characteristics of an Italian fontina and a Swiss raclette.

Enjoying Foggy Morning

Lafranchi noted Foggy Morning cheese boasts versatility. It’s fantastic on a toasted bagel with a swipe of jam, it also makes a nice spread on a sandwich or a Panini (Lafranchi recommends a Panini with salami, turkey and artichoke hearts). Another of Lafranchi’s favorite serving suggestions is using Foggy Morning in place of mozzarella for a summer caprese salad. It’s also lovely spread on a toasted baguette, drizzled with olive oil and dusted with a little salt & pepper. Pair that with a glass of white wine and you’ll be in your happy place.

We’ve also developed a sort of one-bite chocolate cheese cake appetizer: Dot a few dollops of Foggy Morning on a Berta Maria biscuit and drizzle the combo with a little Ficoco, it’s a fig & cocoa spread we sell at both locations. If you’re in the mood for something sweet, you’ve got to give this combo a try!

You can find more Foggy Morning recipes on our blog too, including Foggy Morning Shells and Foggy Morning and Strawberries in a Balsamic Vinaigrette. Don’t forget to come in next week (Feb. 29 – March 6, 2012) with your coupon for a free round!

January 25, 2012

To Hass or not to Hass

To Hass or not to Hass

Learn about the differences in two avocado varieties now available at Sigona’s: the Fuerte and the Hass.

By Robbie Sigona

A Californian's favorite: the Hass avocado

Avocados are practically a staple for many homes in our state due to near year-round availability and versatility. Making a dish, such as an omelet or sandwich, “California-style” usually means simply adding in a slice of creamy avocado to the ingredient list.

Most shoppers are familiar with the Hass avocado; it is, after all, the most prevalent variety grown and sold in California, and the one purists say is best for making guacamole. The rich & buttery Hass is easy to spot because of its pebbly-textured skin turns from green to purplish-black when ripe. It’s also a sort of squatty, oval shape while some other varieties, such as the Fuerte, are pear shaped.

We currently carry both Hass and Fuerte varieties, and while both are essentially the same inside with their light green, creamy & sweet flesh, it’s important to know the differences between the two to guarantee a good avocado.

To Hass or not to Hass

Most have heard the phrase, “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” but when selecting an avocado, giving the outside the once-over is a good place to start. The graphic below shows the simple, yet pertinent differences between the Hass and the Fuerte.

Anyone who unknowingly selects a Fuerte and waits (and waits, and waits) for the skin to darken is in for a disappointment. The skin of a Fuerte stays green when ripe. Fuertes aren’t usually stocked at most grocery stores because their thin skin makes them too perishable. On the other hand, the thick-skinned Hass, a variety developed in the 1930s, has a great shelf life.

Did you know there are nearly 500 avocado varieties? According to the California Avocado Commission, just a handful of those 500 varieties are grown commercially in California; they are the Bacon, Fuerte, Gwen, Hass, Lamb Hass, Pinkerton, Reed and Zutano. The familiar Hass variety is the leader of the pack, representing nearly 95 percent of California’s total crop.

Most people prefer the California avocado over its Florida counterpart, and the reason is plain: taste and creaminess. In general, California-grown avocados are rich in oil (from 18-30 percent) making for buttery, rich fruit. Florida avocados are more juicy, sometimes even watery, with just 3-5 percent oil. Florida avocados also have a slight sweetness, which Hass lovers are not used to.

Avocado to the Rescue

Avocados are a staple fruit in our stores, and because I grew up in our family market, you can believe me when I say I’ve eaten my fair share. It wasn’t until I was older that I became interested in the health benefits of avocados, especially when my wife and I became parents.

Left to right: Bacon, Fuerte, Gwen, Hass, Lamb Hass, Pinkerton, Reed, Zutano.

Avocados are one of the first fruits a baby can enjoy. They’re loaded with vitamins and nutrients, such as potassium, vitamins B1 & B2, niacin, folacin, magnesium and monounsaturated fats, which, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, are essential for baby’s development.

Though they’re high in calories, avocados can help you avoid weight gain if used in moderation in place of other high-fat or high-salt condiments like cheese or mayonnaise. The fats found in avocados are monounsaturated fats, or “good fats,” and promote an increase in healthy cholesterol (HDL).

Of all varieties, the Hass contains the highest proportion “good fat.” Additionally, they’re also a great source of protein, essential acids and heart-protective compounds such as Vitamin E, potassium, folate and fiber. They really are a superfruit.

But wait, there’s more!

Among findings from a 2005 research project completed at Ohio State University found that eating avocado with salsa or with a salad increased absorption of carotenoids (powerful antioxidants, protecting the cells of the body from damage caused by free radicals) from the vegetables in the dish by as much as 15 times.

Did you ever think you’d know so much about the avocado?

Californians are lucky to have great avocados available nearly nine months out of the year. For the three months of the year when Californian avocados aren’t available, Chilean or Mexican Hass avocados are an acceptable substitute. This is a great time to try the California Fuerte avocado.

Whether you’re stocking up now for your homemade California-style BLTAs (Bacon, Lettuce, Tomato & Avocado sandwich) or for Big Game guacamole, remember to check our signage for the variety of avocado you’re buying. We clearly mark the Hass avocados and the Fuertes, and are also sure to adhere the orange Ripe stickers to the fruits that are ready to eat that day. Make sure to check the rest of our blog for more avocado selection tips and avocado recipes, too, such as a gluten-free Avocado & Quinoa Salad.

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