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Exotic produce grown in Texas featured in more restaurants

November 7, 2018

COOPER, Texas (AP) — On a dark, muddy, will-it-ever-stop-raining recent Friday, Roy and Sofia Martinez took shelter in the hoop house at Rae Lili Farm in Cooper with chef Matt McCallister and his team. They were taking a break for lunch — a big bowl of posole — after a stormy morning of planting a field of fall crops like rapini, romanesco, cauliflower and purple broccoli.

The Dallas Morning News reports the Martinezes have been organically growing vegetables for McCallister (of the former FT33 restaurant and upcoming Homewood restaurant) and other Dallas-area chefs for about six years. In addition to common veggies like tomatoes and beets, the couple enjoys discovering exotic varieties and seeing how they fare in the often-unforgiving soil and climate of North Texas.

On that rainy fall day, they harvested kuri squash, spaghetti squash, aji crystal peppers and Mexican sour gherkin cucumbers, which are perfect for pickling. Sofia, 45, loves poring over rare seed catalogs, especially those that include Italian heirloom varieties of peppers and tomatoes.

“We saw that everybody did the same old stuff, like crookneck squash and zucchini,” Roy, 51, says. “We’re drawn to things that are a little odd. It keeps things interesting for us.”

Their relationship with McCallister is a symbiotic, organic one, where they “grow together,” he says. He often makes requests and gives direction on quantity, like, “That’s way too much squash.” And sometimes, he even helps out on the farm since Roy and Sofia are a two-person operation.

“I like it when farmers are ambitious and are open to new ideas and willing to try growing things that are outside of the norm,” McCallister says. “They take chances and try to grow new stuff and unique items. I’ll bring them seeds and ask them to grow stuff and they always are willing to try them.”

Right now, McCallister has asked them to grow espelette and urfa chiles, and last year they grew some pink plume celery. He says he’s made countless dishes with their produce over the last six years.

“They have gone out of their way to go pick hachiya persimmons for me every year to make hoshigaki (Japanese-style dried persimmons) with,” he adds.

The couple didn’t grow up farming, but after job transitions and a burgeoning interest in their own health, they decided to give it a try on some land that Roy’s family purchased decades ago “for the purpose of riding motorcycles,” Roy says. They currently have 78 acres and farm on 7 acres.

“We tried a lot, lost a lot,” Sofia says. “We learned a lot through trial and error.”

The weather can be “torturous,” Sofa says, and they’ve had their crops rot in the rain and eaten by cattle. It sets them back, but the couple seems to enjoy the hard work together. Sofia chooses the varieties they will grow and conducts the business end of things, while Roy does a lot of physical farm work.

“People like her more than they like me,” Roy jokes.

Sofia has even gone back to school, and is now a junior at Texas A&M University-Commerce in the college of agricultural sciences. They grow their vegetables without chemicals and use sustainable practices on the farm such as cover crops of soybeans and wheat. And they’ve had to learn how to build and maintain healthy soil, which can be difficult to till and drain.

But they are dedicated soil farmers — no hydroponics here — and say there’s a certain depth of flavor you get from food grown in soil. “Nature has its way of growing things, and we like to take the long route,” Roy says.

Most of their produce goes to McCallister and other chefs, but of course they also eat what they grow, juicing when they have a surplus of celery, and making “a lot of Mexican food,” Sofia says, like posole and vegetarian tamales.

The recent Chefs for Farmers food festival was co-founded in 2010 by McCallister and restaurateur and ex-wife Iris Midler. The goal of the festival is to help connect farmers with chefs and promote the value of locally and regionally sourced food. Both farmers and chefs receive a small stipend to help with food costs.

“It solidifies that you know what you’re doing,” Roy says.

And Roy and Sofia love working with chefs, especially ones like McCallister, whose enthusiasm for growing food is contagious.

“It’s great working with chefs who know seasonality like Matt does,” Roy says. “He sometimes knows what the weather is going to do before I do!”

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Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com

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