Fresh (Ingredient) Take on Oxnard

By Nancy Spiller / Photography By Ron Wallace | April 01, 2014
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When my husband and I first discovered Oxnard, we were blithely unaware of the prejudices against it. All we saw were the wide open beaches edged by grassy dunes reminiscent of Martha’s Vineyard and an air temperature 20°–30° lower in August than that of our Glendale home. It wasn’t until we bought our townhome seven minutes’ walking distance to the sand that we started getting hit with the barbs, mostly making fun of the name.

We didn’t care. Our dog could run on the beach and some days the Channel Islands resting on the horizon looked within walking distance. We felt fortunate to be here, despite the slights. The fact that the road to our place, like many traversing the area, was dotted with fruit stands and lined with fields farmed year round, that there were multiple farmers’ markets close by and fresh fish was sold off boats in the local harbors only increased our appetite for the region.

Over the years, we have come to treasure the area not only for the open sand and sea breezes, but for the food adventures it has afforded us.

Oxnard is famous for its strawberries, holding a festival for the fruit each spring, and they are exceptional, particularly if you can find them organically grown as they do at McGrath Family Farm. But the red we’ve come to seek more eagerly here are the locally grown Campari tomatoes I discovered at the Lil Red Barn produce stand on Victoria Avenue, south of the 101.

These are hydroponically grown hothouse tomatoes; I am told, that while available year round, they are most welcome in the winter. They hold full August tomato taste with tender, meaty flesh rather than the usual supermarket cardboard offerings. I intensify their pronounced flavor by roasting them low and slow in the oven. I slice them in half, place cut side up on a cookie sheet, drizzle with olive oil and sea salt and pop them into a 225° oven for anywhere from an hour and a half to three hours. I serve them on a slice of toasted baguette or cracker smeared with goat cheese. A sprinkle of smoked paprika pushes them over the top.

Yao Cheng, of Yao Cheng Farms in Santa Rosa Valley, at the Sunday Channel Islands Harbor Certified Farmers’ Market first introduced me to the white-on-the-outside, purple-on-the-inside Okinawan yams I’ve also come to covet. I bake them until tender, let cool, dice and use in any dish that might benefit from a bright note of color and sweet taste. Beautiful enough for a Facebook picture was sautéed shrimp with green peas and purple yams.

I regret it took me so long to get to the store of the recently closed California Mushroom Farm, one of the nation’s largest mushroom operations, on Olivas Park Drive east of the Ventura Harbor.

Their humble store sold bags and boxes of mushrooms, along with sacks of mushroom compost, in what otherwise appeared to be the farm’s front office. What it lacked in fancy, it made up for in price and absolute freshness. Our last visit was this past summer when we loaded up on a festival’s worth of white, crimini and portobello mushrooms, enjoying everything from fresh sliced for salads to grilled portobello sandwiches. Sadly, the farm closed this past September. In December, it sold at auction to a Pennsylvania mushroom grower, so maybe it will reopen, hopefully with the “store.”

While our mushroom forays were all too rare, our fish encounters in Oxnard have been often and memorable. These started, again, at the Lil Red Barn. For a few seasons, early on, a local fisherman intermittently sold fresh-caught fish and spiny lobster out of a cooler alongside the shack. That’s how we snagged a prize whole sea bass. When it turned out to be too big to keep intact in the refrigerator, I took it to Andrea’s Fish Market in the Ventura Harbor, where the cheerful counterman, for a nominal tip, gladly cut it into steaks. We pan-roasted the bass for a dinner gathering that night and the rest was frozen for future indulgences.

The California spiny lobster season starts up again in October (mark your calendar!). These indigenous crustaceans are all tail and no big meaty claws like their Atlantic counterparts. For an October visit from my father and stepmother I was able to secure four from that same fisherman at the Lil Red Barn. I boiled them live, I hate to admit, using a New York Times recipe for heavily salted vegetable water that re-creates seawater thick with seaweed. Th e results were spectacularly tender, the best lobster I’ve ever had—and the first my thrifty parents, I was surprised to discover, had ever enjoyed.

As for cooking live sea creatures, I’ve subsequently learned that 30 minutes in the freezer puts them to sleep, thus lessening the pain of their boiling bath, though all that I am sure of regarding this method is that it lessens my guilt.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen live lobsters at the local produce stands, but my favorite nearby seafood experience these days involves the reliable supply of aqua-farmed clams and oysters from The Jolly Oyster truck at San Buenaventura State Beach. I regularly visit now for a couple bags of sweet and exceptionally clean (a bonus of aqua-farmed bivalves) clams and a healthy provision of oysters, both the extremely large Pacific and the small Kumamoto they carry.

Like M. F. K. Fisher before me, I considered these oysters and their ready availability a gem in the crown of our coastal community. It took me a little while and a YouTube instructional video to get my shucking technique down, and I recommend the longer of the two shucking knives the truck sells.

The greatest discovery there, however, has been the clams and what my husband is ever so willing to do with them. He’s achieved linguine con vongole perfection, to the point it could be considered a minor calling. It’s now our favorite dish when we’re staying in for dinner and a Netflix. Th e recipe is simple, taken from a pictorial illustrated Italian cookbook that pretty much guarantees things can’t go too wrong. Except when they do—like the time my darling husband used red wine instead of the called-for white. That was wrong. Very wrong. But he promises he’ll never do it again and I like the dish so much, and his ability to whip it up in short order, I’m willing to give him another try—and another.

And while we’re not there as much as we’d like to be, we look forward to the time we are able to spend in our beachside paradise. As for any prejudices against the place, I quit long ago trying to convince outsiders of its charms. The funky name locals occasionally consider changing keeps the beaches uncrowded and guarantees more clams and oysters for us.

Lil Red Barn
100 S. Victoria Ave, Oxnard

Channel Islands Harbor Certified Farmers’ Market
3350 S. Harbor Blvd., Oxnard

The Jolly Oyster
San Buenaventura State Beach, Ventura

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