Friday, May 14, 2010

Little people, Big quality

This time, I’m getting practical. Taking a break from philosophy, and getting down to business. The way I shop for produce has been changed recently. I stumbled upon a great, reliable produce market. Marina Farms is located in Culver City, about a mile away from my place. I randomly drove by it, intrigued by the overflowing boxes of fruit. Whatever errand I was running at the time, instantaneously turned meaningless, in face of yet another irresistible grocery shopping opportunity. Keep in mind this is May, end of spring, not summer time yet. Quite a problematic time of year as far as produce is concerned, where the tomato has not yet naturally ripened, and the avocadoes have gone into their summer hibernation. That been said, my expectations stepping into this experience, were taken with a grain of salt.

Still, there was something magical about the fresh produce at Marina Farms, first off, from a visual standpoint. The fact that nothing is arranged in a geometrically perfect pyramid (what if I want the middle nectarine??), the wooden boxes in which they lay, the relatively tight space, the overall lack of pretentiousness. This place exudes simplicity. I don’t need polished apples; I need tasty ones. No fancy lighting, or overly clever consumer-tested marketing arrangements of any sort will make that apple taste better, or in any way more attractive, if you know what you’re looking for in an apple. That is why I appreciate this type of simplicity. Let nature’s creations shine, as they did on the tree or on the ground in which it grew, or moments after they were picked, at most.

Second observation -- smell. This place, from moment of entry, smells like it should, fresh. Natural scents fill the air, no Febreezing the lettuce here. Natural odors rules here, in the best way possible.

Third, price vs. quality. Hands down, cheapest tomatoes I’ve found. Anywhere. (Since leaving Israel, of course…). And, for May, they smell fantastic! Seal of approval – I love this place. Fast forward, 20 minutes later at the house, a simple tomato salad with good olive oil, feta, salt, pepper and some fresh oregano -- yes, best tomatoes I’ve had in a long time.
A few other hidden gems found here: A great spice rack. Things I haven’t found anywhere and, fearfully said, have forgotten about. First and foremost -- Sumac. This wondrous spice is found in abundance around the Middle East, especially in Lebanese cuisine. It has an earthy sourness to it, and is often used in place of lemon as a tangy addition to a dish. At home, I came up with sumac-sage crusted scallops over crispy scallions. The tanginess popped and made this a keeper recipe. Second -- Azafran en Flor. Basically, this is a poor man’s version of saffron. And when I say poor, I’m talking about 79 cents for ¼ oz (!!). True, this is not the real deal, just dried safflower and not the stigmas used for real saffron. However, some experimenting at home (infused some of it in hot water, and made some rice with the liquid) resulted in a comparable flavor. At the end of the day, until I have the great honor of making paella for Ferran Adria, I might as well save up and use Azafran en Flor.

Also, there is a great section for Mediterranean canned goods such as Spanish sardines and octopus, middle-eastern pickles, olives, and other gourmet condiments.
Overall, a great culinary treasure chest, well hidden behind giants such as Whole Foods, Bristol Farms and such, but does not lack in quality and, first and fore most, integrity. What you see is what you get, and that, non-coincidently, is exactly what I want.

In short, this changed the way I approach grocery and produce shopping. Being a meditative, relaxing and most enjoyable experience for me, grocery shopping is something that I take seriously. True there are farmer’s markets all around, but those lately have gone the commercial route, as well. High-end grocery stores offer quality in the expense of... well, expense. The message from all this is to invest in some basic research and spend some time wandering around your local area; find a place you like and that delivers good quality in a reasonable price. You’d be surprised that price and quality, in this case, are barely correlated. The one-stop-shop concept, convenient as it may be, will not deliver overall high quality, and will stumble in some aspects for sure. Spread your “eggs” in several baskets. Find your produce lady, your meat and seafood man, your bread person. You’re bound to develop great relationships with those people, based on your appreciation for the hard work they do, and the struggle they face when trying to compete with the goliaths of the food world. That’s how restaurants get their great products -- personal connection with their purveyors. Again, reflecting back to the French Laundry Cookbook: it is partially dedicated by Chef Keller, to his purveyors at the restaurant, including a full page spread on each one, from his oyster lady, to his hearts of palm guy. Respect the small people, and they will return the favor with great prices and quality that is never worse and often better.

Marina Farms -- 5454 S Centinela Ave,
Los Angeles, CA 90066


  1. Lee,

    So very well written and something that we have over looked with all the big box grocery stores. Going back to the basics is not a bad thing.

    Thanks for being thought provoking and inspiring!

  2. Brilliant writing. From start to finish.