It’s easy to “eat local” in Santa Cruz County. We are surrounded by food grown, fished, picked, brewed and cooked within miles. But while it’s easy to spot local produce at the farmer’s market, it’s harder at the grocery store, where they share shelf space with items from around the world. And yet, there are plenty of local treats in the aisles of grocery stores if you know what to look for.
To help you in your search, here are a handful of my favorite products made in Santa Cruz County that are available at neighborhood markets. There are many more delicious local products than can be listed here, and your grocer can help you discover more. Next time you go shopping, throw some of these delicious treats in your basket.
Bella Chi Cha
Creamy Goat Cheese Torta
Soft goat cheese covered in spicy apricot jam is easy to love. Smooth and creamy with the slightest hint of heat, once you dig in it’s hard to stop. When I went to the Bella Chi-Cha website, I found that Santa Cruz maker Brenda Townsend suggested turning the container upside down on a cheese board so the sunny jam was on top for a quick appetizer. and pretty. It seems very fancy compared to my method of digging straight into the container with a cracker when I feel like a decadent after-work snack. You do you. It’s also delicious slathered on a bagel or a piece of toast. Bellachicha.com.
Kitchen Witch Bone Broth
Beef bone broth
When it comes to broth, quality matters. If you want robust flavor and maximum nutritional value, no one does it better than Kitchen Witch. At this Santa Cruz-based woman-owned business, they slowly simmer a variety of organic bones and vegetables for a full 24 hours, and the end result is a flavorful, high-quality broth swimming with health benefits. While making chicken broth with leftover chicken is easy enough if you feel so inclined, spending an entire weekend splitting, roasting, and stewing beef bones for hours upon hours is less appealing. So when beef broth is the main ingredient, or maximum, easily digestible nutrition is the goal, it’s worth splurging on the good stuff. Kitchenwitchbroth.com.
Mrs. A’s Famous Salsa Buena
Fresh traditional salsa
Choosing a favorite local salsa is like choosing your favorite local taqueria. Every day, depending on the person and their particular circumstances, they are all the right choice. That said, the salsa that I come back to again and again for its exceptional flavor is Mrs. A’s famous Salsa Buena. It also helps that Mrs. A’s story is so endearing. The teacher and San Lorenzo Valley resident brought food for her class to share and build community. Her students fell in love with her homemade salsa and encouraged her to sell it. One of his students even made the tag, which features a smiling sun. mrsafamous.com.
Masala Chai Co.
Masala Chai Co. fans are legion, and now I’m one of them. Chai was new to Americans when Raphael Reuben and Susan Beardsley started making chai in their kitchen in Santa Cruz in the 1980s, but now their chai can be found throughout the county and beyond. Produced in small batches with whole spices, their chai masala can be served hot or iced, and is the perfect balance of spicy and sweet. Having delicious chai that doesn’t need to be steeped, just waiting in your fridge, is such a treat. masalachaico.com.
Everyday Herbal Salt
I’m nerdy with salt. At all times, I have Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt on hand for all-purpose seasoning, Maldon Flake Sea Salt for finishing, and a few flavored salts for fun. Farmer Freed’s Herbal Salt is one of the most flavorful salts I have ever tasted. Emily Jane Freed infuses kosher salt with organic dried parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, and you can smell it as soon as you open the jar. It’s not too salty, so you can use a generous hand and sprinkle it on just about anything – eggs, chicken, vegetables, salad dressing… keep it in your kitchen and I’m sure you’ll find a million uses. farmfreed.com.
Flip’s Awesome Sauce
Are you a condiment lover? Is your fridge door rattling with dozens of bottles of sauce? Does your weekly meal plan include bowls of rice topped with stuff? You need to add Flip’s Awesome Mushroom Sauce to your quiver. Don’t be fooled by the gray color; there is a lot of flavor in this little bottle. Chef Oyunaa Sophie of Mongolian restaurant Oyunaa in Santa Cruz infuses soy sauce with mushroom umami, sesame oil and a splash of vinegar for an addictive savory condiment you can splash on anything. flipsawesomesauce.com.
The choice of rain
Pure Tahitian vanilla extract
You may not think the quality of vanilla extract has much of an effect on your baking, but you’d be wrong. Yes, it may be a little pricey, but you don’t have to use a lot to get the heavenly, warm, rich aroma of vanilla filling your nostrils with every bite. Rain’s Choice Pure Tahitian Vanilla Extract uses premium vanilla beans and is fair trade, sustainable and environmentally friendly. Patricia Rain, the queen of vanilla, buys vanilla directly from farmers, the majority of whom are women, at fair prices. With a small, powerful bottle, you can support local makers, women in developing countries, and better baking. vanillaqueen.com.
Why is fresh pasta so luxurious when it is so simple and quick to prepare? Next time you’re looking for a quick meal, remember that making a box of macaroni and cheese takes three times as long. Local veteran pasta maker Mike Ruymen of Pasta Mike’s has been making a variety of fresh pasta and ravioli for over 30 years, including classic styles like fettuccine, spaghetti and traditional ricotta ravioli, and seasonal flavors like sweet potato. The texture of his pasta is perfect, soft but moist, and the flavors of the toppings are exceptional. Pair them with one of her homemade sauces for an even easier weeknight dinner that tastes just like the pasta your Nonna used to make.
Taggiasca California Extra Virgin Olive Oil
When it comes to olive oil, freshness is essential for maximum flavor. Knowing this, who wants old, bitter olive oil from another continent when you could be tasting crisp, fresh olive oil a few miles away? Santa Cruz County has several olive oil producers, and my current favorite is Olio Umberto in Corralitos. Their oil made from Ligurian Taggiasca olives has a bright, herbaceous nose followed by a nutty flavor and a peppery finish. I don’t recommend cooking with it, as heating it will spoil its wonderful flavor. Instead, drizzle it generously to finish soups, steamed vegetables, fish and salads, even ice cream. And enjoy it fresh! www.olioumberto.com.
Spicy bavarian mustard
& strawberry balsamic jam
Twins Kitchen makes dozens of mustards and jams made from local produce, and their flavors change with the seasons. Everyone I’ve tried is delicious, but two products in particular won me over. Spicy Bavarian Mustard is a whole grain mustard made with warm spices, with just a touch of sweetness. It is an excellent all-purpose mustard on sausages, roasted vegetables, sandwiches and salad dressings. On the sweet side, the Black Pepper & Rosemary Strawberry Balsamic Jam is divine. The rich, deep flavor of sweet vinegar pairs perfectly with ripe strawberries, and the pepper and rosemary add an interesting savory note. It’s great on desserts and cheese, and my friends still talk about the time I used an entire jar to flavor a batch of strawberry cupcakes. Twinskitchensantacruz.com.
Annie’s Non-Dairy Spread
Cashews, Sesame & Chilli
For a vegan dip, Annie’s Spread has a die-hard fanbase, and rightly so. This light and creamy spread is made with cashews, nutritional yeast, sesame and red pepper, and is as versatile as it is delicious. Use it as a dip for veggies or fries, spread it on a sandwich, or lay it on a baked potato. I have friends who have moved from the area who have mourned the loss of their beloved Annie’s spread. As locals, we should count ourselves lucky.
The Charapa project
Peruvian Aji Sauce, Aji Rocoto
This bright orange Peruvian chili sauce is one of the best hot sauces I have ever had. Your tongue has just enough time to register its delicious roasted chili flavor before it gets hit by the heat. The spice level is moderate, and it keeps you coming back for more. Use it anywhere you use hot sauce, but don’t be afraid to be generous. Toss a heaping dollop into a marinade for grilled meat, drizzle it into guacamole, dab it on fresh oysters, or make the classic Peruvian dish, ceviche. This aji sauce is made by chef Leo Ramirez, a native of Peru who now lives in Santa Cruz. Find more recipe ideas on her Instagram page, @charapaaji.
Iveta Scone Mix
I’ve heard for years how wonderful Iveta’s famous scone mixes are, but I’ve never tried them. I have my own scone recipe from my mom which I love, and I doubted a pre-made mix could be better, despite the many awards and unanimous rave reviews – even Oprah is a fan. Apparently, I can be a bit stubborn about family recipes. It wasn’t until I started writing this story that I finally took a bag home to try, and sorry, Mom, they’re better. Tender and sweet, flavored with lemon and vanilla, they make a perfect scone. They also couldn’t be simpler to make – just add cream, pat in a circle, cut into wedges and bake. These deserve a permanent place in your pantry to pull out on Sunday mornings. Iveta.com.
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