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UC Food Safety

UC Food Blog

Happiness is . . . California blueberries

Paul Willems, who co-owns Berry Lady Farms in Kingsburg with his wife Gayle, said berry season is a happy time for him and his family. He attributes their sunny disposition to all the blueberries in their diets.

“I feel better when I eat lots of blueberries,” Willems said. “They make you feel happier. I wish I had them all year long.”

Gayle Willems said the fruit may stimulate serotonin in the brain, providing a calming effect. But, she added, the good feelings may not be just the blueberries. "It makes us feel better anytime we eat healthy, right?"

The Willems may also be particularly happy during blueberry season because of the success of their 100-acre farm. The couple grows and sells 12 blueberry varieties over the season at a farm store, farmers markets and through conventional channels. Blueberries are expensive to establish and require a great deal of hand labor for harvest, but they are the second-most valuable crop per harvest acre, after cherries, according to the California Blueberry Association.

The California blueberry industry is growing at a healthy pace, and with 6,000 acres producing about 30 million pounds of the antioxidant-rich fruit, the industry’s volume has now surpassed Florida, said UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor Manuel Jimenez.

The milestone is significant, since the southern highbush blueberry cultivars grown in California originated in the Sunshine State. Southern highbush cultivars are well adapted to the California climate because they require fewer “chill hours” to produce fruit.

A leader in the development of the California industry, Jimenez has conducted blueberry observational trials – looking at yield and flavor characteristics – for more than a decade at the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Parlier. In addition, the Kearney blueberry plantings have been the scene of ongoing studies on plant spacing, mulches and pruning, research that has helped farmers successfully establish the crop in the semi-arid San Joaquin Valley.

Jimenez will invite blueberry farmers and those considering entering the industry to Kearney this week to taste and compare 35 varieties of berries. Looking over the plots, Jimenez said it wouldn’t be difficult for a farmer to use information from the Kearney trials to select good-tasting berries that ripen sequentially for months, extending one farm's blueberry season from spring until mid-way through the summer.

“You could plant Snow Chaser, a very sweet, early variety, in hoop houses and start harvesting in the second or third week of April,” Jimenez said. “Next, Reveille could come into production. Southmoon is really late and then Centurion, a rabbit eye blueberry that’s small and sweet, would be ready in late July.”

For more information about the blueberry meeting this week at Kearney, see the flyer.

Posted on Tuesday, May 17, 2011 at 6:47 AM

U-pick organic strawberry season opens on coast

Swanton Berry Farm near Davenport

The U-pick strawberry fields at Swanton Berry Farm near Davenport on the coast are formally opening on May 28, but if you drive out there now, you’ll get a chance to pick without a crowd. Talking to Barrett Boaen, the U-pick manager, I got to the bottom of just why their berries, also sold at local Whole Foods stores, look and taste so good.

Partly it’s the ‘Chandler’ variety, chosen for its old-fashioned sweetness and flavor although it yields only about two-thirds as well as some varieties. It’s also about not pumping up production with too much nitrogen or irrigation (more details here). Mostly, though, it’s about the picking process. A strawberry grower visiting from the East Coast recently bought two flats from the farmstand, saying he couldn’t help himself, he had never laid eyes on such beautiful organic berries, and he knew who to congratulate—the pickers.

The workers at Swanton Berry Farm

You and I are unlikely to come close to picking as well as Swanton’s unionized employees, some of whom have more than 20 years of experience at the farm. They recognize when a strawberry is as ripe as it can be, when it’s red and sweet all the way through (strawberries don’t continue ripening once they are picked). Although a less ripe berry is firmer, with a longer shelf-life and easier to transport, it has less flavor, so the pickers wait a day or two for any berry with a green tip or white shoulders to ripen perfectly. They discard berries that are soft on one side (from raindrops settling on the fruit) or have a cat-face look, which is lygus bug damage.

Moving along the rows, which are banked up to 18 inches high to reduce back strain, they harvest each perfectly ripe berry, with its green calyx attached, in a “twist and flick” motion: “you put tension on the stem above the calyx, and rotate it, so you can see 360 degrees and whether there’s any damage to the berry; then with just the right tension, the berry will pop off naturally,” explains Boaen.

In the U-pick fields, which have ocean views, visitors pick for pleasure, hopping from row to row, enjoying the fresh air, and the fragrance of the berries and the earth. Compared to the serious work in the other 20 acres of strawberries, “the 3 acres of U-pick are a playground,” says Boaen, “We provide people everything they need to be happy.”

U-pick tent at Swanton Berry Farm
Last week the fields were dusted with a zillion white flowers, which means a burst of fruit coming soon, but the cool wet weather this spring sealed the fate of the season. Growers need lots of fruit early, to sell before cherries and other fruits arrive on the market. Instead the late winter rains knocked off or damaged the flowers, and hail beat up the berries.

“It can be demoralizing,” Boaen admits. “All that energy put into the fruit after the excellent warm January was wrecked.”

Fortunately, the farm has several other crops, and the strawberry fields are filling with new berries. You can pick them this summer for $2.50 per pound (10 percent discount for bicyclists). Bring your own containers if you remember, a windproof jacket and boots in case of fog or mud, and most of all, Boaen recommends allowing plenty of time to enjoy yourself.

By mid-June, Swanton ollalieberries will be ripe, and by mid- or late July, the blackberries will be ready. Farm tours are available by reservation. Organic strawberry and ollalieberry jams, and five other kinds, are available at the farmstand or online.

Posted on Thursday, May 12, 2011 at 11:56 AM

A 'seed chart' can help children establish good eating habits

It's important to teach children from a very early age, starting at about 9 months, to eat a wide variety of foods, but this takes time and patience, says the nutrition, family and consumer sciences advisor for UC Cooperative Extension in Tulare County, Cathi Lamp.

Lamp says children learn to like new foods by exploring them, so parents shouldn’t be concerned if youngsters make a mess touching their food, playing with it and trying to put it in their mouths. These are all forms of learning.

“The child feels a natural sense of fear in trying new foods and for that reason it is important to permit them to become familiar with them from an early age,” Lamp said. “Some children need to see food more than 15 times before accepting it. Let children see you eating the food you are giving them and let them touch the food, but don’t force them to eat. If children reject a food on the first try, this doesn’t mean the food will never be part of their diets.”

Lamp suggests an educational reward system for expanding children’s diets. One system is creation of a “seed chart.”  On a piece of paper or cardboard, glue the seeds from the fruit or vegetable each time your child tries a new food. If your children can write or color, ask them to draw the fruit or vegetable on the chart.

“The chart of new fruits and vegetables that your children have tried will help them feel proud of their accomplishments,” Lamp said. “In this way, you reward them for trying new foods. In addition, you will measure your progress in helping your child learn to enjoy a large variety of fruits and vegetables.”

Posted on Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 11:54 AM

Passing the torch: Cooking with kids

Perhaps you, like me, have found yourself amused and bemused as you have made your way through the refrigerator and frozen food sections of the local grocery store, and observed the proliferation of pre-made food options. Items such as already hard-boiled eggs, breakfast burritos, frozen chunks of cooked chicken meat, vacuum sealed marinated tri-tip, and mini-hamburgers nestled in buns all vie for attention in freezer and refrigerator spaces. Pancakes stacked up in neat little towers were my favorite “you must be joking” moment, to be swiftly followed by a bit of melancholy that so many of us don't take the time to cook much any more.

As we all know, the benefits of preparing fresh food at home are myriad. Alas, the time savings and convenience of prepared foods can beckon strongly.

So when I happened to hear during a radio interview with celebrity chef Guy Fieri that he was partnering with California State Senator Anthony Cannella in introducing Senate Joint Resolution 5, which designates every Sunday as “Cooking with Kids Day,” it seemed like a great idea.

The Joint Resolution “encourages parents and children to spend time in the kitchen together and prepare a healthy meal; and be it further resolved that the legislature recognizes the health benefits of cooking with kids at least one day a week throughout the year and encourages parents, caregivers, and children to shop together, select ingredients, and prepare a healthy meal to share together each week.”

Initially, in 2008, Chef Fieri collaborated on a resolution that the second Sunday in May was “Cook with your Kids Day” (Senate Concurrent Resolution 94), but he decided once a year just wasn’t enough so he approached Senator Cannella about drafting this new resolution.  After approval 39-0 on April 25, 2011, by the Senate, Senate Joint Resolution 5 now awaits approval by the California Assembly.

Cooking with kids once a week is a worthwhile, if lofty, goal. Finding menu ideas that lend themselves well to helpful little hands can be a big help. Some resource websites include: All Recipe’s Kid-Friendly Recipes, Cooking with Kids, and Food Network’s Cooking For Kids.

It’s a long-term investment that pays rich dividends. I love the fact that my adult children have embraced the passion of preparing "from scratch" wholesome and delicious food, and now after years of patiently (usually) teaching food preparation techniques and tips, they have turned the tables back on me, and often inspire me with their culinary creations. Pass that torch, it’s a win for everyone.

Sunday-best oatmeal pancakes

2 c. old fashioned oats
2 + c. buttermilk
2 eggs
1/4 c. canola oil
1/2 c. all purpose flour
2 Tbls. sugar (organic if desired)
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon (optional)
1/2 c. raisins or blueberries (optional)

Combine oats and 2 c. buttermilk in a large bowl, let sit 15 minutes. Stir in eggs and oil and beat well. On top of oat and buttermilk mixture, make a mound of the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and cinnamon (if desired). Take a fork and lightly blend the dry ingredients together. Then stir the dry ingredients into the oat and buttermilk mixture until well blended. Add 1-3 Tbls. additional buttermilk if needed. Pour 1/4 c. batter on greased pancake griddle pre-heated to medium high. If desired, sprinkle with raisins or blueberries.  When pancakes are brown on the bottom, and bubbles start breaking on the top, turn pancake.  Cook until browned on both sides.  Makes about 18 3-4" pancakes.

Posted on Thursday, May 5, 2011 at 8:57 AM
  • Author: Mary E. Reed

Fish tonight, but not just any fish!

The sturgeon never ceases to amaze folks.

The largest freshwater fish in the world, it can live more than 100 years, tip the scales at 1,500 to 2,000 pounds and reach 20 feet in length.

It’s a primitive fish that, according to fossil records, lived more than 175 million years ago. For its uniqueness, some think it belongs in the same category as the (now extinct) wooly mammoth  and  the saber-toothed tiger -- both disappeared at the end of the Pleistocene epoch, about 12,000 years ago,

Other just consider the sturgeon a “good-eatin’ fish,” like halibut or swordfish.

If you’re NOT an angler or a friend of a "Sturgeon General "-- with no access to this tasty fish -- you can sometimes buy farm-raised sturgeon in the supermarket or order it in a restaurant.

We recently marinated a freshly caught sturgeon with a lemon-garlic base, popped it on the grill, and served it with green salad and a crusty bread. Delicious!

Lemon-garlic marinated sturgeon

Pound of sturgeon, cut into two six-inch strips

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
6 cloves of garlic
4 fresh bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon red chili flakes
Zest of one medium-sized lemon
1 teaspoon coarse black pepper

Pulse the marinade ingredients in a blender, and then pour into a zip-locked plastic bag. Add fish, seal the bag, and shake -- or use your fingers to move the marinate around.  Refrigerate for at least two hours or overnight

Remove marinated fish from sealed bag and place on a barbecue grill for a total of about 10 minutes. At the five-minute mark, flip it over and grill another five minutes. (This is a tender fish and will cook fast.)

Serve with rice or a green salad with crusty bread.

You can use this marinade for halibut, swordfish or striped bass, too.

Posted on Tuesday, May 3, 2011 at 8:10 AM

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