At the Farmer's Market: The Sweetest Sweet Potatoes Ever
The whole point of a farmer's market is to bring fresh, local food to people with as few intermediate steps as possible. While it's always fresh, sometimes the bounds of "local" get stretched. (Don't get me wrong--I am not about to give up my San Joaquin Delta asparagus--but calling that local to Irvine is stretching the bounds of reason.)
And then there's Rui, the smiling, gracious woman behind the table of R Farms, near the center of the Irvine market, across from the giant hummus booth.
Rui is one of a network of small-time OC growers who produce food out of their suburban backyards. Sometimes the produce is plentiful, sometimes it isn't. Some of the growers sell to restaurants, either directly or through a cooperative, and some just sell at farmer's markets or farm stands, directly to the public. R Farms is a one-stop operation; she grows them and she sells them.
Rui is there every week, rain or shine, with various Japanese vegetables: kabocha squash, bitter melons, gobo, Japanese cucumbers, thin eggplants and Hachiya persimmons. During the summer she had beautiful sheaves of huge purple perilla (shiso), which she told me were for juice (which I never tried--I used the huge leaves to wrap slivers of grilled beef).
The best things on her table, however, are the white sweet potatoes available through the winter. They are actually purplish-red on the outside but are beautiful and creamy off-white inside, and they are the best sweet potatoes I have personally ever eaten, the only sweet potatoes that I would willingly accept in place of a white potato. They actually get better as the weather and the soil get colder, so the best of them is yet to come.
What to do with them? The simplest way to enjoy them is to stab them a few times with a fork, then rub with a bit of oil, sprinkle with salt and roast in the oven at 400°F for about an hour, until they're soft and pliable. They're so buttery and wonderful that I don't usually put toppings on them, and the skin is so thin that you can easily eat it.
They make fantastic sweet potato fries, a dish which I did not love until I made them with Rui's produce, and they are amazing mashed into a casserole dish with warm spices (but please, please leave off the mini-marshmallows).
Irvine Certified Farmer's Market, Campus Rd. and Bridge St., Irvine. Saturdays, 8 a.m. to noon.
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