The best way to discover healthy, fresh food is to grow it yourself or visit farmers markets.
THE SEED CATALOG was as thick as a book, and there were multiple entries for blueberries alone. “Aren’t blueberries just blueberries?” my teenager asked.
The same could be said about all produce, to some degree: Plums are plums. Squash is squash. But that’s like saying, “Dogs are dogs.”
The backyard harvest can be entirely different from the supermarket shelves, virtually a parallel universe of fruits and vegetables. The more years I garden or buy from small-scale farmers, the more choices I discover.
At Mair-Farm Taki at the University District Farmers Market, plums mean yellow Mirabelles for a few weeks each summer. The marble-size sweets are the key ingredient in a haunting plum-wine-vanilla jam (the recipe is from Christine Ferber’s “Mes Confitures”) that’s actually worth the time it takes to pit each tiny fruit.
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Round little lemon cucumbers, available by the bin at farmers markets, are mild and crisp in my summer salads. The squash I plant in my own garden now are likely to be hefty Sweet Meat, boasting a silver-green outer skin and butternut-colored flesh, which I’ve never seen even at farmers markets here. Friends in Snohomish introduced me to the variety, passing on 20-pound giants from their own plots that stored well and tasted extraordinarily good.
While I’d gardened casually in the past — who says no to a homegrown tomato of any breed? — I first discovered the nuanced choices available when I got Jerry Traunfeld’s 2005 cookbook, “The Herbal Kitchen.” Recipes from the chef, now owner of Seattle’s Poppy and Lionhead, didn’t call for the basil and oregano I had on hand. If I wanted Cinnamon Basil Chicken, I needed to grow my own cinnamon basil. No supermarket I frequented carried anise hyssop, so I needed to plant my own to try his roasted peach recipe. Lovage followed, then shiso. Even familiar plants behaved like entirely new breeds when harvested at home, like the lemony sorrel that grew in great handfuls, suddenly a salad green rather than a flavoring herb.
But those blueberries my son asked about were a new one to me, until I talked with Harley and Susan Soltes, who farm five acres of certified organic fruits at Bow Hill Blueberries in Skagit County.
“When we first took over this farm, we didn’t know one blueberry from another. We were like everybody: ‘A blueberry’s a blueberry, right?’ ” says Harley, a former Seattle Times photographer.
Their farm’s varieties, planted in 1947, were called “obsolete” by commercial buyers. Most can’t be machine-picked; they’re labor-intensive to handpick; some are different sizes than the market standard — and their flavors, sizes and other qualities are as different from each other as a pug from a Golden Retriever.
Stanley blueberry bushes are unproductive by modern standards but provide “the flavor they all wanted to match” in catalogs from the 1920s and 1930s, Harley says. Jersey blueberries grow so tall, they have to be picked on ladders, but hold their color unusually well. “If you make a smoothie out of Jerseys, it comes out pure purple-purple — beautiful,” he says. They don’t ship well fresh, so Bow Hill freezes them after picking, selling them in outlets like Seattle’s Central Co-op.
Then there are tiny Rubels, whose stems don’t behave well when machine-picked, sweeter than standard berries, but with a thicker skin that some find less palatable.
So, yes, they’re all just blueberries. But I’m lucky enough to have a little space and sunlight for gardening, and Raintree Nursery has another word for the Rubel plants it sells in its wild blueberry category: “Unequalled.”