The title of a recent article by Sarah Gordon in the Santa Barbara Newspress caught my eye the other day: Survival of the Strangest. The thrust of the piece involved the rapid growth of niche farming in California for unusual crops, such as mangos, passion fruit, litchis, pineapple guavas, zapotes, cherimoyas or custard apples, and dozens of types of heirloom tomatoes with exotic names, such as Cherokee Purple, Mr. Stripey, and Big Rainbow. In the face of huge and growing competition from large operations in Mexico, South America and China for avocados, strawberries, and broccoli, the more mundane staple crops of the Central Coast, niche farmers are carving out successful enterprises by surviving on the strange and exotic, which in most cases are more difficult to grow, harvest, and transport and thus are not of interest to the big boys. Finding this niche is great for the small independent farmers and great for all of us who now have ready access their out-of-the-ordinary bounty at farmers’ markets throughout the country.

Both in Santa Fe and in Santa Barbara, we make our weekly pilgrimage to the Saturday Farmers’ Market for fruits, veggies, flowers, and more. While the produce sections of grocery stores have certainly improved in recent years, nothing can hold a candle to the cornucopia of peppers, apples, plums, peaches, tomatoes, squashes, herbs, and grapes that crowd the stalls on Saturday mornings. By the time we make it from one end to the other, Mike can hardly carry the basket. That’s our division of labor–he carries the basket and I cut the deals.

If you love to roam your local farmers’ market, when you run into say an heirloom dwarf white eggplant or a lipstick pepper do you pass it by and opt instead for the nice head of cauliflower you know what to do with? If so, fear no longer. All that stands between you and vegetable mastery is a little instruction. And there’s no one that we know of who can do it better than our good friend and vegetarian cookbook author, Deborah Madison, formerly of The Greens restaurant in San Francisco. If you’re stumped for how to cook (fill-in-name-of-any-vegetable-found-at-farmers’-market here) her beautiful cookbook Local Flavors, will show you how to get the most seasonal enjoyment from your local produce. No matter the vegetable in question, when it gets into Deborah’s hands, it just knows what to do. And with her well-designed recipes, it will in your hands, too. Support your local farmers’ market, so we can all keep the bounty flowing in.

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