Theresa Hong: Early birds have other options for produce, sense of community

03/30/2011 1:44 AM

03/30/2011 2:55 AM

I must admit, I've been a bit pouty with the delay of spring. As a transplanted Alamo City chick, I'm used to a sunny, early spring. And by early, I mean when everyone else in the United States stands up to their knees in snow, anxiously awaiting Punxsutawney Phil's famous prediction, we San Antonians, dressed in our shorts, tank tops and flip-flops, callously laugh and point at our own shadows as we bask in the 80-degree sunshine.

I guess the joke's on me this year.

I had every good intention of sharing a big slice of fresh, local farmers market with you this week, but I found out a little too late that the market isn't quite ripe enough for eating at this point. Sigh.

But as I always say in seemingly rotten situations, when life gives you lemons, make guacamole -- it's much better than lemonade. And when the farmers market is closed, go to the Mexican market.

They never disappoint and have all of the ingredients needed to make this tasty but healthy treat that seems to always make me feel as if I have some of that Texas sunshine in a bottle. It's my personal taste of home.

While every city tends to have at least one Mexican market, I must say Merced's Rancho San Miguel (a California chain located in the Central Valley and Merced's best kept secret) is indeed a sight to behold.

With row upon row of fresh fruits and vegetables -- from apples to tomatillos and everything in between -- I never have any problems finding that one special ingredient required to make that one special dish.

But wait, there's more! If you act now, you'll also receive access to the in-store restaurant where it's impossible to withstand the delicious smells emanating throughout the store, forcing you to buy a burrito as big as your head (and man is it worth it!).

And if that wasn't enough, Rancho San Miguel also offers a panadería, where children congregate and squeal in delight over the dozens upon dozens of delicious dulces (sweet treats) displayed like proud, colorful peacocks lined up in a row, each one grander than the other.

OK, enough with the 30-second plug (although they do deserve it). I'm sure about now you're probably thinking you could buy this stuff at any grocery store, right? True. But let me ask you this. If you shop at a farmers market, why?

I can tell you why I shop at farmers markets. First, like many of you, I like to know where my fruits, vegetables and even meat and poultry come from. But what really drives me to frequent farmers markets is the uniqueness of the experience. that sense of community.

There's something to be said about talking face to face with the person who pulled your tomato off the vine that morning. And although you can't necessarily speak to the farmers or ranchers responsible for stocking Merced's Rancho San Miguel with its rich selections, it is like a farmers market as it exudes that same sense of community.

That's why as I patiently (or not so patiently) wait for the farmers market to ripen, you can find me cruising up and down the aisles of our own friendly Mexican market. And as I tenderly squeeze the dark green avocados and deeply inhale the bright bouquet only a lemon can offer, I smile. I know I've found a special something you can't just buy at another grocery store.

You see, when the woman behind the butcher counter greets me with "mija" (my daughter), that's going way above and beyond customer service. That's a hug, an invitation to become part of that community, that family. And that's an invitation I gladly accept.

Remember, when life gives you lemons, you know what to do. And if the farmers market isn't quite ready for business yet, you know where to go. Don't forget to tell them Mija sent you!

Theresa Hong writes about food for the Merced Sun-Star. E-mail her at

RECIPE: When life gives you lemons guacamole

5-6 avocados

Juice of 1 small orange

Juice of 1 small lime

Juice of 1 small lemon

2 campari tomatoes, coarsely diced

5 tablespoons sweet Vidalia onions

1/2 to 1 jalapeño, seeded and chopped (if you like a bit more heat, keep the seeds)

1/2 cup cilantro (I always put about 3/4 cup because I love the bite cilantro adds)

1 to 3 teaspoons garlic salt (depending on taste)

Peel avocados and discard skin. In a bowl, mash avocado until relatively smooth. Add fruit juices and incorporate. Add remaining ingredients and lightly stir to mix.

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