Lemon Pudding on Romaine Leaf Lettuce with Fresh Strawberries, Candied Pistachios and Cypress Black Sea Salt. Also a tour of the Tanimura & Antle Lettuce Farm as part of the Know a California Farmer initiative.

by Irvin on October 10, 2011 · 6 comments

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It was at lunch when I overheard my host, Farmer Brian say those fateful words. “You know, we grow so much lettuce, but I’ve never actually seen lettuce used in a dessert.” Challenge accepted! After all, how can I not want to take on those fighting words? I’m all about thinking outside the box. My solution to the lettuce dessert dilemma: Lemon Pudding on Romaine Leaf Lettuce with Fresh Strawberries, Candied Pistachios and Cypress Black Sea Salt (naturally gluten free).

Lemon-Pudding-Lettuce-Strawberry-Candied-Pistachio-Recipe. jpg

Lemon Pudding on Romaine Lettuce Cups with Fresh Strawberries and Candied Pistachios

I was invited a few weeks ago to go down to Carmel-by-the-Sea with a few other bloggers to meet and tour California farms. The initiative, Know a California Farmer, was to get people out there to know where their produce is from, and to put a face behind the fruits and vegetables that people get in the United States. I jumped at the chance, as I love seasonal produce, and am always wanting to learn more about where my food comes from.

Artisan Lettuce being grown at Tanimura & Antle Farms. jpg

Artisan Lettuce being grown at Tanimura & Antle Farms.

I arrived in Carmel-by-the-Sea, a cute little town near Monterey near the coast of California, on a Friday, just in time to check in and freshen up for dinner. I met the team behind Know a California Farmer, along with fellow bloggers, Christine of From Dates to Diapers, Chef John & his lovely wife Michelle from Foodwishes (and SFQ), and Lisa and Tami from Everyday Bites, Catherine from Munchie Musings as well as Jay Baer who is a social media expert and consultant for the campaign. Dinner at Grasing’s Restaurant, of course, was fantastic and we all got to know each other a little bit better while I feasted on mussels, grilled shrimp, steak with chimichuri sauce, grilled seasonal vegetables and an apple bread pudding with caramel ice cream from a rooftop patio.

Part of the team behind Know a California Farmer initiative. jpg

Part of the team behind Know a California Farmer initiative.

Notice Chef John being all food blogger, taking pics of his dinner. jpg

Chef John being all food blogger, taking tweeting & taking pics of his dinner.

Apple Bread Pudding, my dessert from Grasing's Restaurant. jpg

Apple Bread Pudding, my dessert from Grasing's Restaurant.

I went back to my awesome hotel (the Wayside Inn, utterly charming, by the way) and woke up obscenely early (for me) to make it to the 7:45 am breakfast. After some words from Jay Baer about social media and how it’s changing the landscape of business, we were off to the view the first farm, Tanimura & Antle. T & A grow over 30 types of vegetables, but we mostly went out to look at their artisan lettuce that they have developed and shipping. Though still family owned, they produce about 20% of the nation’s lettuce supply. Whoa.

Rows of Artisan Lettuce from Tanimura & Antle Farm. jpg

Rows of Artisan Lettuce from Tanimura & Antle Farm.

Bloggers eating lettuce fresh from the ground. jpg

Bloggers eating lettuce fresh from the ground.

Never ending field of celery. jpg

Neverending field of celery, a crop that was still growing and not ready for harvest yet.

It’s impressive to visit a farm field and smell the lettuce. Most people don’t think of lettuce as having a smell, but it’s pretty distinct and watching the workers harvest the lettuce and immediately box it into the bags or clamshell containers made me realize how fresh the lettuce actually is. Once it’s boxed, it heads to the store the next day and it’s up to the grocery store to distribute the produce. That means, living here in SF, it’s conceivable to get fresh produce that has been picked from the ground, within 48 hours of it being harvested. Obviously the farther you live from California, the long it might take to ship to you, but the turn around from field to store seems pretty amazing.

Farmer Brian showing us how the lettuce is packaged at Tanimura & Antle Farms. jpg

Farmer Brian showing us how the lettuce is packaged at Tanimura & Antle Farms.

Iceberg Heads of Lettuce from Tanimura & Antle Farm. jpg

Iceberg Heads of Lettuce from Tanimura & Antle Farm.

Farm workers harvesting iceberg lettuce. jpg

Farm workers harvesting iceberg lettuce.

Farmer Brian had a huge amount of respect for his field workers. With over a 100 members in the 20 plus years club, he employs over 2500 workers with full benefits, including free childcare. It’s hard work in the field, and those workers were fast and skilled. Each worker tends to specialize in their respective produce field. An employee working the iceberg lettuce field can tell by just picking up a head of lettuce if it’s too light or isn’t appropriate for retail sale, but that same person wouldn’t be nearly as fast in the celery or broccoli fields. The pay for the workers is dependant on how much they harvest, but Tanimura & Antle guarantees a minimum pay for the workers at $9.20/hr. That said, the average pay for the employees ends up being $14-18/hr. Pretty decent. But apparently not decent enough for most Americans. Farmer Brian said after publicizing job openings for 450 field workers, not a single American applied for the jobs, even with high unemployment here in California.

Field workers working the artisan lettuce field. jpg

Field workers working the artisan lettuce field.

Harvesting Iceberg Lettuce. Notice the women wearing masks. It's not required but they do that to keep the sun & dust off their face. jpg

The women wear masks. It's not required but they do that to keep the sun & dust off their face.

Usually it's the women that wears the masks. The men don't care as much about the sun. jpg

Usually it's the women that wears the masks. Apparently the men don't care as much.

Food safety is one of their highest priorities as well. After the E. coli scare of 2006, farming in the US was forever changed. Not only have millions of dollars been spent to fence in the fields against wildlife, but Farmer Brian talked about the consequence if an animal wanders onto the field (say a coyote jumps the fence). A field worker will track where the animal has wandered and it’s path, marking it with flags. That particular path is no longer considered safe for consumption and off limits. This means if the path of the animal zig zags across the field, all the produce is cycled back into the fields as compost, no longer harvestable.

Iceberg lettuce field at Tanimura & Antle Farm. jpg

I kept on looking for the bacon & ranch dressing field next to the iceberg, but I couldn't find it.

Speaking of non-saleable produce, there’s a number of reasons why some produce isn’t picked for the store. It could be that the produce is damaged, or smaller than deemed saleable. Occasionally a stray seed will float across and cross-pollinate leading to a strange offshoot produce (we saw a few Romaine-Iceberg heads of lettuce that were naturally crossbred). This produce was left on the ground, to be cycled back into the field. It seems like a lot of waste when harvesting the field. But in reality, the waste is needed, to return the nutrients to the earth and the next crop. In addition, once a month the non-profit organization Ag against Hunger will come out and harvest the remains of the field produce, taking the rejected heads and shipping them to food banks around the area.

An example of a head of lettuce deemed not market quality. jpg

An example of a head of lettuce deemed not market quality.

Produce left after harvest, ready to be composted back into the earth. jpg

Produce left after harvest, ready to be composted back into the earth.

After harvesting, the lettuce is moved to the cooling facility where it is chilled to a cool 34˚F in a barometric chamber which lowers the air pressure to allow for the water on produce to boil off and cool the core temperature of the lettuce heads within an hour. It’s shipped off to the various stores (a huge number of them sent to Walmart). I know a few bloggers (and many of my San Francisco friends) who poo-poo Walmart, but keep this in mind, nearly 100 million customers visit U.S. Walmart in a week. That’s nearly 1/3 the US population. These farms are literally feeding the nation with their produce. I’m not an advocate for big box stores and strongly support my local independent stores, but I also realize that I have the luxury of living in San Francisco, where farmers markets and specialty produce stores are in abundance. In most places in the US, Walmart is the only option.

See those black cartons? Full of lettuce heading to Walmart. jpg

See those black cartons? Full of lettuce heading to Walmart.

The large barometric chamber that cools the lettuce. jpg

The large barometric chamber that cools the lettuce.

After visiting the lettuce fields, we went to lunch at Tanimura & Antle’s headquarters where we learned a little more about their history. T&A have been a joint family venture for the past three generations. One of the reason they joined forces is because the original Tanimura family was a Japanese family of farmers that were sent to the Japanese internment camps, and when they came out they found that the U.S. was unfriendly to Japanese anything, much less Japanese farmers. So they teamed up with the Antle family and sold their produce under the Antle name. Once the dust settled, they created a joint business, where the Tanimura family runs more of the field and farm work and the Antle family runs more of the operations and logisitics. It seems to be working for them, and three generations later they are still working together in the same manner.

Founders George Tanimura & Bud Antle join forces to grow & distribute produce. jpg

Founders George Tanimura & Bud Antle join forces to grow & distribute produce.

It was at lunch, munching away at the brick oven pizzas and grilled romaine lettuce salad that I heard Farmer Brian mention how he had never heard of a dessert made with lettuce. We were seated at the same table and he mentioned it to someone else sitting adjacent to him and I filed it away for later reference, as something I wanted to explore. I was pretty happy I did too, as the dessert I came up with was perfect for this Indian summer that we are currently experiencing in San Francisco.

Grilled Artisan Romaine Lettuce with Parmesan, Olive Oil & Balsamic Vinegar. jpg

Grilled Artisan Romaine Lettuce with Parmesan, Olive Oil & Balsamic Vinegar.

Warmer weather comes later in the season here in San Francisco, usually August, September and October. It means I don’t want to turn the oven on, but a quick five minutes at the stove and I had lemon pudding. What I also love about it, is that the lettuce leaves create an automatic elegance to the dessert, and makes it perfect for serving at a buffet dinner. Plus it gives me a chance to play with California produce: lettuce, lemons, strawberries and pistachios. A crisp, sweet and refreshing ending to our tour of the lettuce fields of Tanimura & Antle.

Disclaimer: This post is part of the Know a California Farmer initiative. All travel and lodging accommodations were provided by the inititiative, though I was not paid for this post. I joined the weekend because I wanted to get to know a little bit more about where my food comes from. If you have any questions or want to know more about California farms, and the people behind the food you get, please visit the website and blog www.knowacaliforniafarmer/blog, browse their content and ask questions. All opinions stated in this posts are completely my own.

Lemon-Pudding-Lettuce-Strawberry-Candied-Pistachio jpg

Lemon pudding on Romaine lettuce with fresh strawberries, candied pistachios and black sea salt.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Belinda @zomppa October 10, 2011 at 6:08 am

What a delightful and elegant pudding! Thanks for sharing the history – amazing that three generations ago, they “got it” while so much of the country did not.

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Laura October 10, 2011 at 11:39 am

I am happy to read the farm respect for its workers, after hearing the horror stories of the book Tomato Land. I wish more people would stop and think of who picked their lettuce, or that perfect round tomato.

I had an amazing savory dessert prepared by Nicole Kasinsky that included a walnut cake, pecorino cheese, olive oil, and micro greens, it was delicious!

Thanks for the summary of your day, those rows of lettuce look amazing!

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Jonathan October 10, 2011 at 1:16 pm

What a beautiful recipe! Very Iron Chef of you. :)

It was also captivating to learn about the farm and its workers and how the lettuce makes it from the fields, to the grocer, and eventually onto the plates of the consumer. Very nicely written. Thank you for sharing!

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Jenni October 10, 2011 at 1:17 pm

What a great write-up, Irvin! Everyone really should know where their food comes from; Know a California Farmer seems like a great initiative!

And the pudding looks&sounds wonderful–very spring-y:)

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ray October 10, 2011 at 9:34 pm

Thank you, Irvin, for recognizing that not everyone in our country can get to a “mom and pop” or “boutique” lettuce shop, but needs to get nutritious food for their families at the closest place they can reach. And as a corollary, MOST of us in this country can’t afford what the boutique places want to charge (and that includes a lot of large-market, mostly urban “farmer’s” markets, which I think are mainly a ripoff).

As a further corollary, thank you for acknowledging that even a huge-scale agricultural operation like T&A (PLEASE tell me you giggled at least ONCE on that abbv), using hi-tech farming techniques and obviously hi-power marketing techniques, can be considered a “good” corporation. Scale and knowledge and capital and … PROFIT … go a long way toward providing good, safe food you can count on. Go, Capitalism!

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merri October 24, 2011 at 11:01 am

When I was visiting my family in NH, my father made a disparaging remark about people buying groceries at walmart & my brother in law got upset, because that’s his favorite place to get food. My mom had to scold him for it later, apparently a lot of people really do their grocery shopping from there, for bulk reasons maybe to get some cheaper prices (but I bet cheaper quality). Although, my parents aren’t rich either, & all grocery stores in NH are insanely cheap. This was a very interesting lettuce post. I don’t eat lettuce often, but now I know how it’s grown. So weird that no one applied for the jobs though, this is a better income than a lot of the jobs around here.

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