Farmers Market Finds: Greening My Plate Redux on another Road Trip

The Alemeny Farmer’s Market’s has a reputation of offering an array of produce without the steep prices found in other local markets.  An odd comment here and there soon became a dull roar and I knew I must check this place out for myself.

Alemeny Farmer’s Market, AKA “The People’s Market”

mural at the farmer's market

The first thing I learned is that this market is old; a regular geezer in terms of most US farmer’s markets, but barely a glint in someone’s eye when compared to European or other countries’ markets.  Its been around since 1943 and was the first farmer’s market in California.  Today over 500 certified farmer’s markets exist in California and the number continues to swell. [source: sfgsa.org]  The Alemeny Farmer’s Market was intended as a wartime measure to provide surplus and distressed crops from neighboring counties, and remains the only city run farmer’s market in San Francisco, with the City’s real estate department responsible for its operations.

In 1947, the market moved to its present location where it still operates, like the postal service, rain or shine, every Saturday of the year. The set up here is different than other farmer’s markets I’ve visited; the stalls are permanent, concrete structures that run together, each section has an elevated area where the farmer sets up her wares and can easily oversee the activity and answer questions as they are posed.  One tip I would offer is to bring a notebook with you to copy down the names of foods you will encounter that are unfamiliar with you.  Often the name is given in Vietnamese or Thai, or Chinese and then going back to the computer to research the vegetable can be challenging.  All of the farmers are exceedingly friendly and as I had learned, some of them had been selling their wares at this market for generations.

This market is truly a people’s market and representative of the cultural diversity found in this area.

I unearthed a slew of new Asian greens, and had a culinary adventure discovering how to incorporate them into my cooking.

Fish Mint

Other Names:  Diép Ca, Dap Ca (both Vietnamese), Dokudami (Japanese)

Fish Mint

If I had to describe any of these greens as exotic, diep ca is it.  I’d never had anything like it, it certainly lived up to its name.  It really tasted fishy, so much so that until I read about it, I was convinced they had dipped the leaves in fish sauce. That first bite, just after a sweet banana mind you, the taste came as a shock, buut it was delicious mixed with other greens and I enjoyed it sauteed in olive oil and garlic with my eggs, a very untraditional treatment to be sure.  This uncommon herb should be explored, but it can be hard to find, and a Vietnamese market is probably your best option.

In Japan, the name for this plant tells of its ancient uses, doku = poison, and dami = blocking.  It is considered one of the top healing herbs in Japan.  When consumed it is most often eating in a salad, pressed for its juice, or dried and made into a tea.

Penny Wort

Other Names: Bai Bua Bok, Hai Hobo, Hua-Hok (Thai), Daun Peyaga (Malaysian) Gotu Kola (Indian), Hang Kor Chow (Chinese), Nuoc Rau Ma (Vietnamese), Tsuho-Kusa (Japanese)

a penny for your thoughts

A favorite Vietnamese treatment for this herb is to blend with sugar into a refreshing herbal drink.  Needless to say the store bought version is no comparison with the freshly made stuff.  I really liked the somewhat grassy taste of this green and added it to my salad mix.  I was really intrigued by the name, penny wort sounds like something out of Harry Potter, and I’d seen containers of Gotu Kola extract in the health supplement sections of the stores, so when I stared at the herb in my refrigerator, I could not help but think, “This is what all the fuss is about?”  It was tasty, but it did not have that unexpected taste of fish mint, but isn’t there a saying somewhere about great things come in small (and unassuming) packages?

Pennywort Salad

Serves 4

Ingredients

2 c pennywort, leaves only
3 shallots
2 T lime or lemon juice
1 sliced chilli (optional)
1 c fresh grated coconut
Salt to taste
½ tsp sugar

Directions

Wash well and strip leaves from stems. Shred finely with a sharp knife, combine with other ingredients and serve immediately. The flavour is slightly sour, slightly bitter.

Some people prefer this salad to be lightly cooked, if so bring a tablespoon of water and ½ teaspoon salt to the boil in a wok or pan, add all ingredients and toss over heat briefly, stopping before leaves lose their green color.

Recipe adapted from Encyclopedia of Asian Food, by Charmaine Solomon

Pea Tendrils

Other Names: Dau Miu (Chinese)

checking out the options

These beauties are the young leaves and shoots of the snow pea plant and taste like a cross between spinach and peas.

Noodles with Shrimp and Pea Tendrils

From: Terra: Cooking from the Heart of Napa, by Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani, Serves 4

Ingredients

Lime-Soy Mixture:

1 T freshly squeezed lime juice
¼ tsp grated peeled fresh ginger
1 T soy sauce
½ tsp sugar
1 tsp Thai yellow curry paste
¼ tsp grated garlic
1 tsp Toasted sesame oil

Main ingredients:

10 oz Chinese egg noodles
3 T unsalted butter
20 med. shrimp, shelled
S + P
8 shiitake mushrooms
11⁄2 c shrimp stock
3 c pea tendrils

Lime-soy mixture: Whisk together all the ingredients and set aside.

Prepare the noodles in a large pot until al dente, about 2 minutes, and drain. Melt butter in a large pan over high heat until it starts to foam. Season the shrimp with salt and pepper.  Add the shrimp and the shiitake mushrooms to the large pan and sauté until the shrimp start to turn pink, about 2 minutes. Add the shrimp stock and bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer.  Add 2 T of the lime-soy mixture to the shrimp and mushrooms, then add the noodles and pea tendrils and toss to combine. Simmer for 10 seconds. Serve.

Sweet Potato Leaves

tasty treat

Despite the fact that sweet potatoes are among the world’s most cultivated crop, the leaves are not often consumed.  (Until I bought mine, I had never cooked with them.)  Even in countries where sweet potatoes are a main crop such as in Asia and the Pacific, they are not often consumed by humans.  As the farm animals nibble munch on them for food, eating them by humans is looked down upon as a food source for the very poor.  But if that’s a case, I’d keep up that belief to avoid competition because they are a treat.  They are great stir-fried in olive oil with garlic, dried chilies.  Lately, I’ve gotten into the habit lately of shaking some fish sauce on my greens fora lovely umani taste.

These can be treated just like you would spinach or chard.  They are not bitter like dandelion leaves or have any tough stringy bits.  For overall ease of use, and flavor, these leaves are a favorite.

Water Spinach, Water Morning Glory, Water Convolvulus, Chinese Spinach or Swamp Cabbage

Other Names:  Phak Bung (Thai), Rau Muóng (Vietnamese), Zun Ywet (Burmese)

This plant is very popular in East and Southeast Asia, as it can thrive with little care in the waterways, and is very common.  To the dismay of many, it was introduced to the United States where its rapid growth has led to its designation as a “noxious weed” in Florida and Texas. Noxious, not for health reasons, but its effect on its environment.

Some of the different ways water spinach is used:

In Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia, the leaves are usually stir fried with chiles, garlic, ginger, dried shrimp paste and other spices. In Penang and Ipoh, it is cooked with cuttlefish and a sweet and spicy sauce.

In Chinese a simple and quick stir-fry possibly with minced garlic is popular.  In Cantonese cooking, adding preserved tofu is popular while with Hakka cuisine, you might find yellow bean paste and fried shallots. Interestingly in Chinese culture there is a belief that discourages people from eating too much of it saying that the hollow stem may make the person weak and hollow like the plant.

In Thailand and Burma, it is frequently stir-fried with oyster sauce or yellow soybean paste, and garlic and chillies. It can also be eaten raw, for instance with green papaya salad.

In Vietnam, the stems are julienned into thin strips and eaten with noodles, or it can be seen as a garnish.

In the Philippines, it is often sauteed with onions, garlic, vinegar, and soy sauce to make a dish called “adobong kangkong“. It is also a common leaf vegetable in stews like sinigang. There is also an appetizer in the Philippines called “crispy kangkong”, in which the leaves are coated with batter and fried until crispy.

In South India the leaves are finely chopped and mixed with grated coconut to prepare Thoran, a Kerala cuisine dish.

Tips:  Andrea Nguyen on her wonderful site, Viet World Kitchen points out the the Vietnamese use herbs a bit differently than other cultures.  If you’ve ever eaten pho you know that they rarely add the herbs while cooking, preferring to eat them raw as an accompaniment to the foods; the diner pinching off what she needs to add to their bowl, or hand roll.

Other Foods to be found at the Alemeny Market

Maybe you don’t like greens, and even if you do, there are other reasons to take advantage of this market.  Other treats to be found included:

some of the tastiest honey

tiny but mighty in taste

a bit of paradise

blossoms of ideas

Flower Power

The purveyors of prepared food were as diverse as the eager early shoppers.

An Egyptian gentleman selling the most tasty of dips, all made with fava beans, including some tasty hummas type dip.  Not surprisingly, his brand was called Fava.

A stand selling “gourmet” Pakistani foods, that were truly delectable

Indian food from samosas to a broad assortment of chutneys and sauces.

Too many yummy Mexican options to choose from, with the aromas leading you by your noise to their lively stands.

My mind is a bit of a blur with all the options available, but there were many, and they were good.

All of the vendors were eager to ply the nibbling shoppers with tasty samples, and you could eat well on these handouts alone.  For me, it was definitely worth getting up early to go exploring and taking a bit of a road trip to discover new produce I’d never heard of, but could not wait to sample.

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23 comments for “Farmers Market Finds: Greening My Plate Redux on another Road Trip

  1. June 30, 2010 at 3:06 AM

    Hey, looks like a lot of hidden gems in this market! Some things so Asian that I don’t even know!

  2. June 30, 2010 at 5:56 AM

    I’ve actually seen pennywort plants at the St. Paul’s Farmer’s Market! But never the greens for sale. Fascinating – the not well-known food sources and the different parts of the world that cultivate what we do not.

  3. June 30, 2010 at 12:39 PM

    wondeful finds, thanks for sharing..penny wort and sweet potato leaves only for the poor? they look super, I would love to try these. I love the combo of poemgrante and honey and the cart of blossoms oh i would be in heaven..

    sweetlife

  4. June 30, 2010 at 12:52 PM

    In Colombia we have the baby bananas or golden fingers and they are delicious….I would love to try the champagne mangoes

  5. June 30, 2010 at 1:05 PM

    What lovely featured items. I sure miss going to this market. So true about price — this market has great quality and a nice assortment of unique finds. You really can’t beat it! Great recipes, thanks for sharing!

  6. June 30, 2010 at 3:39 PM

    Incredible green journey! Some of them are unknown for me like the penny wort ;) Visiting farm markets is an experience for all the senses.

    All the best,

    Gera

  7. June 30, 2010 at 6:17 PM

    What a great market! I adore pea tendrils. Will keep an eye out for penny wort and sweet potato leaves here in Chapel Hill. Thanks for the post.

    Best,
    Lynn

  8. June 30, 2010 at 8:16 PM

    This is such an exciting market! Several of the herbs that you mentioned, including penny wort were staple plant in our garden growing up. These herbs add such a bright and exotic flair to dishes. It’s so exciting to see that big container of baby zukes with blossoms still attached.

    If you haven’t been to the Civic Center farmer’s market on Wednesdays, there is one table by Thai farmers that offer many of the leafy vegetables featured here.

  9. June 30, 2010 at 9:26 PM

    Oh, that’s what it was!! Dokudami! When you told me about the fish mint, I had no idea what it was, but, yes I know it now. I never thought that it tastes like fish, but now I have become curious. I gotta try it again.
    I didn’t know that this market had such a long history. That’s really neat. Yes, I noticed that there were A LOT of ethnic produce there and I felt like walking in Oakland Chinatown. I also noticed that the prices there were a lot more reasonable than any other FM I’ve been in the city.

  10. July 1, 2010 at 2:12 AM

    I have never hear of pennysworth before,..but I will check at my local green grocers or my bio shop if they have it.

    That pennyworth sald inspires me! I also have never eaten the sweet potato leaves before,…another must try!

  11. July 1, 2010 at 2:41 PM

    Sounds like an amazing market. Now, I’m inspired to grow sweet potatoes for the leaves! I did try growing gotu kola once, but it didn’t survive long in my sad garden.

  12. July 2, 2010 at 2:17 PM

    Those sweet potato leaves look interesting! I would love to use them in an autumnal stew, with tomatoes and some chili. And I like the sound of fish mint…….interesting!!!!! I love markets!

  13. July 2, 2010 at 3:13 PM

    I know I continually say this Oyster AKA LA, but your post rock me in ways no other does! Love learning this stuff- I have heard of a few of them, but had not studied them!

  14. July 2, 2010 at 5:55 PM

    What a gem of a market! I would love to try those sweet potato leaves! Never saw anything like pennywort or fish mint at the markets I’ve been too. It sounds like a food lovers haven.

  15. admin
    July 3, 2010 at 2:05 PM

    Tigerfish – that market has surprised and delighted me with the finds, I did not touch on the four different varieties of incredible dates. The fresh duck eggs, the incredible array of produce. The list goes on, if you have not had the occasion to sample the delights. I think it is worth the treat.

    Claudia – Thats what I found so amazing about researching some of the greens I discovered. I had heard of the names but had no idea how to identify them in the “natural” state. Penny wort was a name I had heard often along with gota kola but did not know what it looked like as a plant or the taste, so it was a treat to be able to put it all together.

    Sweetlife – Just goes to show people are funny. I thought both greens were awesome additions to my kitchen and cannot wait to use them more frequently.

    Erica – Those baby bananas were an eye opener. So sweet, the flesh so firm, what a delicious treat! I’ve since bought several more. I am now also on the lookout for other varieties to sample.

    Lisa – I tell you I was stumped as to what to feature as the options were vast. I loved learning about and sampling all the new and wonderful food,

    Gera – I agree, a trip to the farmers market is special indeed.

    Lynn – I hope you can find them, and I bet you would have fun developing recipes around them.

    Christine – Wow lucky you to have all these wonderful greens growing up. I have been to the Civic Center market but not for a long time, unfortunately its a bit out of the way for me. But based on your recommendation, I may have to make a special trip.

    Kitchen M – I could not remember the Japanese name when we were talking, but I had a feeling you might recognize it. Its funny that you do not think it has a fishy taste. My husband swears it tastes like lemon. Most people seem to think it tastes like fish, but a few like yourself and hubby do not. I’d be curious if you got a new batch if you still think that way. You’ll have to let me know. Regarding the prices, that’s one of the things I loved about it, you could try something without feeling like you were going to break the bank.

    Sophie – Two great places to start. Hopefully you can find those greens in Brussels.

    Lisa – The sweet potato greens were very tasty. I’m sure its the summer heat in Austin that had something to do with the struggle. I have an apartment window garden that was going great, and then bam! Its kind of depressing now with all the leaves beside the pots.

    Kitchen Butterfly – I bet you will enjoy them, and I hope you can find them where you are. I love exploring all the different tastes.

    Chef E – Ah shucks! Glad you like lady. That’s high praise coming from you.

    Reeni – I count my blessings that I am fortunate to have such bounty close by. It is indeed full of wonderful possibilities.

  16. July 3, 2010 at 3:46 PM

    That is a fantastic market! What an array of exotic herbs. Definitely a place for me!

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  17. July 4, 2010 at 2:46 AM

    Ooh I saw some of my favorite greens! It’s impossible to find them in regular supermarkets…I adore swet potato leaves…they are sooo velvety!

  18. July 4, 2010 at 5:06 PM

    Pea tendrils are one of my favorite veggies. Love it just stir-fried with a little chile oil. But the fish mint is a new one to me. It looks and sounds fascinating. I wonder if it’s easy to grow?

  19. July 5, 2010 at 7:25 PM

    I’m green with envy. I’ve never, ever seen Phak bung anywhere around here. The closest thing to it would be Ong choy which in many cases just doesn’t cut it. It’s one of those things that cannot be substituted with anything else. And it’s an essential ingredient in one of my favorite Thai noodle dishes, Yen Ta Fo.

    You Californians are so lucky.

  20. July 6, 2010 at 3:48 PM

    Of course I will want to visit this market whenever I next find myself in California – I might have a bit of trouble getting back through customs with all of those greens though! :)

  21. admin
    July 6, 2010 at 4:15 PM

    Rosa – We are indeed lucky to have such a place so close by.

    Sophia – Those sweet potato leaves are indeed very popular

    Carolyn – Love how these greens make such a great meal as a simple stir fry. The fish mint was an adventure. I have no idea on its fickleness in growing, but good luck!

    Leela – We are lucky, but you Chicagoans don’t have it so bad, I have only to look at your restaurant adventures to determine that fact. You’re welcome to check out this market on a visit – I’d be happy to drive =)

    Spud – But of course. I can think of several goodies I saw there that had your name on it.

  22. July 11, 2010 at 7:34 AM

    What an interesting story about this market and you definitely had me at Asian vegetables. :) I’ve been seeing a lot about pea tendrils, but haven’t tried them yet. I’d go home with a bag of those champagne mangos for sure. Just seeing that picture makes me hungry for them again. They are gone around here until next season.

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