Sounds crazy, huh?

One of my coworkers, Mary, who goes to the Santa Monica Farmers Market for Frieda’s each Wednesday, always bring us back samples of the latest and greatest new fruits and vegetables she finds while exploring. (She also gets to hob knob with all of L.A.’s most famous and persnickety chefs and foodies.)

Over the past few weeks she has brought us some beautiful specimens of Swiss Chard. Lately it has been the brightly colored Rainbow Chard. Each time she brings some to the office, I tear off a piece to munch on. Some people think you can only eat Chard cooked, but you can eat it raw, too.

So, last week I asked her what she was going to do with all that Chard. She replied, “Swiss Chard Tacos!”

The only tacos I’ve ever made are the ones for Taco Tuesday, which my daughter Sophia hosts at our house once a month. Ground turkey meat with taco seasoning, topped with shredded lettuce and cheese, sour cream and avocado.

I was fascinated with this new fangled Swiss Chard Taco. But I was extremely disappointed because Mary wasn’t able to bring me any leftovers the next day. Her husband and two sons ate every single one of the tacos, so I guess I will have to make them myself at home.

If you’re like me, you are always trying to find a new fruit or vegetable to try from the supermarket. And of course, finding a new, tasty recipe is always a challenge. I’m thinking that if I don’t tell my “new vegetable-phobic” family what’s inside these tacos, I may have a hit on my hands.

Check out the slightly modified recipe, which Mary clipped from the May 2011 Martha Stewart Living Magazine:

Beans-and-Greens Tacos with Goat Cheese
(Personalized by Mary)

3 Tbps. extra virgin olive oil (Mary used ½ butter and ½ olive oil)
2 red onions, sliced in ¼ inch rounds
5 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 pound Swiss Chard (try using Rainbow Chard), leaves and ribs washed well and coarsely chopped
1 cup canned cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
½ cup vegetable or chicken stock (Mary did not use)
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
8 white corn tortillas
1/3 cup soft goat cheese
8 cilantro sprigs (or you can chop coarsely)

1. Heat oil in a large high-sided skillet over medium heat. Cook onions until soft, about 6 minutes. Add garlic and cook for 1 minute. Stir in Chard (Cook ribs first, then remove from pan. Then cook leaves in same pan, using the liquid from the washed Chard to wilt the greens. Then add the ribs back in). Then add beans. (If you want to add the stock, you can do it here). Cook until greens and beans are warmed through, about 4 minutes. Season with ¾ teaspoon salt and some pepper to taste.
2. Using tongs, hold each tortilla directly over a gas flame, turning, until heated through, about 5 seconds. (Alternatively, wrap tortillas in foil and warm in a 350-degree oven). Spread each warmed tortilla with softened goat cheese and spoon Chard filling onto tortillas. Top with Cilantro.

Mary served them with a purchased tomatillos salsa. (In Southern California we have Mexican restaurants and taco stands everywhere, so she just purchased some tomatillo salsa at the taco stand around the corner from her house.)

Let me know what you think of this new way of serving Swiss Chard. Please post your comments below.

Enjoy!
Karen

P.S. Due to a technical glitch with our email subscription service, you may not have received my post from Tuesday about my personal connection with the upcoming Undercover Boss show. Please make sure you read it by clicking here: http://whatsonkarensplate.blogspot.com/2011/04/my-personal-connection-to-undercover.html


You may not know this, but our family has a special relationship with the University of California at Riverside.

It probably started more than 20 years ago, when my mother, Frieda, was asked to serve on the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee when Dr. Ray Orbach was Chancellor. Ray is a rocket scientist (for real), who became Chancellor and was so smart and reached out to the agricultural community in Southern California to make sure his university stayed relevant. He invited my mother to serve on his Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Agriculture and a real connection was born.

Ray has since moved on to the University of Texas in Austin where he is doing fantastic work. And his legacy at UCR continues, as a new library was dedicated in his name two years ago: The Raymond L. Orbach Science Libarary.

On the occasion of that dedication, my mother asked me to accompany her. Much to my surprise, we were also invited to a very private dinner at the Chancellor’s House, following the dedication.

Current Chancellor Tim White (and his gracious wife, Karen) invited us into their home and with about a dozen other people (including Ray and Eva Orbach), we enjoyed a lovely dinner and an incredible connection to the University was born for me.

Each Friday, I get a personally written update (really it’s a blog) on what’s on Tim’s mind and what’s happening at UCR. UCR has a hand in so much relevant research, cutting edge technologies and the economy of the Inland Empire, that each week I find myself captivated and inspired by his personally written blog.

So when I received a note a few weeks ago, from the Associate Chancellor, Cindy Giorgio (another dear friend), letting me know that Tim had gone “under cover” and was going to be featured on one of my favorite television shows, “Undercover Boss” on May 1, I was so excited!

To many people, UC Riverside is “that school in the Inland Empire”… and may not be thought of as the great institution that it has become. (I was there visiting the UC Riverside Citrus Variety Collection just last month and was amazed at how much the school has grown.)

Many of us only know university leaders by seeing their names on letterhead mentioned in newspapers. With my introduction to the person, Chancellor Tim White, I got a completely different perspective.

Tim is a real guy. He gets frustrated. Like all of us, he does not have complete control over his professional life and sometimes feels like he has to put out more fires than he gets to build. And he is a caring guy, committed not only to the university, but to the students, the faculty and to the greater good.

I hope you’ll check out this CBS final episode of “Undercover Boss” at 9 p.m. (8 p.m. Central) on Sunday, May 1, and feel free to let me know what you think of him!

Karen

Happy, shiny Kiwifruit!

Since it was my mother, Frieda, who introduced Kiwifruit to U.S. supermarkets, and we mention this all the time in our marketing, I have recently made a concerted effort to eat more fresh Kiwifruit.

About two months ago, I bought a bag of organic California-grown Kiwifruit at my local market. The fruit had a slight give to it, and inside the plastic bag, they seemed to ripen up quickly and perfectly. I enjoyed every single one of them. Did you know that a plastic bag provides the perfect ripening chamber for Kiwifruit? The natural ethylene (ripening) gas that is given off by the Kiwifruit (and bananas, apples, pears) hastens the ripening process.

So when I was at another grocery store two weeks ago, they were selling individual Kiwifruit. I thought to myself that it was actually more environmentally friendly (unpackaged), so I bought a half dozen Kiwifruits.

I didn’t pay close attention to the green tinge of the skin and how rock-hard they were. Because, after all, I am a bit of a Kiwifruit guru, so I knew exactly how to ripen them up. I brought them home and left them out on the kitchen counter. (Kiwifruit need to be at room temperature to ripen.) I put them in the same bowl as some bananas I purchased, and I figured as the bananas ripened (and gave off ethylene gas), the Kiwifruit would ripen and get soft.

Wrong. Nothing happened to my Kiwifruit. (But my bananas were delicious.)

So, my second attempt at ripening my Kiwifruit was to put them in a brown paper bag with a ripe banana to create a mini ripening environment. I left them there for a week, checking every day, in case my lovely Kiwifruits were getting soft.

My banana turned brown, but my Kiwifruits were still fairly hard and a couple of them started to shrivel. I brought three to work today — the ones that seemed to have a SLIGHT give to them.

Hard, shriveled, dry Kiwifruit

Can you see how the flesh is not shiny and juicy? The one that is not cut looks kind of shriveled.

Well, I am fairly p*ssed off (and hungry) right now, because although I am an educated consumer, if this same experience happened to you, or your friends, you would probably hesitate to buy Kiwifruit again.

So, let me tell you the back story on this one. First I did a little research to make sure my supposition was correct. I checked the California Kiwifruit Commission website first (visit their site — it is very colorful and cute). Sure enough, it says that the California Kiwifruit season is November through May.

Then I went to the Zespri website, as they market New Zealand-grown Kiwifruit. Their season is May – November and they note on their website that fruit grown in Chile is available at the same time as theirs. (If you go to the Zespri site, check out the History page, and click on 1962 to see my mom!)

My theory is confirmed! The Kiwifruit I purchased were grown in Chile. (Look carefully at the blue-and-white label, which states “Produce of Chile.”) Chilean Kiwifruit should not be available until May, and here it is mid-April.

So what happened? When mom and I were selling Kiwifruit back in the 1960s and 1970s, we insisted that there be a minimum brix (sugar content) for the fruit, before it could be harvested. That minimum level of brix (and ripeness) was our way of guaranteeing the consumer a perfectly sweet taste experience.

It appears as if those brix standards are no longer in place, or not at least for Chilean-grown Kiwifruit. And that is a shame. (These Chilean Kiwifruit were picked too green, probably to take advantage of a gap in supplies, and unfortunately will never ripen properly.)

I have long said that consumers vote with their dollars. If you have an experience like I did with any fruit that does not ripen properly or does not taste good, I think it is so important that you return the fruit to your store and tell the manager of your poor experience. Encourage them to tell their produce buyers. And ask for your money back. You are voting with your dollars.

That way, the feedback will go back up the supply chain, and I guarantee that your voice will be heard.

For me, I am anxiously awaiting the May arrival of first of the season, fresh Kiwifruit from New Zealand. I know they will taste good, after I ripen them up.

And now you know!
Karen

Last week I was out of my office for two days. When I came back, my email “in basket” had grown to 246 new emails. Yes, you read correctly.

I find it so unproductive to go through that many emails. Too many of them are what I classify as junk or unnecessary.

You know what I mean:

BCC probably frustrates me more than anything. There is nothing I can do about it, because I am not supposed to know it even existed. Instead of BCCing someone, I recommend that after you send your original email, then just forward a copy of the email to that person and indicate it is an “FYI.” That way, they can at least respond.

When I come into my office each day, I do not make answering emails a priority. Here is my strategy for NOT making email an obstacle to getting actual work done. You may find this helpful:

Well, my break is over now, so I need to go back to my TO DO list!

Karen

Earlier this week, I was a guest speaker at Cal Poly SLO (aka California Polytechnic State University – San Luis Obispo). Cal Poly is best known for their philosophy of “learning by doing.” It is such a beautiful campus (four hours north of Los Angeles) and the students are so engaged. Many students leave Cal Poly and get jobs in the produce industry. Many of the “big names” in our industry went to school there, and it is only natural that they would recruit from the school they know so well.

My good friend, Tonya Antle, is now an adjunct professor at Cal Poly and teaches their Agriculture Marketing Class in the spring semester. In true “learn by doing” philosophy, each week she has a member of the produce industry guest lecture and talk about their segment of the supply chain. This week, they learned about Frieda’s, specialty produce, and a bit about the wholesale distribution segment.

Like many colleges, the make-up of the student body has changed in the past few years. Last year, when I spoke to a class of 20 fourth-year students, it was mostly male. This year, there was a dramatic change: 17 out of the 20 students were female. So, I had the opportunity to personalize my presentation more than usual, and I was able to share what it was like to experience the produce industry as one of the first female company owners (after my mother, Frieda).

Interestingly, Tonya shared with the class the way she and I met. She had just graduated from college in Southern California (in the late 1970s) and since her dad was a grape grower in Delano, she wanted to get some experience in the produce industry. She came to the Los Angeles wholesale produce market and had a few interviews. Most of the interviews went the same, with the same reaction. “Why would a nice girl like you want to work at the produce market? Women don’t work here.”

Then she came to Frieda’s. When I met her, I was immediately struck by her passion, her enthusiasm, and that she came from a farming family. I hired her on the spot. Thus was born a lifelong friendship and a symbiotic relationship. We have worked together many times, although she only spent a year at Frieda’s.

Tonya started her class with roll call. Each student had been asked to describe their favorite fruit or vegetable without saying the name, pretending that they were selling it to a buyer on the telephone, like she and I did more than 30 years ago.

When I finally got up to make my presentation, I couldn’t help but share with them the fruit that I called my favorite for so many years. The fruit that I did my college marketing thesis on at U.C. Davis: The Cherimoya.

Cherimoya is a subtropical fruit, which means it grows in a warm climate. Fortunately for me, it grows in two parts of Southern California: San Diego and Santa Barbara, and is in season from January through May.

The beautiful green bumpy skin gives no clue about the delicate, creamy internal texture. When they soften (like a peach or avocado), their creamy white flesh is like a pear/peach texture. Although the big brown seeds can be annoying to remove (they are not for eating), it’s totally worth it. Like Mark Twain described, Cherimoyas are “deliciousness itself.”

When I have traveled to Chile during Cherimoya season (it is contra-seasonal, so they are available from Chile July through September), I discovered a simple and fantastic way to eat them. Slice large Cherimoyas cross-wise on a large plate and squeeze fresh orange juice (right from the orange) on top. They call this dessert “Cherimoya Allegra” (Happy Cherimoya). Check out a quick video we made on Cherimoyas here.

In case you’re wondering why Cherimoyas are so expensive when you find them at the store, it’s because each fruit is hand-pollinated with a paint brush (it does not rely on bees or the wind like most fruits).

So, at the end of my personal story about Cherimoyas, and my 90-minute presentation on Frieda’s, I shared with them some helpful hints to do well on their “final exam.” Instead of a traditional final test, the students will take all that they have learned about produce marketing, and conduct a mini-trade show on the last day of the class. In teams of 3 or 4, the students will have a booth, and will be promoting a product or service. The “customers” at this trade show will be the their professors.

It was so refreshing to interact with these students. The class was supposed to end at 2 p.m., but they still had questions. The entire class stayed until 2:15 as I answered their questions about marketing, new product development, career development, etc. If this group of twenty-somethings is any indication of the quality of students getting ready to enter the workforce, I think we will all be in excellent hands! They appear to be hard working, determined and smart. Four of the students come from produce families.

Too bad none of them currently grow Cherimoyas.

Karen

P.S. If you attended a college or university, I highly recommend offering to guest lecture at your alma mater or a nearby school. It’s important that we give back and sometimes you’ll find that YOU get inspired as well.

Last week I was fortunate to spend the morning with Howard Schultz. He just published a book, Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul, and in honor of his company’s 40th anniversary, he is on a speaking tour.

Although I am only a moderate fan of Starbucks coffee (sometimes it’s just too acidic for me), I am a huge admirer of the company and its culture. I bought stock in the company a long time ago (wish I had held on to it!) and I have found that their focus on the consumer and making your local Starbucks store the “third place” (after home and work) fascinating.

What's on Karen's Plate? - Karen's Blog - Onward

The gathering was intimate and Howard answered questions from Sharon Waxman, founder and editor in chief of TheWrap.com. It was obvious they knew each other well, so the questions were honest and penetrating.

I was so inspired by what he had to say. It wasn’t rocket science. But it was honest. And he was transparent.

He said when he “took the company back over” in 2008, the first thing he did was publicly admit they had made mistakes. They had grown too fast with the wrong priorities. He took personal accountability and was willing to be vulnerable about it. He said they were measuring the wrong things at the company. How many of us in business measure “activities” vs. “results?”

He said his number one job, as company president and CEO, was to rekindle the company values.

Part of the way he did this was to hold a company meeting. To put that in perspective, he gathered all 11,000 store managers at a single multi-day meeting in New Orleans and asked them to do three things:

  1. Don’t be a bystander
  2. Take things personally
  3. Be personally accountable

He caught a lot of flack for flying in all 11,000 managers to a single location. It cost them over $35 million (yes, million) to hold that meeting. But he told us that he felt he couldn’t afford NOT to.

And, the proof of his wisdom is evident. Starbucks stock, after its dramatic free fall, is back up to record levels. Store sales are growing and customer satisfaction is at an all-time high.

Today, Starbucks speaks to consumers like they never have before. Whether in the stores, or on Facebook, Twitter or Foursquare, Starbucks has become the No. 1 brand on all three Social Media sites. They invite their customers to dialogue with them.

But Starbucks goes one step further… They ask EVERYONE for their ideas on how to make Starbucks better: www.mystarbucksideas.com. And better yet, they implement many of these customer ideas. (Note: Many internal Starbucks employees, i.e, former employees, were very skeptical when the company began asking for such raw suggestions.)

But, of all the things Howard said that morning, one thing sticks with me more than anything else.

He said, with a very emotional look in his eyes, that beside his family, he LOVES Starbucks (the company). He said that it was the most important thing in his life, because of what the company stands for. He made dramatic changes to his life and the life of the corporation because of that love.

When I got back to the office, I opened up his book, just to take a quick glance to see if I wanted to read it. The first part of the book is entitled, “Love.” And the pages I have read so far truly speak to that love.

So, for all of you entrepreneurs reading this: How do you feel about YOUR enterprise? Are you being a bystander? Do you LOVE what you do? How do you show that love?

After hearing Howard, this is what I did: I scheduled a week when I could fly all of my remote employees into Southern California so we could all be together. (Some of our staff works out of our office, but a good number live elsewhere.)

I also walked around my office and warehouse and said hello, by name, to everyone. Sometimes I find myself isolated in my office. There is no shortage of emails to respond to or work to do.

Howard Schultz inspired me to remember that my Number One job is to BE the culture of my company! If I show sincere appreciation for everyone on my Frieda’s team, I know that they will be happy and we will do well.

I hope you are inspired to do the same thing.

BTW – During the Q&A, when an audience member asked Howard why they didn’t service Starbucks coffee at this event (they served Peet’s coffee!), Howard didn’t miss a beat. He said, “When I saw what they were serving, I almost turned around and left.”

Howard takes it personally!

Karen

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My mom always told me that tomato growers were a special breed. In her early years in the business, she learned that tomato growers had a lot in common with gamblers in Las Vegas.

She said it’s not unusual for a tomato grower to lose money for 9 out of 10 years. They are always waiting for that year when they make back all the money they lost in the previous years, and more. And 2011 has been one of those terrible years for fresh tomato growers in Mexico, because of the freeze they had in February that destroyed at least 80 to 90 percent of the fresh crop.

At this time of year, fresh tomatoes are coming from Mexico and Florida and it won’t be until May that we will start to see new crop tomatoes out of the next growing region – Baja California. So where are the tomatoes coming from at this time of year, if Mexico had a horrific freeze?

Much of what you will see in the markets right now is hot house grown (vs. field grown). There are many regions in the country where there are commercial hot houses, also known as greenhouses. The southern states tend to have the most, since they have the most natural sunlight hours year-round, but amazingly, some of the biggest hot house growers in North American are located in Canada!

What’s so distinctive about these hot house grown tomatoes? First of all, they tend to be a bright, consistent color: dark red. Second, virtually all of them are sold “on the vine.” Actually, in our industry, we call them TOVs (Tomatoes on Vine).

Actually, TOVs are grown in several shapes and colors besides round and red: Small “cherry” type tomatoes on the vine, as well as yellow and orange regular-sized tomatoes.

And, there are a few growers, who have “heirloom” tomato varieties in hot houses, which come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes with fun names like Cherokee Purple, Green Zebra and Brandywine, to name a few. But at this time of year, you probably won’t be seeing huge displays of any kind of tomatoes, due to the reduced supplies.

So, what’s a shopper to do with limited supplies and high prices on tomatoes?

First of all, I recommend looking carefully at the tomatoes and making sure you get good quality. When they are expensive, you want to be sure you don’t get any mushy ones. Personally, I buy my fresh produce every two to three days, to avoid throwing anything out. If the tomatoes don’t look good when you are at the store, I would skip buying them for now. If you are going to cook with them to make a sauce, you may want to considering buying canned tomatoes for now, until fresh tomatoes are plentiful.

Or, if you are used to purchasing only a specific kind of tomato, like Romas or large red ones, you may want to try other varieties that look good. Cherry and grape tomatoes can be halved and tossed into salads or chopped into salsas or sauces. I have found that sometimes they have a superior flavor profile than regular-sized tomatoes.

Another alternative is ready-made refrigerated salsas, which can be found in your produce or deli department, and ready-made fresh pasta sauces. These tomato products were probably processed and prepared a few weeks or months ago and with the amazing packaging technology available to processors, they will most likely taste “just like fresh.”

But, keep visiting your produce department because the next growing area (Baja California) will be starting in about three weeks. And as we get through May and June, you will see the varieties increase and the prices will come down. California-grown tomatoes will be in full swing by June and July, as will locally grown tomatoes all over the country.

What’s on the horizon for fresh tomatoes? You will start to see more plentiful supplies of the famed San Marzano variety, which is prized in Italy for its amazing flavor profile. Many growers at Farmers Markets here in California tell us that 2011 will be the Year of the San Marzano. We can’t wait!

Enjoy!
Karen

From Left: Jackie (my sister), Frieda (my mom), and me

My how time flies. I’m sure it is hard for my mom, Frieda, to believe that 49 years ago (April 2, 1962) she opened the doors to our now second-generation produce business.

As I shared with our staff, celebrating our 49th anniversary this past weekend means we have officially started our 50th year in business!

The staff at Frieda’s Inc.

This past Friday morning, we gathered all our employees in our lunchroom and listened while mom recounted a few memorable moments of when she first started our company:

But, probably the greatest joy that my mother has had, even with all the challenges she faced in business (boy, do we have stories), and being a “working mother” when virtually everyone else’s mom did not work and stayed home to raise their kids, was that she raised two happy, loving and responsible daughters.

My sister and I, even with two working parents, turned out pretty good (If I say so myself). We had our crazy times as kids (Jackie being a little wilder than me), but we always worked and paid our own way after we graduated from college. We both decided — on our own — to join our mom in her business.

And, the greatest joy for all three of us, is that we see each other every day. Yes, Frieda still comes to work each day! Sure, we don’t always agree, but we have developed a way of working through any issues.

Being the eldest daughter, it comes natural for me to be “in charge.” And I recognize that my “right brained” creative style is balanced so well by my sister’s left brain (logical) approach.

If you want to post a congratulatory note, please visit us on Facebook and post on our wall. And be sure to “like” us, so you can enter to win one of the many prizes we are giving out to consumers this month. (We are calling this our “Golden Goodies” promotion.)

And, so you can see how great mom looks at age 87, check out this short video we made last week, to commemorate the beginning of our 50th anniversary.

Celebrating 49 years in style!
Karen