Friday, May 06, 2016

In Season: Looking at May with Josh Alsberg

My friend, writer, author, forager and hunter Hank Shaw said that May is "the start of the slow, fat times. Times when dinner consists of tossing things onto the grill and arranging them haphazardly on the plate, to be eaten with a crisp, cold beer or light red or white wine."

Josh in his element.

Though if you look at the following list—courtesy of Josh Alsberg at Rubinette Produce—of what you can expect to see coming from local fields and farms this month, it may be fat but it's anything but slow: from the first Hood strawberries and asparagus spears aplenty, look for fava beans, sugar snap peas, pea vines, lettuces (Butter, Leaf, Little Gems, Romaine), spring onions (done soon once the heat kicks up), fennel, new potatoes, chicories galore (Escarole, Frisee, Curly Endive, Treviso, Radicchio, Sugarloaf), dandelion greens, lots of herbs, cucumbers, early tomatoes, zucchini and other squash varieties, scapes of all kinds, beets, carrots, bulb garlic, spinach, green onions and scallions, spring cabbages.


All of the above and more will also, of course, be making their debut appearances at Oregon's farmers' markets, many of which are swinging into their regular seasons with longer hours and tons more vendors. I'll be talking to Josh occasionally throughout the summer and fall in a series of posts titled In Season, quizzing him on the best the time of year has to offer with suggestions on what to do when we get it home.

Leek scapes.

Alsberg's roots—no pun intended—in the produce businesses began, oddly enough, when he was in sales and marketing for a local uniform company. At the time he was living in the Concordia neighborhood of Northeast Portland and wandered into the New Seasons store that had just opened near the corner of Northeast 33rd and Killingsworth. He was bowled over by their produce program, where employees were encouraged to cut open fruits and offer vegetables for customers to taste, and he ended up pestering the store's produce manager until he offered Alsberg a job.

Fava beans…divine!

He found he loved learning about the new types of vegetables that local farmers were bringing into the store and relaying that information to customers. That and a knack for making beautiful produce displays—known in the business as the "wet rack"—convinced him that he'd found his calling. According to Alsberg, that first job also taught him "what quality does and doesn't look like…what's going to be the best flavor not just on your tongue but on your nose."

He also learned which distributors he could (and couldn't) rely on to supply the quality he was looking to provide, a knowledge base that served him well when he became the produce manager and buyer at Food Front Cooperative Grocery. At Food Front his network of local farms and farmers grew exponentially, and produce sales at the co-op grew dramatically as well.

With six years under his belt at Food Front it was time for Alsberg to move on, a shift facilitated by his friend Ron Paul, who'd heard that Pastaworks owners Kevin de Garmo and Kaie Wellman were looking to move from their Hawthorne location. They wanted a new store with a new produce vendor, which fit right in with Alsberg's desire to feature as much local produce on his wet rack as possible as opposed to getting the bulk of his stock from packing houses.

Salad chicory.

"The incentive for me is that I'm growing my business," he said of the innovative approach he's taking at Rubinette. "For [supermarket] produce managers there's no reason to step outside the box as long as they're making their margins."

For Alsberg, stepping outside that box means working with new farmers as well as local favorites like Gathering Together Farms, Dennison Farms and Ayers Creek Farm. He's particularly excited by the possibilities presented by the Headwaters Farm Incubator Program, a 60-acre property east of Gresham that is owned by the East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District (EMSWCD). The program, which leases out parcels for the development of new farm businesses, provides affordable access to land and farm resources, training new farmers who want to use organic practices and learn about soil conservation.

Golden beets.

Black Locust Farm, owned by Dan Sullivan, who cut his teeth at Gathering Together, is one of those Headwaters start-ups that has Alberg's juices flowing. You'll find Sullivan's arugula, castelfranco, chrysanthemums, escarole, peashoots, goosefoot, spigarello and raab proudly displayed on Rubinette's rack in the coming month.

In Alsberg's estimation, farmers are "the unsung heroes of the local food scene. Without guys like Tom Denison, Anthony Boutard, John Eveland and Frank Morton, we wouldn't have the exciting food scene we enjoy now." And his philosophy at Rubinette bears that out: "Learn from the farmers and treat them and their products with the utmost respect, while educating people about farms and farming practices."

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