red banana up close

I am a guy who likes varieties. You would only have to do a peek at this blog to see that. I love trying different varieties of produce. Anytime I see a new variety, it’s like Christmas morning. Some things it’s very hard find different varieties particularly the banana. There are thousands varieties of bananas. Most people only ever have the one variety – the Cavendish – the basic yellow banana that is everywhere. If you look around you might be able to find a few other varieties. A lot of stores carry red bananas and mini bananas – which gives us a little variety but just barely even scartching the surface. But any variety to break up the monotony of Cavendish is welcomed until America’s banana spectrum increases. So when I recently say red bananas on sale for 39 cents a pound, I snatched a couple bunches up. Normally they go for more cash than the Cavendish so for them to be the same price is a rare treat. I brought them home and asked myself one question – how to know when a red banana is ripe?

How to Know When a Red Banana is Ripe?
What does “ripe” really mean? This mean when a piece of fruit is at it’s full flavor and sweetness. This doesn’t mean the fruit will be at the best for everyone’s taste buds. My wife like a solid yellow Cavendish banana, but I need to have black spots on them to even consider. I like them ripe, my wife doesn’t. It’s most important to learn what stage of maturity you like a piece of fruit.

If you want to try a red banana when it is considered ripe, there are signs to look out for. We naturally try to establish rules for when a piece of fruit is ripe, but that don’t always work for every variety of fruit. Bartlett pears and d’Anjou pears are both green when picked. When a Bartlett is ripe it will turn yellow but a d’Anjou stays green. The ripeness of a banana is like a pear, where color is varies with variety. Red bananas don’t get the spotted appearance a yellow Cavendish does. The color does change, it’s just not as obvious. What you need to look for is the banana lightening in color. You will also notice a little bit of yellow, particulary toward the end of the banana. It should give a little to gentle pressure just as a Cavendish would. There should be at least a hint of a sweet smell. There may be some blackening, but not any black spotting.

Sumo Citrus – From Tree to Your Hands

in Fruit & Vegetables

Sumo-Citrus-Story

In sports you hear talk of a game changer. Either it’s a moment in a game where an event takes place that instantly changes the momentum of the game, or it could be a trade or free agent signing that takes a team to the next level of competition. In the produce world, you also have your game changers. A few years back, when Sumo mandarins first hit the stores, the game was changed. Never has there been a piece of citrus that comes in such a huge package that is so easy to peel, and so rich in flavor. Everything else has to try and measure up. For diehard fans like me their annual arrival in stores has now become the pinnacle moment of the entire citrus season. None of this happens overnight. There is a story to tell about how Sumos get from the tree to your hands. Today I am going to tell you that story.

Sumos being harvested (Courtesy of the Official Sumo Facebook Page)

Sumos being harvested (Courtesy of the Official Sumo Facebook Page)

Brief Sumo History Lesson
There is a wonderful article published in the LA Times that gives a detailed background on the Sumo, make sure to check that out. To give a summary – the Sumo, whose name overseas is the Dekopan was developed in Japan in 1972. It made it’s way into South Korea, China, and Brazil. Imports weren’t allowed into the United States. In the late 1990s, a man by the name of Brad Stark Jr. brought budwood branches to the U.S. in order to graft new trees. Still it took years for the first trees to be planted. The fruit couldn’t be imported due to real concern about spreading citrus diseases foreign to U.S. soil. So the branches brought to the U.S. went through a process that took several years to cleanse the tree of these potentially harmful diseases. In the meantime, another company secretly brought in their own budwood and planted trees in the San Joaquin Valley that were infected with disease. They were discovered and were seriously fined and ordered to destroy the trees. If those diseases spread to other citrus trees who knows what kind of damage it would have caused the California citrus industry. Brad Stark Jr’s company eventually went bankrupt, but his disease free trees eventually ended up in the hands of the Griffith family owners of TreeSource Citrus Nursery and Suntreat Packing & Shipping. They enlisted growers who had to grow the fruit in secret until 2011, when the first commercial crop was ready.

I am amazed by all the hard work and time spent just to begin growing the fruit in the U.S. The story is fascinating, it could be turned into a Hollywood blockbuster. I can envision Nicholas Cage with guns blazing as he takes the disease free budwood away from the evil, rich villains.

The Passionate Sumo Growers
When the fruit was finally able to be grown it wasn’t just given to any citrus grower. These people were sought out and selected to grow it. I recently had the opportunity to communicate directly with two of the Sumo Citrus growers (Jonelle George and Guy Wollenman). In those conversations I could really feel their passion for citrus and their role in the industry. It just jumped right off my computer screen. These people are truly excited to be growing Sumos and even through all the challenges, it was well worth it, no doubt about it. I got excited just hearing about their excitement. These are the kind of people I want to buy my fruit from. They care, they desire to do a good job, and they are loving it along the way. I have seen many a farmer that looks like all the life was sucked out of them and they had no passion for what they were doing. Talking to these two growers shows that farming, whether it be fruit or vegetable, is still something people are passionate about. It makes me smile…ear to ear!

Photo of the 2015 Sumo Harvest in the Central San Joaquin Valley

Photo of the 2015 Sumo Harvest in the Central San Joaquin Valley

The Challenges of Growing Sumos
Not only was it challenging to get the fruit to the point where it could grow in the U.S. without spreading disease, growing the fruit itself was a new challenge to even seasoned citrus growers. The standard citrus horticultural techniques do not work with Sumo. The fruit must be pruned in a certain way so that areas of the tree that produce sub-quality fruit are removed. They also must prune them more like a peach tree, so that the sun can shine upon the fruit itself, which helps sweeten it. The neck on the fruit that gives the Sumo it’s name is susceptible to damage by wind and rain. When the fruit is ready to be picked it has to be done so careful. They go into totes until they make it the packing house. You won’t see big bins of Sumos like you do oranges. Even then the cases they go into are flat and wide single layer cases.

Sumos in boxes, ready for shipment (Courtesy of the Official Sumo Facebook page)

Sumos in boxes, ready for shipment (Courtesy of the Official Sumo Facebook page)

The Fruit Picked for Quality
When the fruit is ready to be picked, it’s not done so all at once. The fruit is carefully selected. Different parts of the citrus grove are picked when ready. Due to slight different micro climates in the San Joaquin Valley, they are ready at different times. You don’t just send people in to pick the trees bare. And like I mentioned above they have to be delicately handled. The LA Times report also mentions that at the start of the harvest the fruit goes through a curing process that utilizes a secret Japanese storing method that reduced the tartness of the fruit.

The Reason for the High Price
After reading this story you can see all the work that has been put into growing Sumos. It’s a more labor intensive piece of citrus. So when you head to the grocery store, you can expect to pay more money for them. Last year they were going for $3.99 a pound at my local Whole Foods markets – one of the top carriers of Sumo Citrus. They cost more to produce and they are still a new crop, they are going to be among the more expensive pieces of citrus in your produce aisle. What you are paying for it is top of the line quality fruit grown by passionate growers, who work their tails off to bring you an amazing taste experience that is worth every single penny you pay. Even though I may not be buying them by the case or bag full, I will manage to squeak some money out of the food budget to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

For more infomration on where to find Sumos this season, check out my post – Where to Buy Sumo Citrus Mandarins in 2015?

SUMO Citrus Recipes
Here are a couple recipes I came up with that utilize this amazing fruit.
Sumo Citrus Fudge
SUMO Citrus Fudge
SUMO Citrus Sugar Cookies

What Time of Year are Strawberries Prices the Cheapest?

in Fruit & Vegetables

Whittaker's Berry Farm (2)

There are a lot of things available to us year round that never were in the past. Now there are a lot of things year round that I wish we in remained in our past. One of those things is strawberries. There was a time when spring time hit and it was time to get your strawberries before they were gone. Nowadays whether it’s the Fourth of July or a cold winter’s day, strawberries will be there, at any grocery store in any state. Flavor has long been compromised in the name of cost, transport-ability, and constant supply. Most strawberries consumed nowadays are not done so at their best.

Just because they are around all the time, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t still plan on strawberry purchases. Even thought they are available year round, it doesn’t mean the prices are the same year round. In fact, strawberries are sort of like the stock market. There are highs and lows. You need to know when to hoard them and when to pass them by.

When Is the Best Time of Year to Buy Strawberries?
It’s all about supply. There are times of year where they are way more strawberries available. This leads to smaller prices and best of all sales! Mid to late winter (February-March) is when the supply is usually the highest. This is because the supply of strawberries from California is on the rise and Florida strawberry season is also at peak and Mexico is in the mix as well. Florida doesn’t provide strawberries year round like California just about does. It’s too hot there. When they are available I find them to in general be better than California’s. At this time you can often find strawberries going for as low as $1 for a 1 lb container. The later the Florida season lasts and the earlier the California season begins the better situation for consumers. As I write this in mid January, I see the prices of strawberries coming down and sales prices starting to appear. Over the next couple weeks I expect to see that kind of rock bottom prices that will send me into hoarder mode.

There will also be period during the late spring and summer were prices will be good. They are a little bit harder to predict. That time of year it’s all about where in California they are harvesting and how much is being produced. Deals can be found around holidays (Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day) to help entice customers into the stores.

Michigan Strawberries 2013

Your Local Season
If we are talking most flavorful time of the year, then it’s all about when are they are in season in your local area (that would be June here in Michigan). Strawberries are among the most grown fruit available at local farmer’s markets. You have to go directly to the farmer to get them as few stores carrying them and when they do they are pricey. To really save money on them you must pick them yourself. Most u-pick strawberry places here in Michigan charge under $2 a pound to pick yourself. A quick Google search should help you locate the nearest u-pick strawberry patch in your area. Let me know if you need any help.

Worst Time of Year to Buy Strawberries
Right before strawberries are their best prices, they are at their worst. Don’t buy them to be apart of your Christmas celebration. At that time strawberries are hard to come by out of California, so they are coming from Mexico and the supply is low and flavor is usually not good either. I have a hard time paying $4 to $5 per pound for something I was buying for under $2 a pound earlier in the year. Your better off buying frozen or if you were smart you froze some earlier when prices were cheaper.

Where to Buy Sumo Citrus Mandarins in 2015?

in Fruit & Vegetables

Sumo Citrus Mandarins

We like in a culture that wants everything and that want everything now. But you know I am glad that we really can’t have it all now. It makes for special moments – things to look forward to. That’s what I love about the produce world. There are so many things I get to look forward to throughout the year. As we open up 2015, the thing I am most looking forward to right now is Sumo Citrus.

What’s the Big Deal?
So what’s the big deal about this mandarin? It is a big, literally. Sumos are the size of a Navel orange, yet are a true mandarin. They are seedless and much easier to peel than a Navel. The most important thing is the flavor. It is so rich, so flavorful. Brings back memories of eating orange cream pops but in a much healthier way. Out of all the mandarins I have tried, this one is the undisputed champion of flavor. People go crazy for these things. Driving miles out of their way and buying entire cases at a time.

The 2015 Sumo Season
Due to warm weather in California over the last couple months, the season is coming early this year. A normal year, Sumos make their appearance right when cupid is flinging this arrows (Valentine’s Day). The harvest has already started this year. January 19th is the day they expect to begin shipments. If your a Sumo fan or a Sumo fan in the making, it’s time to get excited!

I received a comment from one of the Sumo growers, sharing his experience with Sumo Citrus. Here is what Guy Wollenman had to say:

“I’m a family farmer growing Sumos. Earlier this week I went around with our Sumo Citrus field man, tasting various blocks to see if they are ready. Only a few are being harvested this week, with most needing to wait until their prime time! I produce ten other citrus varieties, and this is the only one that needs to pass the taste test in the field before we harvest. To get the best size and flavor, we have a special, unique farming program to achieve these goals. Be assured, Sumos have to pass the highest standards in the citrus industry – our own – before we harvest and send them to you, our consumer friends. In the four years I’ve raised Sumos, this is our best vintage year.”

SUMO Citrus Recipes
Here are a couple recipes I came up with that utilize this amazing fruit.
Sumo Citrus Fudge
SUMO Citrus Fudge
SUMO Citrus Sugar Cookies

Photo of the 2015 Sumo Harvest in the Central San Joaquin Valley

Photo of the 2015 Sumo Harvest in the Central San Joaquin Valley

Where to Buy Sumo Citrus Mandarins in 2015
Here is a list of stores that are expected to carry Sumo Citrus in 2015. I will add additional stores and confirm locations as that information becomes available. Whole Foods Market has been a big supporter for Sumos, you should be able to find them at any Whole Foods. Also on a national level some select Kroger locations will carry them this year. Also keep your eyes peeled for Dried Sumos. I tried them last year and they were amazing – best dried fruit I ever tasted. They were released to select stores last year after the fresh season.

Southern California
Marukai
Whole Foods Market
Gelson’s Markets
Koreatown Plaza Market
Bristol Farms
Grow – The Produce Shop
Mitsuwa Marketplace
Assi Super
Nijiya Market
Santa Monica Farmers Market (every Wednesday)

Northern California
Capitola Village Market
Safeway (select Northern California locations)
Nugget Markets
Lunardi’s Markets
Zanotto’s Family Markets
Berkeley Bowl Marketplace
Andronico’s Community Markets
Monterey Market
Draeger’s Market
Old McDonald’s Farmers Market
Nijiya Market
Whole Foods Market

Outside California
Wegman’s Food Markets
Fresh Direct
Dan’s Fresh Supermarket
Super 1 Foods Idaho, Montana
Safeway (Select Locations)
Brennan’s Country Farm Market
West Side Markets
Kroger (Select Locations)
Gourmet Garage
Brookshire’s
H Mart
Nijiya Market
Roth’s Fresh Market
Baldor Specialty Foods
Jungle Jim’s International Market (Ohio)
Rouses
Earthfare Market
Town & Country Markets
Whole Foods Market
The Fresh Market
Foodland & Sack & Save Supermarkets Hawaii
Eataly NYC
Reasors
Lunds/Byerly’s
Dorothy Lane Market
Fortinos
Metropolitan Market

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