Certainly, the crops' comings and goings evoke the holidays' agrarian roots. But when I buy directly from local producers, I'm aware of subtle shifts within a season, and, if I'm really paying attention, of an accounting of the entire past year's weather (and pests) and toil that has determined what is before me now.
This year will my family enjoy late-season figs and plums, along with new harvest dates and apples for a sweet new year? Will the season's first pomegranates arrive in time to offer blessing for a year of plentiful merits?
Culture and tradition may dictate holiday fare, but climate and weather make the final menu decisions for me. Call it surrender or call it living on the edge, this local, seasonal approach makes every food on my family's holiday table resonate with multiple meanings.
First of all, everything tastes better. Shopping locally is shopping in season, and foods have more flavor when grown and harvested in their true time and place. When even the potatoes and carrots are exceptional, I'm grateful to the farmers and shop with greater appreciation for the fixings for our celebration: the eggplants my mother uses in our family's fire-roasted appetizer salad we simply call chatzilim (eggplants); bright-yolked eggs for knaedlach, and deliciously fresh, free-range chickens for roasting and grass-fed beef briskets for braising, with loads of local onions.
I rejoice in the bounty of heirloom apple varieties so honeyed that they need no adornment. But honey we must have, so I stop at the local gatherers to choose delicate orange blossom and robust buckwheat flavors.
If farmers have pomegranates, I'll scatter pale-pink and ruby kernels over salad and rice and use the juice to glaze seasonal beets. Our table will be graced with market fruits and broomlike date blossoms.
If you're a farmer, the connection between land and table is even more profound.
Esther Maso of Weiser Family Farms prepares Rosh Hashanah dinner from ingredients produced on the farm started by her parents 25 years ago as a retirement dream. Their Tehachapi and Lucerne Valley fields yield plenty: eggplants, peppers and beets for salads; fingerling potatoes, root vegetables, onions and garlic for roasting; and green-and-white-striped Sweet Dumpling squashes to stuff with rice, honey and cinnamon.
Known for its heirloom potatoes, the farm is now a multigenerational enterprise -- Sidney, a former chemistry teacher from Boyle Heights; Raquel (from Mexico City); sons Alex and Daniel; daughter Esther, who left her job as a Hebrew day school teacher to help out; and now granddaughter Sarah, who's an agricultural marketing student at Cal Poly Pomona.
This sense of family permeates farmers' markets. Chefs who frequent them feel it as they seek their own favorite holiday ingredients.
Andrew Kirschner of Wilshire Restaurant wants great carrots and prunes for tzimmes-stuffed capon, because "having worked with local farmers so long, it's special to have their foods at my own family's table."
Pastry chef Zoe Nathan of Rustic Canyon Seasonal Restaurant and Wine Bar gets dried pluots and plums for rugulach, and Evan Kleiman of Angeli Caffe buys armloads of leeks (that we may vanquish our enemies) for Sephardic leek patties she learned about from a friend years ago.
For me, that special ingredient is the date. In Southern California, we have a unique opportunity to connect with this ancient crop, for the desert southeast of Los Angeles produces our country's entire supply.
Only if you shop locally do you learn that the two-and-a-half-month harvest begins just after Labor Day, and that there are many more varieties than Deglet Noor and Medjool -- in early September I also find 24-hour-old Barhi, Khadrawi, Amber, Precioso and Zahidi -- and that you can enjoy them, as they do in the Middle East, in varying stages of ripeness, from golden, crunchy Khalal still on the stalk to melting Rutab and the familiar, chewy dried Tamar.
I'm always overcome by their biblicalness. So is date rancher Robert Lower of Flying Disc in Thermal, Calif.
"Many a time when I'm out in the palm, with a view to the east almost unobstructed by humanity, I'm transported to what it must have been like 5,000 years ago," Lower says. Over the millennia, there have been a few improvements to the date, but pollination and how they grow are the same as they were back then. It's hard to improve on perfection."
Everett Davall, another producer, tells me, "We're so lucky to have a desert in the United States."
Where many of us would see an arid expanse, the date grower sees fecund possibility. Isn't that what Ecclesiastes 3:13 is all about— seeing the good in toil, finding the blessings in the not so obvious?
I'm directed to this passage by Adina Rimmon, who works at the Santa Monica market with citrus and pomegranate grower Peter Schaner. For Rimmon, a member of Beth Jacob Congregation, the physical labor, communion with farmers and customers and intense seasonality bring her closer to God.
The equally devout Catholic Schaner agrees: "I'm completely dependent on God for my existence as a farmer. I can't ever forget that connection."
"Getting closer to our food source gives us opportunities to explore our relationship to our fellow man, God and ourselves and find deeper symbolic meaning in ritual foods," said the appropriately named Rimmon (Hebrew for pomegranate). "Take the pomegranate. You could say the blessing and be done, or you could also think about the fruit's other attributes -- the tree's thorny branches, the fruit's thick skin -- the challenges required to get to the treasure inside."
And this is perhaps the richest of all the gifts I receive by shopping locally: life lessons from passionate farmers to help me reflect and do mitzvot -- support small family farms, help protect agricultural space and close the circle. Judaism isn't easy, especially at this time of year. Neither is farming.
Flame-Roasted Eggplant Spread With Lemon and Garlic
Use traditional black-purple globe eggplants or try purple-and-white Rosa Biancas with creamy white flesh and few seeds. Either way, choose firm, shiny eggplants that are heavy for their size and free of soft spots. Although a bit messy, roasting eggplant over an open flame adds sweet smokiness and keeps the flesh white.
2 large eggplants (about 1 pound each)
4 to 6 tablespoons canola or other mild cooking oil
1 scant teaspoon minced garlic
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Kosher or sea salt
Cucumber and tomato for garnish
Challah or pita crisps to serve
Place the whole eggplants directly on the burners of a gas stove turned to medium-high or close to a medium-high fire on a grill. Roast, turning often, until the skins blacken and flake and the eggplants collapse and are meltingly tender -- 10 to 15 minutes. As the eggplants start to char, the skins will tear and release steam and juices. If the skin burns before the flesh is tender, lower the flame slightly.
Remove each eggplant to a plate. Use two large spoons or spatulas to manage this. While still hot, split them open flat like a book. Scoop the pulp into a sieve set over a bowl, scraping as much as possible from the skin and leaving any juices behind. If there are a lot of seeds, remove some, and pick out any black bits of skin. Drain for 10 minutes, discard the juices and place the pulp in a bowl.
Using a whisking motion, mash the pulp with a fork, adding the oil gradually until the mixture is light and fluffy. Stir in the garlic, lemon juice and salt to taste.
The mixture will be a pale gold. It can be refrigerated for up to one day before serving. Serve at room temperature garnished with cucumber and tomato and accompanied with challah.
Makes about two cups.
Pomegranate and Orange-Glazed Beets
24 small beets, 1 to 2 inches in diameter or 3 pounds larger beets, quartered
1 to 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup orange juice
1/3 cup pomegranate juice
1 tablespoon margarine or butter
Preheat oven to 400 F. Cut off the beet greens, leaving one inch of stem attached to beets, and reserve for another use. In a large baking dish, toss the beets with the olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
Cover pan and roast beets until almost tender when pierced with a knife, about 30 minutes, shaking the pan once during cooking time. Uncover, shake the beets again, and roast uncovered until tender, about 15 minutes more.
When cool, peel the beets using a paring knife (skins should come off easily). The beets may be prepared one day ahead and refrigerated. Return them to room temperature to finish the dish.
Pour the orange and pomegranate juices into a large skillet set over medium-high heat, and cook until juices are reduced by half and slightly syrupy, about 10 minutes. Add the beets and a little salt and pepper.
Reduce the heat to medium, and cook the beets, frequently spooning the juices over them until the juices become a very thick syrup, six to seven minutes. Stir in the tablespoon of margarine or butter, reduce the heat as needed to keep the glaze from browning and stir constantly one to two minutes until the beets are richly coated and the juices are a thick glaze. Add salt and pepper as needed.
Makes six servings.
Slow-Roasted Seasonal Fruit
Use a mix of late summer and early fall fruits, such as Golden Delicious (or other tender, quick-cooking) apples, pears, figs, peaches, prune-plums, and concord grapes. If you prefer, you can use an off-dry red wine instead of the muscat dessert wine. Serve with honey cake.
3 pounds mixed fruits
1 cup concord or red grapes
1/4 cup honey
1/3 cup muscat wine
Preheat oven to 375 F. Halve fruit and remove pits or cores, and quarter apples and pears. Place fruit cut-side up in shallow baking pan. Scatter grapes on top.
Warm the honey and drizzle over fruit. Pour wine over all and roast, basting occasionally, until fruit is tender and juicy and edges are browned, about 45 minutes.
If desired, place under a hot broiler to further crisp the fruit. Serve warm or make this early in the day and serve at room temperature.
Makes eight servings.
Roasted Potatoes, Root Vegetables, Onions, and Garlic
This recipe can be multiplied easily but use a little less oil than the math would call for. A variety of small fingerling potatoes are lovely here because they can be roasted whole. Add red or yellow carrots to the mix for extra color.
2 pounds potatoes, scrubbed and left whole if less than 2 inches in diameter or halved or quartered
1 pound each carrots and parsnips, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
2 onions, cut into eighths
1 small head of garlic, cloves separated but unpeeled
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 400 F. In a large roasting pan(s), toss all ingredients together with the olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Roast uncovered until vegetables are tender and browned, one to one and one-half hours. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed.
Makes eight servings.
Sweet Dumpling Squash Stuffed With Honeyed Rice
Add a little or a lot of honey, depending on how sweet you would like this dish. The squashes can be baked a day ahead, filled in the morning and reheated just before serving.
8 sweet dumpling or other small, hard squashes, 8 to 10 ounces each
1 tablespoon oil
1 small onion, chopped
1 rib celery with leaves, chopped
1 cup long grain rice
1 cup each chicken stock and water or 2 cups water
1 to 3 tablespoons honey
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup currants or raisins, optional
Preheat oven to 375 F. Place whole squashes on baking sheet and roast until tender, 45 to 60 minutes. Cut off tops about one inch down from crown of squashes to make lids. Use a spoon to scoop out and discard seeds and strings.
If the cavities are very small, scoop out some of the cooked meat and reserve. Squashes may be prepared to this point a day ahead and refrigerated.
In a medium pot over medium heat, sauté onion and celery with the oil, seasoning with a little salt, until translucent, five to seven minutes. Add rice to pot and cook, stirring frequently, until rice grains whiten, two to three minutes.
Stir in stock, any reserved cooked squash, half teaspoon salt, honey and currants. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, cover pot and cook rice until tender and all liquid is absorbed, about 15 minutes.
Add cinnamon and stir rice with a fork to fluff and allow steam to escape. Taste and add salt or additional cinnamon to taste.
Fill the cavities of each squash with rice mixture, mounding but not packing the rice. Use about a third of a cup for each squash. Put squash tops on (some of the rice will show at the sides), place on baking sheet and return to oven to heat through, 20 to 25 minutes. Squashes may be filled several hours ahead; allow rice mixture to cool first.
Makes eight servings.
Recipes adapted from "The Santa Monica Farmers' Market Cookbook: Seasonal Foods, Simple Recipes and Stories From the Market and Farm," by Amelia Saltsman (Blenheim Press, 2007).
Amelia Saltsman, a Santa Monica-based writer and teacher, is an ardent supporter of local farming and the author of the award-winning "The Santa Monica Farmers' Market Cookbook: Seasonal Foods, Simple Recipes, and Stories from the Market and Farm."
Photo: Fresh veg at the Santa Monica Farmers Market