We're finally seeing locally grown apricots and raspberries. But how about buying apriums, or seeking out tayberries?
Basil and cilantro and mint are all sprouting in the sunshine. So are shiso and lovage.
Summer, even 2008's odd version, is a prime time to explore the edible playground provided by our region's lesser-known vegetables, fruits and herbs. At the least, taking a flyer on a nonmainstream ingredient can spice up the dinnertime routine. At best, it can introduce a new favorite to anticipate each year as the seasons change.
Both happened to me the year I joined a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program, in which farmers provide a weekly box of whatever's been harvested from their fields. The mysterious bundles packed along with my expected tomatoes and peaches included the likes of sorrel, whose piercingly sour, lemony taste immediately become a bracing addiction. A new world of tender young beets also opened up, with golden and candy-striped varieties coloring my plate, and topped by greens so fresh they could be cooked as a vegetable in their own right. The CSA taught me to appreciate fava beans (beyond "The Silence of the Lambs") and to admire the mild flavor of garlic scapes, the curly shoots that grow from hardneck garlic. (Visit a farmers market this week to nab the last of the current crop, and add them to any stir-fry.)
But it doesn't require a CSA to throw yourself into the new ingredients fray. It's as elemental as picking up a strange item at a well-stocked supermarket or farmers market and asking, "What do I do with this?" Most growers have answers.
"We feel like it's part of our job, not just to grow (produce) but also to re-educate folks about vegetables that are new to them, and to help people have fun and experiment in the kitchen," said Kia Kozun of Sequim-based Nash's Organic Produce, which hands out recipe cards along with vegetables as common as cauliflower, and provides weekly tips for using, storing and cooking whatever is new.
Reading through cookbooks -- and gardening -- are other paths to inspiration. I purchased a perennial shiso plant from the Willie Greens market stand after seeing the leafy herb in one too many Donna Hay cookbooks. Lovage, with its deep, leafy, celerylike taste, went into my planting box after Herbfarm veteran Jerry Traunfeld wrote enticing recipes calling its flavor irreplaceable. Planting extra rows of peas yielded tender young vines for tasty sautés. (Many Hmong farmers bring pea vines to the farmers markets throughout July, noted Judy Bennett of Rockridge Farms.)
For more ideas, I turned to a stellar seasonal resource we have in Seattle -- cooking instructor Becky Selengut, an Herbfarm alum who runs Seasonalcornucopia.com, a guide and timeline to Northwest seasonal goods. Here's some advice on interesting finds from Selengut and from others on the farm-fresh frontlines. (Seasonal information is at seasonalcornucopia.com.)
Also known as perilla, this big, leafy member of the mint family has "the brightness of cilantro" and the refreshing, palate-cleansing properties of mint, along with its own indefinably unique taste, Selengut said. (Some say it has cinnamon overtones, others think of curry.)
Don't throw it into a salad -- the taste won't mesh well -- but it has "a great affinity for fish," especially fatty fish. In Japanese restaurants it might be wrapped into rolls or used to top sashimi. It also marries well with fruit, and could be minced with plums, nectarines, lime juice and jalapeño in a sort of "alternative salsa." Selengut also combines it with lime and melon to make a colorful and unusual sorbet (recipe follows).
Uwajimaya is a good source for shiso if you don't frequent the farmers markets. Green shiso is used for most recipes; a few call for red shiso, which also provides the coloring in Japanese pickled plums.
Season: June to September
Look for lemony sorrel leaves at markets that carry generous, inexpensive bunches near the salad greens, not a few parsimonious stalks pressed into plastic herb boxes next to the oregano and thyme.
Selengut uses sorrel "anywhere you would use spring herbs," and noted that it works especially well torn into a mixed salad.
"You hardly need vinegar in your dressing," she said, if there's sorrel in it. It also works well as a flavor substitute for locavores who focus on eating items grown near home and miss their citrus.
Pureed sorrel soup is a classic dish, and sorrel "loves fish," Selengut said, and is a particularly good match for salmon.
Season: March to November
Also known as cepes or King boletus, these wild mushrooms are practically a meat substitute; when grilled they're known as poor man's steak. They can be used in some of the same ways as domestic portobellos, but Selengut, who just returned from a foraging trip, rated them as leagues beyond.
Porcini have "the same awesome meatiness" as portobellos, she said, but they also provide a savory, earthy flavor, and a wonderful texture that's toothsome on the outside but creamy and delicate within.
Star local forager Jeremy Faber likes tossing porcini in oil and marjoram and roasting them until golden brown. A downside to eating foraged goods, though, is their random availability. Last week's blast of heat withered local supplies. If you find them, grab them. If not, dried porcini are readily available. Even a few, when rehydrated, will boost flavors when added to soups and stews calling for plain button or cremini mushrooms.
Season: Mid-May to July, with a fall season September-October
Fava beans generally taste great in salads, stir-fries and soups, said Kia Kozun of Nash's, and they can be pureed with garlic to make a tasty hummus-like spread. (At a potluck last week, I tasted a lovely preparation of shelled favas strewn in a salad of soft butter lettuce and mint.)
Kozun's tip for fava success? Don't listen to people who insist on the tedious process of peeling the skin off each bean after it's shelled. "That's way too much work," she said, and it isn't necessary unless the beans are old.
"If you get any good fresh favas at a market, and buy them right from a farmer, you definitely don't need to peel them. I love them just popping right out of the shell," she said. "We try to make recipes and cooking fun and easy for people. When you say, 'Here's a fava bean. You've never heard of it. And now you have to do all this intricate stuff to prepare it,' it turns people off."
Season: Typically April to June but still available
Try this firm, attractive cross between a raspberry and a wild blackberry both raw and cooked. It has a tiny core that turns off some people who sample it raw, but others say the uncooked berry is "the best thing they've ever had," said Susan Schuh, who sells tayberries at the University District, Lake City and Phinney farmers markets.
"It's a wonderful berry," she said, "with kind of a lingering aftertaste," which makes for a great cobbler or shortcake or jam. Schuh Farms, based in Mount Vernon, picks the berries when they still have a hint of red on them, which Schuh said is at their peak. "If they get real black they have a whole different flavor."
If you find you prefer the flavor of the darker-colored version, be aware that you need to eat them quickly; they don't keep well once they're black. They're also known as bumbleberries.
Season: July to August
This cross-breed favors its apricot father more than its plum mom, and can be used virtually interchangeably in recipes with apricots. It comes into season earlier than most apricot varieties, and "the main difference is that it doesn't have any fuzz like a standard apricot would have," said Greg McPherson of Tiny's Organic Produce, who farms apriums and other fruits on his Wenatchee orchard to sell at Seattle-area markets.
The cold snap in mid-April destroyed m