Open a box of produce from Girl & Dug Farm, and you'll be transported to a world as whimsical as Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. But instead of Everlasting Gobstoppers and Scrumdiddlyumptious bars, there's Porcukepine, a pulpy African fruit with orange spikes and neon green flesh, and Squashini, a Korean cucurbit grown inside of a bag, which keeps it small and gives it a snappy texture.
"We've always got to have something that others don't," says Aaron Choi, the farm's founder and owner.
MAKE: Fruit Soup
The original Girl & Dug Farm, built on land that Choi took over from his parents in 2009, is located in San Marcos, California. In March 2020, Choi opened a second farm in Portland, Oregon. Although he's been supplying California chefs like Jeremy Fox and Nyesha Arrington for years, Choi launched nationwide direct-to-consumer shipping just last spring. The decision was, unsurprisingly, driven by the pandemic; chefs weren't placing orders, and a pivot was in order. So Choi started selling what he calls "imagination in a box" to a new set of customers: home cooks.
"There's a base of people out there who talk about sourcing direct from farms and who are willing to put their money where their mouth is," Choi says. "They want to try something different."
Some of his offerings are themed: The Grain Bowl Box has just about all of the ingredients to build a savory grain bowl, including Tokyo negi, a sweet green onion, and ice plant, an edible succulent with a briny flavor and leaves that look like they're studded with raindrops. And while there's an unmistakable wow factor that stems from the visually striking quality of Choi's produce, he's still far more interested in growing foods that taste great than those that look cool. Choi wants home cooks to try ugni, a small pink Chilean guava, and taste the fruit's blueberry-strawberry flavor. He wants them to bite into a white strawberry and realize that it's the sweetest one they've ever had.
These days, Choi is most excited about his crop of oca, an Andean tuber that looks like a fingerling potato and a sunchoke had a baby. Oca can be roasted until crispy, mashed until creamy, pickled, deep fried, or even shaved raw. Girl & Dug spent three years of trial and error to figure out how to grow oca successfully, but to Choi, it was worth it: Oca is a personal obsession that he expects will catch on.
What sets Choi apart from other farmers is that he thinks about his produce from the perspective of a chef. Even at the end of the season, he's always looking toward what's next. "Chefs want to stay creatively sharp, and we're going to make that happen by staying several steps, if not years, ahead of what's hot right now."
Bring it Home
The fluttering purple leaves of butterfly sorrel are tender and juicy, with a flavor that is, in Choi's words, "lip-puckeringly tart."
Sweet Jade Tomatoes and Atomic Tomatoes
Sweet Jade tomatoes contain what Choi calls a "stay-green gene," leading to umami-packed tomatoes that are green in both skin and flesh. The red-striped Atomic Acid Trip tomatoes are salty and sweet with a punch of acidity.
Badger Flame Beets
These sweet beets, from Dan Barber's Row 7 Seeds, are far less earthy than a typical beet but still have an intense vegetal flavor.
Choi patented a bag that incubates and compresses this Korean summer squash, packing its flavor into a palm-size gourd. (Without the bag, it would grow to the size of a football.)
Poona Kheera Cucumber
Tangy with a tendency to become slightly bitter, these heirloom cucumbers can develop a rind that makes them well suited for cooking; they'll add crunch to any dish.