January 10-16, 2006

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We Suck Year-Round

By Cheryl Sternman Rule

THE LEMON TREE in my front yard has just given birth and I've got lemons coming out of my lemons. Visions of creamy curds and citrus-y vinaigrettes dance in my head. I shove fistfuls into chicken cavities, tart-up pound cake batters with juice, and I've still got more lemons than I know what to do with. But I'm certainly not complaining. I revel in the Northern California winter, bragging endlessly to my right-coast family and friends of the riches growing steps from my front door.

Natives of this region may not appreciate that, when winter arrives, produce bins take a serious nosedive elsewhere in the country. Sure, in many states you can find grapes from South America or kiwis flown in from halfway around the world, but for those committed to eating seasonally and locally, the options plummet with the mercury. (No offense to root vegetables, which are ubiquitous this time of year, or to beloved members of the cabbage family.)

Here in California it's a different story altogether. When I moved here from Boston, I was blown away by the produce available year-round. Not just in the farmers markets, where I half-expected it, but in unassuming corner groceries, big-box supermarkets and casual Mexican eateries. Avocados, in particular, were a revelation. How is it possible that in all my years of mindless avocado-eating I'd never had one as perfectly ripe, as uniformly creamy, as those available here? On the East Coast, finding a good avocado was a Herculean challenge. Grab one that's hard and it stays that way for a week. Check it two minutes later and it's brown and mushy. Or buy one that yields to gentle pressure, seemingly perfect, and take it home, halve it and recoil in horror at the overripe goo that hides inside.

We have so much to celebrate here, and not just in fertile months of summer. satsuma mandarins, pomegranates, fragrant herbs, crisp lettuces—all are available now and most are California-grown. Resist the urge to choose familiar foods from far-off places, and reach instead for what's sprouting right outside your door. Grab those Meyer lemons like you mean it. Squeeze them with reckless abandon. Just because they've grown in your backyard all your life doesn't make them any less extraordinary.

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