26 July 2010

5 Questions for Russ Parsons

Russ Parsons’ knowledge of produce combined with his passion for seasonal foods makes his books and articles read like the  prose offspring of Alice Waters and Harold McGee. From his work home at the Los Angeles Times, Mr. Parsons’ beat includes everything from the gigantic agriculture industry to the ephemeral food fads of Southern Cal.

Pick Me, Pick Me, Pick Me

Outside of the Southland, Mr. Parsons is better known for his books, How to Read a French Fry and one of my all-time favorite books on food, How to Pick a Peach. That book’s list on which fruits can be refrigerated is the single most practical piece of information ever published and the rest of the book is pretty good too – Detailing everything from how and why varieties are grown to how to select ripe fruit to what to do with your selections after you bring them home. Mr. Parsons was kind enough to answer 5 questions for us via email from his home base in LA.

Due to a cool and extremely wet Spring, the strawberry crop, normally a $17m crop in Oregon, was brutalized this year. What is the importance of a cash crop like strawberries for small farms?

Traditionally strawberries have been one of the highest earning crops … that’s why you hear so many stories about strawberry farmers who put their kids through college on 5 acres. They are very demanding, very susceptible to diseases and they require a lot of handwork, but they earn a lot, too. Beyond that, there are certain crops that people HAVE to buy when they see them, I think, and strawberries are one of them. Even if the farmer has other crops, the strawberries are important because they draw people to the stand … as long as I’m picking up my strawberries, I’ll get some kale and some garlic, too.

One of our growers produces raspberries for a grocery chain but grows a different variety to sell at Market. Could you explain how ‘successful’ varieties of fruit are selected (and why flavor might not be a consideration).

The big benefit of shopping at a farmers market is being able to taste before you buy. So farmers who sell at them are smart to choose fruit that tastes good. Seems simple, but shoppers at the grocery can’t taste, so they have to buy on visuals, so farmers may choose varieties that are bigger, firmer, or have more color. There’s another factor: Farmers at growers markets can price their fruit high enough to make it worthwhile growing a variety that may have great flavor, but may be producer fewer fruit. Since farmers at the grocery have to make their money on volume, they have to go with the heavy bearers.

Agriculture-wise, everything is so much bigger in Callie. For better and worse, what does this mean for both consumers and growers/farmers?

There are a lot of really big farms in California, but there are a lot of small ones, too. I think the average size is somewhere around 100 acres, which may be big in Oregon, but certainly wouldn’t be in Illinois. Also something like 80% of the farmers in California are owned either by families or by individuals. Lately, we’ve seen an increase in the number of really small farms, 10 acres or less, that are possible because of farmers markets. Of course, we’re also seeing an increase in the number of really big farms, because they are the only ones who can absorb the really thin margins that come with commodity fruits and vegetables.

So how do you pick a peach anyway, or at least a ripe one?

First, recognize that there is a difference between maturity and ripeness. They are separate but overlapping processes. Maturity is when the fruit has built up as much sugar as it can; ripeness is when it tastes as good as it can. Maturity only comes when the fruit is on the tree, but ripeness will continue after the fruit has been picked. When I’m buying peaches (or nectarines, or plums for that matter), I’ll usually try to pick up a couple of good ripe pieces of fruit for that day, but generally I prefer to buy fruit that’s a little under-ripe. Truly ripe fruit is very delicate and since it’s standing out in bins for other shoppers to paw through, it’s frequently bruised. Just leave fruit that’s slightly underripe out on the counter at room temperature and within a day or two it’ll ripen. One really important thing with peaches and nectarines– don’t refrigerate them until they are dead ripe. That ruins them.

To pick a peach (or a nectarine), look for color: not the red blush, which is genetic, but the background color, which should be golden. Feel the fruit: when it’s ripe there’ll be a slight give to it. Smell the fruit: ripe stonefruit has amazing perfume. For truly great peaches and nectarines, as opposed to really good ones, choose fruit where the background color is more orange than yellow.

What is your favorite thing you have been cooking at home lately?

The thing I’ve been doing most lately is making quick jams — it’s really easy: 1 pound of cut-up fruit, about 1 pound of sugar and the juice of half a lemon. Cook them until the juices are clear, then set them aside overnight. The next day, cook them 2-2 1/2 cups at a time in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. The jam sets in about 5 minutes and the flavor is really fresh and bright.