Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Night of the Seven Fishes

The goods are in for the Night of the Seven Fishes at the Reading Terminal Market. Both Golden and John Yi featured fresh sardines (herring) at $3 and $3.99/pound, respectively, though at least by today's display, Golden's were superior creatures. Yi also had spearling at $4.99, Golden some rather large langoustines, a.k.a. Dublin prawns. All the other usual suspects, too, including bacalao.

I've been having a blast enjoying fresh oysters now that I've purchased an oyster knife and learned to use it (very carefully). The oysters available at the RTM fishmongers are all from Virginia and the Chesapeake, the usually price being 50-cents apiece; I've only seen oysters from Maine, Massachusetts and Canadian Maritime waters at Wegman's in Cherry Hill, where they are nearly twice that price, but worth it. (When I asked one RTM vendor which oyster he had, he said they were Blue Points . . . from Virginia. Which, of course, is an impossibility. Since the HAACP tag said Virginia, they weren't Blue Points, which only come from Long Island.)

If you need a fruitcake, either as a gift or a weapon, Iovine Brothers Produce has Claxton cakes in the reefer case by the checkout closest to Filbert Street. Only the regular version, not the dark (which I prefer). Priced at $3.99 per one-pound brick. These fruitcakes are more fruit and nut than cake by a wide margin.

Although Iovine had Hass avocados available at a buck apiece, they were either far from ready or over-the-hill. Instead, I picked up one of the Florida/Carribean fruits, which tend to be considerably larger. I'm not sure they'd make as good a guacamole, because they tend to be less rich/buttery, but they are excellent in salads. I used some tonight in a tortilla wrap with chicken, Mexican white cheese, cilantro, lettuce and salsa.

Ducks and geese: Nice selections at a number of butchers. Godshall's has both (including Eberly's geese), L. Halteman has Muscovy ducks, Giunta's Prime Shop Long Island (Peking) ducks and can order the Eberly's geese. If the dark meat birds don't interest you, yet you want a big bird but not turkey, consider a capon from Godshalls or Giunta's. The latter carries surgically caponized birds from Eberly; I don't know whether Godshall's are surgically or chemically caponized. In either case, capons are larger chickens (ex-roosters, actually) that tend to run about 8-12 pounds and have a preponderence of breast meat, which stays moister than the usual chicken's.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

We made our annual trip to The Great Northeast yesterday in search of holiday baked goods and a few other delectables. For those who do not reside in Philadelphia, The Great Northeast is a wide swath of the furthest reaches of the city, halfway to Trenton, where a great many of its residents reside. The Great Northeast is to Philadelphia what Queens is to New York City, and the size and design of the homes isn't much different from a Forest Hills rowhouse.

Click on "View Larger Map" for a key to the push pin symbols, which reflect both the vendors we visited and others we have tried in the past or are on our list for a future trip.

View Larger Map

Our first stop was to try and find Moish's Addision Bakery from a previous trip a few years back. Alas, it appears to be of of business, even though there's a web site. We journeyed all the way up to Red Lion Road in search of this classic kosher bakery, which to our taste did onion rolls and salt sticks as well as it did babka and rugelach.

Disappointed, we headed south and detoured off Bustleton Avenue to the Krewstown Shopping Centger and Steve Stein's Famous Deli. It was late on a busy Friday morning and you had to take a number for servide, but that only gave us about five minutes to peruse the plethora of smoked fishes and salads in the cases. We walked out the door with whitefish salad, lox, red potato salad, hummus with pine nuts (pre-packaged), and a Bartlett pear from the produce aisle. The whitefish salad was quite good, but a bit too smooth and low in fish flavor to my taste, though I think many would be find these characteristics to their liking; I just prefer mine fish salads fishy. The very good price of $3.99/pound probably accounts for the high proportion of mayo to fish. I am saving the lox I purchased until Sunday morning, but it looks like it was carved expertly. I selected regular (salty) lox, and both regular and nova are available in either belly or regular cuts; the belly cut is fattier and prices, $9.99/half pound, vs. $7.99 for regular cut.

Back on Bustleton and heading south, we passed Bell's Market, saving this palace of all tasty things Eastern European for another trip, and switched over to Castor Avenue. We made two quick stops at Lipkin's and Hesh's Eclair Bakery, finding nothing compelling (other than challahs, which we wern't in the market for today) at Lipkin's, and limiting ourselves to some stick raspberry sticks and onion board (a flatbread which I used to hold the whitefish salad when I got home)at Hesh's. At Weiss, Bakery which I think is the best of the Kosher bakeries along this stretch of the Northeast, we picked up seven layer cake (a variant on Doboshtort) and some assorted cookies.

Our last stop was in the Northeast's Tacony section, at a German old-style, neighborhood bakery, Haegele's. You can find photos and notes from last year's visit here. This year we walked off with assorted Christmas cookies, anise springerle, and a brownie for She Who Must Be Obeyed. I had to restrain myself from also purchasing one of their evil buttercakes.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Headhouse season nears close

Today's Headhouse Square Market doubled the number of vendors from last week, when only seven braved the snow to trek into the depths of Philadelphia. Showing up this week were:
  • A.T. Buzby, produce
  • Birchrun Hills Farm, cheese
  • Betty's Tasty Buttons, fudge
  • Demarah, soaps
  • Griggstown Quail Farm & Market
  • Hillacres Cheese
  • Queens Farm, produce
  • Margerum's Herbs
  • Mountain View Poultry
  • Old Earth Farm, produce
  • Stargazer Vineyard
  • Three Springs Fruit Farm
  • Versaille Baking
  • Woodland Produce
This was only the second week for Woodland Produce, but if their first week is any example, it will be a profitable one. Last week owner Maury Sheets sold out an hour before market closing. He specializes in greenhouse-grown, hydroponic salad greens (although some root veggies and squashes were also on the table this week), primarily selling to Philadelphia restaurants, as well as through the Fair Food Farmstand at the Reading Terminal Market.

Noel Margerum was selling fall veggies as well as preserves, relishes and dried herbs. Noel and her sister Carole rotate among the city's farm markets, including Clark Park and Fairmount.

Although the market continues for the next two Sundays, this week was probably the last of the season for Three Springs Fruit Farm (the Wenk family). Their orchard fruit is also available at the Fair Food Farmstand. Today I bought a couple of huge Rome apples which I plan to simply bake with some brown sugar or honey.

Old Earth Farm is out of stock of meat, at least for a month or so until their piglets reach market size. Since Headhouse will be closed then, you can call the farm or get on its mail list to be notified when their Tamworth porkers are is available: www.oldearthfarm.com or 610 779-9035.

If you've become hooked on those pot pies from Griggstown, fear not when Headhouse Square closes for the season. Like the output of many other vendors, these, too, are available at Fair Food Farmstand.

What I won't be able to find elsewhere once the market closes for the season are the wonderful baguettes and croisssants from Versailles Baking. The Pennsauken boulanger only sells retail at the Headhouse and Haddonfield markets. Otherwise all their customers are wholesale accounts.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Orange you glad it's citrus season?

Good citrus fruit is back in force. Jim Iovine of Iovine Brothers Produce said the grapefruit he was selling at three for a dollar (medium sized) was the best of the bunch, though he said the other citrus fruit have finally reached high-season flavor, too. I picked up some four-for-a-buck navel oranges, but the sample tangerine sections also tasted good. Limes continue at 10/$1, though lemons are 3/$1.

Over at the Fair Food Farmstand I couldn't resist trying a watermelon radish. Not at all peppery, even slightly sweet and carrot-like. Made an intersting contrast on the plate. Earl Livengood's curly endive ($2.50/head) made a great salad to go along with that radish.

The first of the holiday seasonal fish has started to appear. Both Golden and Wan are selling fresh whole sardines (herring) for $3.99 and $3.49/pound, respectively. Last year they sold for $1.99-$2.99. Maybe the price will come down after New Year's. Expect to see greater variety as we get closer to Christmas. What I'd love to see would be the Maine shrimp johnnyd touts on eGullet; I'll have to check Whole Foods which sometimes gets them.

DiNic's began extended hours to 6 p.m. this past week, so if you're craving a roast pork sandwich after work or for a late afternoon snack, you can satisfy your hunger.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Fair Food Farmstand news

Two items about the Fair Food Farmstand at the Reading Terminal Market to pass along:

Country Time pork will be delivered tomorrow (Thursday, Dec. 6) for the first time in more than a month, when the owners, the Crivellaros, were involved in a traffic accident.

This week's farmstand e-mail newsletter includes fascinating information from manager Sarah Cain about integrated pest management. I learned an awful lot about the subject from it. I couldn't find a link to a web archive of the article, so below are the relevant portions.

* * *

Fair Food Farmstand newsletter, Dec. 4-9

At the Farmstand, we have always used the term 'Low Spray' in our signage as a way of signifying that a farm is using sustainable, but not organic, growing practices. However, the correct term for the growing method these farms use is IPM, or Integrated Pest Management, and we are now going to be using this term in our signage instead of 'Low Spray.'

IPM was developed in the late 1950's as a response to a boll weevil outbreak in the southern United States. It was found that by interrupting the life cycles of pests and diseases, farmers could control breeding and proliferation and dramatically reduce crop damage. The IPM program is multi-faceted, and the last resort is the spraying of any chemicals. The four main controls are Mechanical, Biological, Cultural and Chemical. Mechanical controls include the continual scouting for pests and damage, trapping with simple glue traps, hand picking, providing barriers of mesh or agricultural fabric to protect the crop, and pheromone lures to disrupt pest mating patterns. Besides scouting on the individual farm, there's some pretty hi-tech help out there. The Penn State Entomology Department even has a real-time radar system that tracks the migration across the state of different pests, called Insect Prediction Maps, it's fascinating. Biological controls involve the use of beneficial insects (think the hard working Lady Bug, who is a ferocious eater, see above), the natural predators, who help to keep the pest insect population down. Actually, "of the [more than] 7 million species of insects in the world, only 350 are considered pests," says the Pennsylvania Integrated Pest Management Program Program. The Cultural control involves giving your plant or crop the inputs it needs to thrive -improved soil, correct amounts of water and light, etc. The best defense against pests is a plant with a healthy immune system, so to speak.

The spraying of chemicals is mandated to be the last control, and all non-toxic methods have to have been exhausted before the use of any herbicide or pesticide. Once chemicals are introduced, they have to be done so in stages, starting with the least toxic option, and then gaining in strength. Though there is currently no certification that growers are required to have as IPM practitioners, they do keep their own records. At the bottom of this email you can read a quick interview I did with Ben Wenk, of Three Springs Fruit Farm, about his experiences with IPM.

IPM is not just practiced in agricultural production either, but also in decorative landscaping, on municipal lands and by home gardeners. It gives the grower many tools that are environmentally sensitive, but does not tie them to strictly organic methods should a grower feel he is in danger of loosing his crop to infestation or disease. We're proud to offer many products that are sustainably raised using IPM methods, and hope that you appreciate our new, more accurate labeling.

Sarah Cain interviews farmer Ben Wenk about IPM

Sarah: Could you give me a few quotes about some of the methods you use within the program?

Ben: Gladly. We strive to be able to look our customers in the eye and confidently and truthfully tell them that we grow everything in a responsible and sustainable way. And what this means specifically is practices like extensive monitoring of disease and insects (one of my jobs on the farm). We sync my findings with models of the lifecycles of the pests that affect our crops so that our sprays are as few as possible and as effective as possible (we can wait till populations are most vulnerable).

In regards to what we spray, our first choice would be a product that uses more environmentally friendly or "soft" modes of action. A mode of action is the chemistry term for what is eliminating the pest. Older products (and usually cheaper products) are simply neurotoxins and will affect all of the members of the agroecosystem. When such a product is available, we'll use a product that will affect the morphology or fecundity of a specific organism that's a pest of our crop. In other words, if we detect a large population of Tufted Apple Budmoth, we have a product that will keep its mouthparts from forming – problem solved, they can't eat our apples, they're eliminated while all the other members of the ecosystem thrive (including the ones who are natural enemies of the moth and who will tolerate the application and be abundant when the moth population rebounds – biological control!)

We also work hand in hand with research in innovative and sustainable research being done at Penn State, working as a cooperating grower in a few of their experiments. One project is devoted to studying the area-wide effects of what's called "mating disruption". This pest control disperses naturally-occurring insect sex pheromones all over the orchards, causing the male moths to be very "confused" and unable to mate. No mating = no moths. No spraying = win, win. After all, spraying is costly and time-consuming, and if it were all the same to us, we wouldn't do it. However, the eastern U.S. climate all but requires that we must spray (rain = rot).

Sarah: Who do you show your records to?

Ben: All of our processing fruit buyers receive our spray records and our larger, local wholesale accounts do as well. We stand behind what spraying we do (see above).

Sarah: What are some of the challenges your orchard has faced over the last few years?

Ben: We've been fortunate to have had a consistent pool of labor so far, but that's certainly the biggest challenge that awaits not only us, but everyone in American agriculture.

Our fields were quarantined as part of the state and federal program to quarantine the Plum Pox virus (PPV). Plum pox is a virus that causes a fruit finish problem in some stone fruits (peaches, plums, nectarines, etc.) but poses no threat to human health. I actually had a job testing imported Chilean stone fruits for PPV as an undergrad, so I'm particularly familiar with it. It's a very significant pest in Europe and there is no treatment. PPV was found in a neighbor's orchard and this prevented us from planting new peach trees for a number of years (when we really wanted to be planting peach trees). That's just one example – this job is a new challenge every day.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Seven vendors brave weather

Only seven vendors braved the weather today at Head House Square: one baker, three produce sellers, a coffee seller, a confectioner and one other I can't recall. I was glad to see the baker, Versailles; they make the most authentic baguettes around, and their pastries ain't chopped liver, either. Market Manager Nicky Uy expects a more complete roster next Sunday and other Sundays through Dec. 23.

RTM's Paul Steinke believes the addition of the model train display in the terminal's headhouse, organized by the RTM, boosts overall traffic at the market itself.

Bill Kingsley, who was a leader in efforts to preserve the market in the 1980s when its existence was threatened by the then-proposed convention center died last week. Steinke said he was a regular visitor at the market until he took ill. Kingsley was 73.

To my mind, the building of the convention center has been a mixed blessing for the RTM. The push to build the center directly led to the availability of funds to rehabilitate the market (before the rebuilding water leaked from the trainshed above and puddled all over the market floor, among other significant structural problems), and the presence of conventineers has provided a good source of revenue for many of the merchants; at the same time, this has created pressure for more lunch stands and trinket-sellers rather than the market's traditional vendor base of butchers, bakers, fish mongers, cheese mongers and produce sellers and other fresh food purveyors. The convention center's impact on Center City, including the Reading Terminal Market, will be explored by reporter Tom Belden in an Inquirer article in the near future.

RTM Briefs

It's not exactly margarita weather, but this was the week to buy limes at Iovine Brothers Produce: 10 for a buck. Recently they've been three for a buck . . . . I'm still waiting for the expanded variety of seafood to start showing up for the holiday among the fish mongers . . . . Stephen Starr stopped by Hershel's and proclaimed the corned beef sandwich the best he's ever had. He instructed five of his chefs to stop there to learn how to make a proper sandwich. (If they add it to the menu at Jones, it might hurt Kibbitz across the street.) . . . . Hershel's expects to start carrying Gus's pickles and kraut this week or next . . . . Amy's is open at the new location, and nearly half a dozen stalls have replaced it and other relocated vendor to form a holiday market selling gift item through the holidays. They include
The Clay Place (pottery), Desert Designs (Egyptian imports), Contessa's French Linens, Jootz (glass giftware and pet beds), Nimba Traders (decor items from Indonesia and Thailand), and Siberia Creations (birch bark boxes, etc.) . . . . Charles Giunta of Giunta's Prime Shop is complaining that he's having difficulty selling veal because not enough people are willing to pay the price he needs to carry it . . . . DiNic's probably will extend its hours to 6 p.m. weekdays this week . . . . Hendricks Farm and Griggstown Quail Farm didn't make it to Headhouse Square this week, but you can find their cheese and pot pies, respectively, at the Fair Food Farmstand, which is open every day but Monday at the RTM . . . .