Cesar Chavez Day at Berkeley Farmers' Market

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Lettuce from Full Belly Farm

Happy Spring! Yes, the vernal equinox arrived on Saturday at 10:32 a.m., Pacific Daylight Time. Thank you, astronomists, for tracking the exact moment when the center of the sun would be precisely in line with the earth's equator. More generally, though, the equinox represents the twice-yearly date when the sun spends approximately equal time above and below the horizon, producing a day that's almost evenly split between day and night. After the equinox, the days begin to lengthen, adding a few more minutes of daylight to every 24 hours until the summer solstice in June.

And because, short of mushrooms, every plant we eat needs warmth and sunshine to grow, lengthening daylight means new crops springing up with every week that passes. In lucky California, that is. Back in the Northeast, the weather may be finally warming, but it will be months before anything fresh breaks through the frozen ground, and weeks before New Yorkers can even start trying to muster enthusiasm for the season's first foraged ramps (stinky, skinny wild leeks) and fiddleheads (curled fern tops, with a shelf life of about an hour).

blood oranges and asparagus
Asparagus from Kaki Farm

But yesterday the Berkeley Farmers' Market was awash in tender greens, including that rock star of spring, asparagus. Just in time for Passover dinners and Easter brunch, the season's first succulent spears are popping up from the bare ground like something fresh from the kitchen of Dr. Seuss. Full Belly will have theirs for at least another month. And while the stalks are delicious simply steamed or roasted with a drip of butter and lemon, they also makes a splendid quiche filling mixed with a handful of sauteed green garlic.


green garlic
Green garlic from Full Belly Farm

Green garlic stalks, which look like knobby-ended slender leeks or tough-minded scallions, are just what the name says: immature garlic plants, thinned out from the ground before the bulb can form. Left to mature, the bottom part of the stalk will fatten into a plump bulb, packed with individual cloves covered in a papery carapace. Once the bulb is fully ripe, the green stalk will yellow and wither, and the plant can be yanked out, left to cure in a warm dry place for a few weeks, then trimmed and stored to provide delicious pungency for months.

Green garlic, however, is perishable, a happy by-product of garlic growing. Only small farmers bother to market it, since it takes a little customer education to get buyers to know what it is and what to do with it. But thankfully, we live in a place with green-garlic pizza and more, and its sweetly delicate pungency has become a essential part of cooking here in early spring.

Artichokes from Swanton Berry Farm

Artichokes, too, are pumping out their fat fists. It's no surprise that, like asparagus, these harbingers of spring also come from perennial plants, plants that can store reserves of food and nutrients all winter, then spring into action at the first touch of warmth. Left to their own devices, these chubby buds would fold back their spike-tipped petals to form a tufty purple flower, making the plant's place in the thistle family abundantly clear. But picked still at the tight bud stage, the petals and the tender heart within make a dreamy base for any number of sauces--homemade mayonnaise, buttery hollandaise, blood-orange maltaise, lemony vinaigrette, even straight-up melted butter.

Citrus is still aglow, from grapefruits and lemons to blood oranges and tangy mandarins. Soon, though, the first pink rhubarb stalks will be arriving, alongside early-crop strawberries, perfect for cascading over angel cake or baking into rosy crisps and pies.

sugar snap peas
Sugar snap peas

In my own garden, the sugar-snap peas, planted in January, are in full-blown tangled bloom, the green pods swelling to succulence day by day. This type, made by crossing a green pea with a snow pea, produce what the French call mange-touts: sweet, crunchy edible pea pods wrapped around equally sweet full-sized peas. They make an irresistible snack while weeding, and somehow, no matter how hard you look, there's always one more hiding among the leaves.

But, as energetically as I plant my community-garden plot, I'm not sustaining myself every day from that door-sized patch of dirt. Food doesn't happen without farms, and farms don't happen without farmers and farmworkers. From now through mid-April, Berkeley's Ecology Center is honoring the life of Cesar Chavez, whose work as an activist and organizer within the farmworker communities of California (and beyond) made a difference in so many lives. On Tuesday, performers on a stage set up at the market filled the street with songs, poetry, music, and dance honoring Chavez's work and the achievements and struggles of the United Farm Workers.

Cesar Chavez