On the way home from the airport last week, my sister Jackie and I heard a news story on the radio about McAfee anti-virus software causing hundreds of computers to crash around the world.

We looked at each other, smiled, and said simultaneously, “Mercury is in retrograde.”

In astrology, Mercury goes retrograde three or four times a year, and each retrograde period usually lasts for about three weeks. During this time, the planet Mercury appears to be moving backwards in the sky, and strange things happen. It is sometimes called the astrological symbol for “Murphy’s Law” – anything that can go wrong, will.

Mercury is the planet of thinking and perception and all forms of communication. When it turns retrograde, it seems to have a negative effect on our communication and technology, from computers to cars to telephones to the mail. That Mercury is definitely a prankster.

Mercury went retrograde on April 17 and it will last until May 11. Then, it goes retrograde again August 20 through September 12. And finally for 2010, it will go retrograde December 10 through December 29. You can find out future dates here: www.thegreenduck.com (scroll down to charts).

Here are a few links with more information about Mercury’s impact in astrology:
astrology.about.com
www.astroprofile.com
www.cafeastrology.com

Jackie and I are so convinced that it is important to be aware of when Mercury goes retro, that we have it marked on our home and office calendars. We are just more cautious during those time periods. We try not to sign any contracts during those periods and are extra careful when backing up software, etc. And we would certainly NEVER do a computer upgrade during that time.

Interestingly, Mercury was in retrograde during the 2000 Presidential election between Bush and Gore, and many astrologers blame the breakdowns in the voting system on this astrological phenomenon.

We know there are many doubters out there who might say that this sounds like astrology mumbojumbo. That’s fine. But, in late August, when you start noticing problems with your BlackBerry, or your computer is having problems, or the lawnmower breaks, the copy machine goes on the fritz. . .do me a favor and check the calendar. That trickster, Mercury, could be up to something!

Karen

Living here in Southern California, Cinco de Mayo is promoted and celebrated widely.

Admittedly, those of us in the food business joke that beer companies like Budweiser and the chips and guacamole folks have made it into a bigger holiday than it may have been previously. (Just as Hallmark has made Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day into bigger holidays.) Regardless, it’s always interesting to know about the history behind these holidays.

Cinco de Mayo is NOT Mexican Independence Day. That is on September 16. Cinco de Mayo – the 5th of May in Spanish – actually commemorates the Mexican victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. The battle was important because the Mexican army was victorious, although they were considerably outnumbered by the larger and better-equipped French army.

Back in the 1980s, when our company was selling lot of chile peppers, jicama, tomatillos (husk tomatoes), corn husks and nopales (cactus pads), we had to come up with a way to get produce retailers across America to try these “new foods.” We had no problem selling them here in Southern California where we are based, because we have such a large Hispanic population that loves all of these foods. However, it was a hard sell for our retail customers in Iowa, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. So, we developed educational materials (for produce personnel and consumers) and decorations (red and green, like the Mexican flag) to send to those supermarkets who would take the chance of promoting these “exotic” items.

And thank goodness they did! Fortunately, Mexican restaurants were popping up in cities across the country, making guacamole, Colorado red sauce (made with dried New Mexico chiles), jalapeno peppers and corn husks (for tamales) more popular.

Of all the foods we introduced as part of our Cinco de Mayo promotions, my favorite is probably jicama. A root vegetable, commercially grown only in Mexico (thanks to the latitude and ideal soil conditions), jicama looks a bit like a turnip. Once you peel off the light brown skin, the white crunchy inside flesh never turns brown and is very low in calories. (We worked early on with Weight Watchers to promote jicama as a “free” food.) And the flavor seems like a refreshing cross between an apple and a water chestnut.

One of my favorite jicama recipes is in The Purple Kiwi Cookbook: Pineapple-Jicama Salsa. The chopped habanero peppers really give it a little extra kick!

So, this year for Cinco de Mayo, why not try something a little different!

Also, please click here to visit Frieda’s NEW YouTube Channel (YouTube.com/FriedasProduce) and watch our latest “Specialty Produce 101” video on jicama.

Karen

OK, I admit it. I am one of those shoppers. When deciding whether or not to buy grapes at my local supermarket, I sneak a sample. I always hope no one is looking when I grab a red or green grape to see if they are sweet or tart. So far, I have not been caught.

We are so lucky that we can now find grapes all year-round in our produce departments. Did you know that here in Southern California, at this time of year (April), our grapes are most likely coming from Chile? Thanks to our amazingly resourceful produce industry, during the course of 12 months, we will have grapes from many countries and growing areas.

In late May, the first table grapes will arrive from Mexico, where many California growers have been farming. (Table grapes refer to those varieties which are eaten by hand, “off the table,” as compared to wine grapes). Then, the grape crop moves to Arizona, followed by Southern California’s Coachella Valley (usually in June). By July, Bakersfield becomes the main grape-growing area. The grape harvesting season next moves to Northern California and to Oregon. In September, wine grapes are harvested, and the wine-making process begins.

There are many regulations and rules as to when it is OK to ship grapes into the USA from Mexico. Most rules surround the term “brix.” Brix is related to the concentration of sugar (dissolved solids) that the fruit contains, and is used as a predictor of sweetness. There is usually a minimum level of brix required before a farmer can ship. Brix is affected by many things: amount of water, variety of grapes, temperature outside, etc. The hotter the weather, the faster the grapes will increase their brix.

Grapes are harvested by hand – and many are “field packed” into grape lugs (boxes), then shipped to nearby cold storage facilities. Millions of boxes of grapes are in storage for much of the year – allowing grapes to be shipped all over the United States and exported all over the world.

In the fall months, when most table grapes are done being harvested, they are put into storage and then shipped to American supermarkets as retailers order them. Usually in January, supermarkets begin importing table grapes from Chile. Years ago, when the first grapes (and peaches, nectarines and plums, for that matter) were imported, many retailers ran advertisements boasting, “ENJOY SUMMER FRUITS all winter long!” It was considered very innovative at that time.

During our Northern Hemisphere winter, the Southern Hemisphere countries (like Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Spain, Italy, and others) are harvesting and shipping their summertime grapes to us. Some grape growers are involved internationally, so they are actually growing grapes all over the world, assuring consumers a year-round crop of fresh, good-tasting grapes.

Now that you know where grapes come from, how can you tell if the bunch you are going to purchase at the supermarket is going to be sweet? I can only tell you my “non-scientific” way.

First of all, if they are “first of the season” from a growing area, I’ve found they are not usually sweet enough for my kids. I usually like to wait a few weeks after the first of the season crop. Second, I always touch the grapes to see if they are firm (crunchy). My kids do not like soft grapes! I also closely inspect each bag or clamshell to make sure there is no mold or discoloration. Take a few extra seconds to feel the grapes and look at them. It’s worth it.

There are so many grape varieties available, so don’t be afraid to try a new one! Usually the new varieties (some with seeds) are the most flavorful. Besides the green and red seedless and seeded varieties, there are now Black Grapes, Champagne Grapes (aka Zante Currants, which come in July), Muscats and Muscatels (originally a wine grape, but now savored by many as table grapes).

Check out this guide to California table grape varieties. And my friends at Sun World International, based in Bakersfield, are doing some amazing things with new grape varieties.

Karen

P.S. Speaking of grapes, please check out Frieda’s Raisins on the Vine — after all, raisins are dried grapes!

I think the biggest fear all parents have when their kids go off to college is their access to excessive drinking. I know it is my fear.

Both my sister and I have our eldest young adult at college, and the last couple weeks have been very sad for us.

You see, a young man who attended Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo was killed two weeks ago. He was just 21 years old. He was out on a Saturday night and probably had too much to drink. He decided to walk home (alone) from the bar, and was killed while crossing the street — which happened to be Highway 101.

The way I found out, is that my eldest daughter Alex called me to tell me that this young man (Matt) was her best friend’s boyfriend. Sweet guy. Not in trouble. Good student.

Alex and her best friend Audrey flew home this weekend to attend the funeral. I spent a few hours talking with them about their feelings the night before they went to the funeral. I provided a safe and non-judgmental environment for our conversation.

Sunday, I put both girls on airplanes to fly back to college. Their faces were relieved and happier than when they arrived, and they both felt a lot of love and support.

What did I learn through this experience?

Alcohol is a tough subject to deal with because teens feel as if it is a real rite of passage as they go off to college, or turn 21. But, when an alcohol-related death hits so close to home, it really makes you want to be even more annoying as a parent to make sure your kids know that their safety is most important.

Be safe!

Karen

Healthy Initiatives are everywhere.

First Lady Michelle Obama launched a very ambitious program to end childhood obesity in a single generation when she formally announced her Let’s Move campaign. Interestingly, she announced this program on Good Morning America on February 9 – the very same day I wrote about my company’s Healthy Living Initiative! An interesting coincidence that I just discovered.

Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, which airs on ABC-TV on Friday nights, has caused quite a stir, as the passionate and sometimes abrasive English chef chronicles his attempt to change the eating habits of a West Virginia city. (As of this morning, more than 275,000 have signed Jamie Oliver’s online petition to change the way America eats!) Go Jamie!

And, right here at Frieda’s we’re making small steps toward changing the lives of our employees (and their families) with our Healthy Living Initiative. Here is a quick progress report:

Thirty-two of our employees voluntarily signed up for the Biggest Loser – Frieda’s style. In groups of four people (two women and two men), we step onto the big produce scale in our warehouse every Tuesday morning at 8 a.m. to see how much we’ve lost.

After only five weeks, these 32 people have dropped a total of 148 pounds! Yes, I realize that this is only about 1 pound per person, per week, but all the health authorities I know say that is the PERFECT rate of weight loss.

But, what the scale doesn’t show are these things:

We have 32 ambassadors for company health, who are constantly sharing their enthusiasm with everyone. More employees are now walking during their breaks and lunch hours. We have also re-launched company-wide stretching breaks each day, so that employees get warmed up for their day and eliminate stiffness and injuries.

All the “bad” snacks and sugary drinks have been removed from our vending machines. Next month, by popular request of all employees, we have a local health authority coming in to speak about diabetes and how to deal with it through exercise and healthy eating. We are holding this 30-minutes class in both Spanish and English, so all our employees can participate.

The buzz in the company is enthusiastic and team-oriented. And it was so easy to implement. Even my 16-year-old daughter, Sophia, when writing our grocery shopping list last week, wrote “any other foods that are good for me.” That was a nice surprise to see.

So, what is stopping you from launching your own Healthy Living Initiative at your place of work or in your home? It is not that difficult. And if you’ve been inspired to launch one – I would love to hear from you!

Here’s to YOUR good health!

Karen

Spaghetti Squash has had a special place in my career at Frieda’s. It was the first product for which I developed a recipe, shortly after I started working full time for my mom. And that recipe ended up on the label adorning the millions of Spaghetti Squash we have shipped over the years.

In the late 1970s, a small grower shipped us 10 big boxes of what looked like giant yellow footballs. Spaghetti Squash, as it was known, had become a home gardening favorite because it was so easy to grow. It grew quickly and could be stored for months after harvest, thanks to its hard outer shell (unlike zucchini squash). The grower had planted many acres of this unique squash and called Frieda’s to help him market it. (BTW, many similar scenarios have played out at Frieda’s over the years — it’s how we get involved in so many new products. A grower starts producing something new with no plan on what to do when it is harvested, and then he contacts Frieda’s to do the marketing!)

And of course, what was so amazing about this new vegetable was that its flesh magically turned into spaghetti-like strands when you ran a fork through it (after cooking). The timing was perfect on our introduction of Spaghetti Squash. Weight Watchers had just started catching on in the United States, and dieters were tired of substituting cooked bean sprouts for pasta.

Voilà! Spaghetti Squash was the perfect pasta substitute. But, how to educate produce managers and consumers? Well, we had to label each squash, and of course, we needed an easy and simple recipe.

So, I went home to my apartment in Hollywood and opened up my refrigerator and pantry. With no extra time to go shopping, I created my first recipe! Not only was it easy to prepare, it was tasty, too. (Thank goodness microwaves were becoming commonplace in the 1970s. Cooking in the oven on a summer day was not desirable.)

I came to work the next day with recipe in hand. It went off to the label printer, and two weeks later we began shipping our first labeled Spaghetti Squash.

Now, fast forward to 2010, and you will find those “yellow footballs” available year-round in most produce departments across the United States. There are now many growers around the country who grow and ship Spaghetti Squash. Although you will find that most are labeled, sometimes it’s just the name and country of origin on the label. However, you will still find Frieda’s Spaghetti Squash label with usage instructions, nutritional information, plus our 100% satisfaction guarantee and our website, so you can get more recipes.

Here is my first recipe, which was also featured in my cookbook, The Purple Kiwi Cookbook:

Stuffed Spaghetti Squash Italiano

1 Spaghetti Squash (cut in half lengthwise), cooked*, seeds removed
1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese
1 cup grated zucchini squash
1 cup tomato sauce
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
1/8 tsp. dried basil
Dash of garlic powder
2 Tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese

Scrape the interior of the cooked squash with two forks to separate the pulp into spaghetti-like strands. Place in a large mixing bowl and reserve the empty shell halves.

Add the Cheddar cheese, zucchini, tomato sauce, salt, pepper, basil and garlic powder and mix well. Spoon the mixture into the empty squash shells. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Place on a baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes or until bubbly. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

* (To cook Spaghetti Squash, place halves cut side up in a microwaveable dish with 1/4 cup water; cover loosely. Microwave on high for 7 to 10 minutes, turning dish a quarter turn every 3 minutes. Texture will be tender with a slightly crisp bite.)

Enjoy, and let me know YOUR favorite way to make Spaghetti Squash. Oh, and remember, Spaghetti Squash is gluten-free!

Karen

Mudslides. Fires. It seems as if Southern California experiences these two plagues every year. And this year was no exception. We had terrible fires in the fall, and as our rainy season came upon us, many areas in the Southland experienced flash flood warnings.

The most dramatic memory for me was after my mother and I drove back from Palm Springs to Orange County. A few days after our trip, I saw on the news that the very transition road we traveled, from Highway 60 to Highway 57, had been closed due to a mudslide caused by heavy rains, saturated soil and fire damage.

All I could think of was, “Why are they not planting vetiver grass?”

What is vetiver, you ask? According to my friends Noel Vietmeyer and Mark Dafforn of the National Research Council, this little-known tropical grass is relatively cheap and effective at preventing soil erosion. When planted in lines along the contours of slopes, vetiver quickly forms narrow but very dense hedges. Its stiff foliage then blocks the passage of soil and debris, and slows any runoff, giving the rainfall a better chance of soaking into the soil instead of rushing off the slope.

You may remember the horrific 2005 mudslide in La Conchita, California (near Santa Barbara), in which 10 people lost their lives when an entire mountainside collapsed on top of homes. Well, that location was also home to the only banana plantation in the western United States – Seaside Banana Gardens. (Before the 2005 disaster, A 1995 mudslide knocked out most of this plantation.) Fortunately, the grower, Doug Richardson, only lost his bananas – he and his lovely family were spared. (Frieda’s used to market his Ice Cream Bananas, and others.)

Doug is still growing bananas, however. A few years back, he wrote us about the success of his planting of vetiver (and more exotic bananas), and we look forward to the day that we are once again selling California-grown bananas.

So, if I had a wish, it would be that someone reading this blog would pass this information along to the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Sunset Magazine and others, and that vetiver grass would get great publicity and be planted prolifically around Southern California so we NEVER have to worry about mudslides again.

So, please pass this information along…and I’ll keep you informed about how this message spreads!

Karen

Learn more about vetiver grass:
Vetiver Network International
Downloadable brochure

Frieda's Specialty Produce - Black Garlic

Over the years, we’ve had to work pretty hard to introduce new products to supermarkets. Alfalfa Sprouts, Sugar Snap® Peas, Purple Potatoes, Hot House Cucumbers and Mangoes were just a few of the many introduction challenges. Interestingly, one of the easier items we introduced and got acceptance for was the Habanero Chile Pepper (100 times hotter than a jalapeño). Spicy was very in at that time — the hotter the better!

So, it’s rare that a new product gains a “cult like” following and almost immediate success and acceptance. But this is exactly what happened last year when we introduced Black Garlic.

Here’s how it began. We started getting calls from chefs looking for a new garlic product — something known as Black Garlic. The “chef-world grapevine” moves very quickly. Once a chef discovers a new ingredient or flavor, it spreads like wildfire.

The Frieda’s buying team quickly found the source: a man named Scott Kim, the inventor of an amazing new kind of garlic. Scott developed this process of taking Korean-grown garlic (whole bulbs, with skin in tact), and submitting it to intense hot temperatures. Through this process, the garlic naturally turns a dark, molasses-brown color and the flavor becomes savory-sweet – reminiscent of teriyaki and molasses and garlic, without the sharp bite of raw garlic.

Black Garlic is a really versatile ingredient that adds a complex depth of flavor to foods. Here are a couple of recipes that demonstrate how to use it:
Black Garlic Risotto
Black Garlic Bruschetta

For the simplest way to serve it, we recommend spreading gourmet crackers with a little whipped cream cheese and topping with a small clove of Black Garlic. It’s very palatable and doesn’t have that strong garlic aftertaste.

Chefs and consumers have gone crazy over Black Garlic! And if you can believe it, one of our first customers was a small retailer in Minneapolis. They told us that all the media attention in the food pages had customers requesting the product, so they had to bring it in. And they tell us it keeps selling! Today, our largest distribution of the product is in Canada, where retailers have moved more than 1,000 packages in a single day (that is a LOT of Black Garlic)!

While I don’t think Black Garlic will be the next Kiwifruit, it’s nice to know that shoppers are still interested in new foods that have good flavor and are good for you!

Oh, by the way, if you can’t find Black Garlic in your favorite supermarket, please go to the produce manager and request it. (That’s how Frieda’s got the Kiwifruit introduced back in 1962.) Then, send us an email with the name and location of your store, and we’ll do our part to get Black Garlic into your store.

Have you tried Black Garlic yet? I would love your comments on how you like the taste and how you use it!

Karen

Mark Twain supposedly said, “Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.”

And that is surely what appears to be happening in California right now, and for the last decade, or more.

The Environmentalists vs. Production Agriculture (farmers), vs. Consumers (residential). It’s hard to know what or who to believe.

I attended a California agribusiness seminar last month, during which an esteemed panel of water constituents participated. I learned that there are eight myths about water:

1. California is running out of water.
2. (Insert villain here) is responsible for California’s water problems.
3. We can build our way out of California’s water problems.
4. We can conserve our way out of California’s water problems.
5. Healthy aquatic ecosystems conflict with a healthy economy.
6. More water will lead to healthy fish populations.
7. California’s water rights laws impeded reform and sustainable management.
8. We can find a consensus that will keep all parties happy.
(Read more about the water myths here.)

Here are some great resources on water and what we can do about it:

Find out the facts about our water situation, and educate your kids, your friends, and your family. Fix those leaky faucets, don’t water your lawn quite so often, and find other ways that you can help us conserve. Agriculture is still the No. 1 business in California, and we hope to keep it that way!

How do you conserve water? Please share your comments.

Karen