Only two things that money can't buy, and that's true love and home-grown tomatoes
March 20, 2010 3:29 PM   Subscribe

What other secret, magic foods can I buy and eat? Bonus points for being local to Washington or the Pacific Northwest.

As I explore my various locavore and farmer's market options, occasionally I'll stumble across something so unbelievably delicious that it's a fundamentally different food from other, similar varieties. My first experience with this was buying Coronation grapes in British Columbia in late September; they were so unbelievably good that my husband and I ate four kilograms of grapes in two days. (And then paid for it, digestively, but that's neither here nor there.)

Since then I've also discovered a local farm that sells eggs from scratch-fed chickens, alpine strawberries, local heirloom peaches with skin so thick and fuzzy it could choke you and so full of juice they settle into your hand, Berkshire pork from pastured hogs that run in an abandoned apple orchard eating apples and wild onions. . . Homegrown heirloom tomatoes are probably the most well-known example of what I'm talking about, where for a brief window if you know where to go you can get glorious, secret, magic food that makes the regularly available stuff look like a pale shadow of the real thing. So what else am I missing? What should I be looking for that's so much better than the grocery store?
posted by KathrynT to Food & Drink (47 answers total) 81 users marked this as a favorite
Wild mushrooms in season.
posted by trip and a half at 3:36 PM on March 20, 2010

Chanterelle mushrooms. I remember seeing people sellling them at Portland's "Saturday Market".
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:40 PM on March 20, 2010

These guys make the amazing jam I've ever eaten. And I don't actually like jam.

Look for fresh local cheeses. Also, fresh yogurt. It's amazing without any sweeteners or anything, maybe with a handful of granola or a bit of sliced fruit.

A salad made from lettuce that you picked 5 minutes before eating is incredible.

Fresh figs bursting with juice, ripened and warmed in the sun are absolutely the most delicious thing I've ever eaten. They rarely make it home from the market--into my mouth they go.

Fresh herbs are a revelation--throw out the dried ones.

Make your own chicken stock. I slow cook mine overnight in a very low oven.

Green garlic is awesome.

Oh man, I could go on for ages. I'll be back in a bit with more.
posted by mollymayhem at 3:43 PM on March 20, 2010

You've had Rainier cherries, right? If not, wait a few months and they'll start showing up at every farmer's market in Seattle.
posted by mhum at 3:45 PM on March 20, 2010

Oh, and brisling sardines really are quite different than regular, generic sardines.
posted by mhum at 3:48 PM on March 20, 2010

Find a bramble which is in fruit (August?) and pick yourself a bunch of wild blackberries. You won't believe how sweet and wonderful they are. Far better tasting and much better in jam than what you can buy in stores that says "blackberry". (But you need to add some lemon juice to them when making jam so that the pH is low enough to be safe. Otherwise you risk botulism.)

Oregon and Washington are known for making some fabulous white wines, same kind of varietals that you'd ordinarily think of as coming from Germany.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:53 PM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Speaking of grapes, have you had Concord grapes? Maybe they're more commonly eaten than I thought, but I'd never had them before last summer when I dropped by a Brooklyn farmer's market. They have a different consistency than normal red grapes at the supermarket--the insides are globular goo and incredibly tangy. They taste like Grape, capital G, as if they've been injected with a billion grape atoms. It's also fun to suck the innards through your teeth to filter out seeds!
posted by zoomorphic at 4:08 PM on March 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

You've had Rainier cherries, right? If not, wait a few months and they'll start showing up at every farmer's market in Seattle.

Along the same lines, making a cherry pie from scratch, filled with fresh sour cherries, has become my favourite part of summer these days. They pretty much never show up in supermarkets, but look for them in farmers' markets around the peak of cherry season. You'll need to buy a cherry pitter for $5–10, if you don't have one already, but it is so, so, so, so, so worth it.
posted by Johnny Assay at 4:12 PM on March 20, 2010

Jicama appears to be unknown outside of the West Coast. I like it carved into sticks and served with lemon juice.
posted by SPrintF at 4:38 PM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Morel Mushrooms. They should be in season right about now. As a kid we would find these in the woods in the midwest in spring, then soak them overnight in water and batter and fry them in a skillet. But its an intense flavor that makes things like pasta sauce, salads, omelettes, and pretty much anything you would put savory veggies in super-awesome. Best to collect them yourself since they're pricy, but you can typically find them fresh at farmers markets around now. Oh, and if you do go out on your own, be very careful not to eat any strange mushrooms.
posted by jeffamaphone at 4:46 PM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Black raspberries. They have a dark sweet flavor like blackberries, but the soft texture of red raspberries. They seem to be around for 1-2 weeks per year at the Seattle farmer's markets.
posted by creepygirl at 5:01 PM on March 20, 2010

I think this older thread might also be of interest.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 5:04 PM on March 20, 2010

Not so exotic now, but I'm a big fan of Meyer lemons, which are sweeter than regular lemons. You also might look for olallieberries, though they seem to mostly be grown in California. Our farmer's market is my only source for Thai basil, purple basil, pattypan squash, and orange colored cherry tomatoes (so sweet, yum).

Us East Coasters do know about jicama, and we use it in salads, among other things. Someone at work makes a nice salad with jicama and pomegranate seeds.
posted by gudrun at 5:12 PM on March 20, 2010

Unfortunately, lemons don't grow in the Pacific Northwest.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:28 PM on March 20, 2010

Have you been huckleberry picking?
posted by HotToddy at 5:29 PM on March 20, 2010

How far are you willing to drive? In late summer, try driving to the Hood River Valley and visit a farmer's market there. The Hood River Valley is filled with orchards, and they'll be selling apples, peaches, pears, and apricots that will taste better than you can believe. Oregon highway 35 is your key. You'll find farmstands along it.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:36 PM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Chocolate Pickle, I'm well aware that lemons don't grow in the Pacific Northwest, however Meyer lemons are grown in California, and findable in farmer's markets in various places, particularly on the West Coast. Asker of this question did not say recommendations had to be confined to what was grown in the Pacific Northwest, she said: Bonus points for being local to Washington or the Pacific Northwest.
posted by gudrun at 5:36 PM on March 20, 2010

Ooh, seconding going to pick huckleberries. When they're fresh-picked, they have a delicate flavor that you don't get when they've been cooked or turned into a sauce or whatever. Fresh huckleberries are really fantastic with peaches or other berries.
posted by creepygirl at 5:38 PM on March 20, 2010

Ah. And then there is the ultimate secret wonderful Northwest food: salmon jerky. The best place to buy it is Astoria, Oregon.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:40 PM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Meyer lemons are grown in California, and findable in farmer's markets in various places, particularly on the West Coast.

The problem is that all citrus fruits sold here in the Northwest are picked green in southern California, and ripens in trucks while being shipped north. We can't get tree-ripened citrus here, and truck-ripened citrus isn't sweet.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:43 PM on March 20, 2010

Response by poster: Actually, Yuzu lemons are hardy in my zone. Barely. And during a cold snap, they'll need some attention. But, with enough care, you can grow lemons here.

I have never been huckleberry picking. FOR SHAME! I know.

Some of these I already knew; I make my own stock (beef and chicken) and even reduce the beef stock to demi-glace. I will spend any amount of money on fresh morel mushrooms. I had a sour cherry sorbet once that, literally, still makes my tongue ache with desire from the memory of it. But these are all simply fantastic suggestions, and please, please keep them coming.
posted by KathrynT at 5:47 PM on March 20, 2010

Actually, Yuzu lemons are hardy in my zone.

I'll be darned. Really? In that case, I stand corrected.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:54 PM on March 20, 2010

Response by poster: For real! Hardy to 0 degrees farenheit. I'm in zone 7, technically, but with microclimate management there are parts of my yard that are in zone 8.
posted by KathrynT at 5:56 PM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

To go with the grape theme, muscadines are intensely flavorful and very, very good (unfortunately Wikipedia tells me they're mostly southeasternly fruitstuffs, which couldn't be farther from you).
posted by inkytea at 6:02 PM on March 20, 2010

What about fiddleheads, i.e. young ferns that pop up during early spring (at least here in New England). They can be incredibly tasty, sort of like a cross of asparagus and a green bean. They have an incredibly brief window of harvest (again, here in NE) the later in the "season" the more bitter they become. As a kid, my mother used to saute them in butter, add salt and pepper . . . so good.
posted by jeremias at 6:13 PM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

local cheeses, they can be amazing.
posted by fifilaru at 6:33 PM on March 20, 2010

Best answer: I will spend any amount of money on fresh morel mushrooms.

What! No no no, don't buy them! Going out hunting for them in the spring is half the reason to live in the PNW. The other half is huckleberry picking in the summer. And the third half is chanterelle hunting in the fall.
posted by HotToddy at 6:38 PM on March 20, 2010

Response by poster: The problem with going out hunting for them is that you have to know someone who knows where they are! and they aren't eager to share!
posted by KathrynT at 6:42 PM on March 20, 2010

One of the growers at the Seattle farmer's market (sorry, can't remember the name, but they're the ones that are closest to the music corner at the Columbia City farmer's market) sells a salad mix that is unbelievable. It's called something like "wild and spicy salad mix". Not only does it have a mix of mild greens like mesclun, but they throw all kinds of incredibly flavorful greens in too--herbs, nasturtium flower petals (peppery), bitter and spicy greens...when you talked about food as revelation, this was my experience with this salad mix. I'd never had a salad that needed no dressing whatsoever to taste so flavorful and amazing.

Wish I could give you better detail! Good luck finding it, it'll be worth it.
posted by Sublimity at 6:56 PM on March 20, 2010

Sungold cherry tomatoes. Sweet jumping Jesus, those are good straight off the vine. I would almost describe their taste as 'sharp', which shouldn't make sense, but somehow does.
posted by threeants at 7:17 PM on March 20, 2010

Just in case it wasn't clear, "sungold" is the name of a cultivar, not just me waxing poetic.
posted by threeants at 7:18 PM on March 20, 2010

The problem with going out hunting for them is that you have to know someone who knows where they are! and they aren't eager to share!

Well, huckleberries are everywhere--just go hiking anywhere in the mountains in August and you'll stumble into them. For mushrooms, take a mushroom-hunting class the first time, and that will show you at least one place in your area that has them, and then you'll have a better idea of the kind of terrain to look for. Plus, you'll meet people in your class who are also interested in foraging, and then you'll have someone to go with. I met one of my best friends that way.
posted by HotToddy at 8:43 PM on March 20, 2010

Dammit, my keyboard is covered in drool now.

Seconding picking huckleberries (when hiking) or (cultivated) blueberries.

The salad mix Sublimity mentions is also often found at the U-District farmers' market. They probably sell at a lot of the weekly markets.

Also at many farmers' markets in the city are the Rockridge Orchards folks. Their tayberry wine is incredible, as is their “Fools Gold” melomel.

When buying fruit from Eastern Washington farmers I like to talk with them briefly about the variety— they're generally eager to discuss the minutiae of the flavors of different sorts and tell you which varieties are about to come into their best season.
posted by hattifattener at 9:22 PM on March 20, 2010

Padron peppers. You have to wait until summer, but when they're ready, fry them in hot, hot, hot cast iron with a tiny bit of olive oil, then salt 'em.
posted by thehmmhmm at 9:46 PM on March 20, 2010

Millionthing huckleberries. Ridiculous. You need a LOT to do much with, but a huckleberry-apple pie is pretty awesome. I used to pick them as a kid (in Northern CA) and Mom would make the pie. Took me many years to develop the willpower to bring my full buckets of berries home without eating 80% of them. Amazing little guys, huckleberries.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 11:05 PM on March 20, 2010

If you like salmon, become familiar with when they spawn to be sure you're buying the best quality. My favorite is sockeye from Alaska (Copper River salmon in spring is the famous one). There is a huge difference in taste and texture between wild Alaskan sockeye/chinook salmon and farm-raised Atlantic salmon.

If you like smoked fish, buy a couple of whole albacore tunas from the Westport boats in late summer and smoke it or have it smoked.

My favorite shrimp come from Hood Canal, but there are excellent tasting shrimp throughout the Salish Sea. Try the marina in Bellingham.

If you like blueberries, pick or buy 50-100 lbs in July or August from a reputable farm at the height of the season and freeze them.
posted by surfgator at 11:51 PM on March 20, 2010

Best answer: A plain roast chicken of a foraging breed with access to pasture is a revelation. A bird that's gotten exercise and plenty of bugs and grass is miles away from a grocery store chicken or, to my palette, even a pastured industrial breed like a cornish cross. A Cornish Cross raised in the same conditions as a foraging/heritage breed just doesn't have the flavor of a heritage breed like (my personal preference) a freedom ranger. These are the birds we raise on pasture and, while we're always open to new breeds that aren't cornishes, we haven't found anything that compares.


Disclosure: We raise chickens for money, it's a business. However, our permit limits us to 1000 birds/year so it ain't exactly the most lucrative line of work but these are the birds we choose to raise and eat. YMMV and I'm always interested in different breeds. We do this because we love the birds and love deliciousness.
posted by stet at 12:45 AM on March 21, 2010

Maldon finishing salt:

Last year's Top Chef contestants were asked what advice they would give to novice chefs to improve their cooking. Four of them simply said: "Maldon salt".
posted by xammerboy at 1:52 AM on March 21, 2010

Here on Whidbey we have two things you may wish to check out: Penn Cove mussels, which, fresh and served in many establishments in Coupeville, are really tasty, and loganberries, of which there is a festival at the Greenbank Farm in July.

My mother has been producing tayberries that are really, really good out of her Olympic peninsula garden for a few years now.

And, of course, the invasive, never-to-be-eradicated Himalayan blackberry which is everywhere in this state produces pretty great fruit, in season.
posted by maxwelton at 1:59 AM on March 21, 2010

All things are ten times more delicious in season. Does a particular type of fruit seem particularly cheap? Does it smell particularly good? Buy it!

Ripe, in season peaches are the best food in the world, hands down.
posted by that girl at 4:44 AM on March 21, 2010

Artisanal hard-stem garlic. It's deeper shades of purple and brown. Flavor is 100x better and the skin/cloves a pleasure to handle compared to the lifeless small thin-skinned white stuff.
posted by ifjuly at 8:56 AM on March 21, 2010

And not fresh but DOP whole San Marzano plum tomatoes. They have an indescribable, incomparable tang thanks to the soil they're grown in, developed from volcanic ash IIRC. Lots of people dismiss them but I don't see how; the difference in taste is super noticeable. If I make the simplest, laziest marinara so long as they're in it it's guaranteed to be awesome even if I hardly season or add anything else.

Of course, that garlic+San Marzanos=lethally good!
posted by ifjuly at 9:01 AM on March 21, 2010

And a direct response to your question, ee, but someone mentioned Concord grapes. Speaking of--this sorbet is a delicious way to use them. I made it for the first time last night and while I'm not stranger to making yummy fresh-produce sorbets (basil is my fave) I was a little skeptical and worried the true grape flavor would mutate into disappointly cloyingly sweet fake grape stuff (bleccch). But no. It's lovely to look at and very fresh tasting and extremely grape-y. Yum. And I don't have a food mill so I had to resort to the alternative mentioned in that thread of pureeing with a blender and straining, which I can tell isn't ideal (it pained me to leave ALL of that thickening skin etc. and therefore some tangier flavor behind), and it was still good.
posted by ifjuly at 9:50 AM on March 21, 2010

Chicken of the woods.
posted by zerobyproxy at 11:18 AM on March 21, 2010

Response by poster: Man I should have posted this in June, because now I want huckleberries.

you guys, this is so fantastic. Keep em coming if you possibly can -- I've marked a few best answers just because of the plethora of information in them, but nothing here is not a great answer. The Locavore / FOLIS (fresh, organic, local, in season) thing is definitely better stewardship of the earth, and it DEFINITELY sticks it to the Man, which are both things that I'm all about, but I have to tell you that I would never keep up with it at all if it wasn't that the food was so goddamn good.
posted by KathrynT at 11:32 AM on March 21, 2010

Hands down, carrots; they come in a dozen common varieties you've never seen, and they all taste amazingly better.
posted by talldean at 8:56 PM on March 22, 2010

When I started buying organic milk over the regular stuff, I felt like it was a really big upgrade. But just recently, I tried some grass-fed cow milk, and it was even creamier than the organic stuff at the same fat percentage. Supposed to be healthier too. I'd recommend giving it a try.

I'd also go one step further with the "home-grown tomatoes" thing. In particular, I've found the purple varieties to be generally the tastiest. Cherokee Purple, Cherokee Chocolate, Back Krim, etc. are all even more wonderful than the other heirloom tomatoes I've grown.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 5:42 PM on March 23, 2010

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