Friday, May 30, 2008

Rick's Trial Begins Monday
Summary Judgments, Pre-trial Orders Back Market On All Major Issues

The Whiz might be flying when the dispute between Rick's Steaks and the Reading Terminal Market finally goes to trial Monday, but as far as the legal issues are concerned, it's all over but the shouting, of which there may be a lot.

A review of the report of docket entries on the Court of Common Pleas web site (you can read them here and here) leads one to the conclusion that the Reading Terminal Market has won on each major point of contention through a series of summary judgments and rulings on pre-trial motions from Judge Mark I. Bernstein.

Last summer, each side sued the other in this mess: Rick's Steaks proprietor Rick Olivieri sued the market alleging various misdeeds relating to the non-renewal of his lease; the RTM went to court seeking an order forcing his eviction.

Back in February Judge Mark I. Bernstein dismissed all save one of Rick Olivieri's original complaints against the market, its board chair Ricardo Dunston, and its general manager Paul Steinke.

Earlier this month, Judge Bernstein entered a partial summary judgment into the record on the RTM's eviction suit, finding in favor of the market on three counts: ejectment, breach of contract, and trespass. The judge also dismissed five counterclaims filed by Olivieri, including one charging conspiracy.

In February Judge Bernstein said Olivieri's attorneys can try to make the case that the RTM owes him any money he spent on renovation in anticipation of his lease being renewed, according to earlier press reports. However, the judge concluded the cheese steak scion could not seek punitive damages.

Bernstein ruled Rick's Steaks failed to offer any evidence of wrong-doing by the market, including claims of breach of oral contract, fraud, and failure to negotiate in good faith. He also dismissed Olivieri's complaints against Tony Luke, the market's prospective tenant to take over the prime space on the 12th Street side of the market, the main drag used by convention goers between their hotel rooms and the convention center.

Of course, after the trial is over and the judge issues his final decisions, Olivieri might be able to extend his tenancy until any appeal process is concluded.

No matter your views on the righteousness of Rick's cause, or the market's, things look bleak for Olivieri.

It's hard to imagine it is mere coincidence that a rumor just reached the surface in the last couple of weeks, a rumor that's been fed to reporters as well as merchants: Tony Luke's wasn't going to operate at Rick's, but someone else would under his name. In other words, it would in essence be a franchise, even if it wasn't called that.

Why is that rumor a big deal? Because if true it would be a clear violation of the intent of the market's "operating policy guidelines". The relevant portion of the guidelines reads:
Leases shall require the owners to be actively involved in the management and operation of their businesses within the Market.
I put the question directly to RTM General Manager Steinke this week, and he stated flatly: "We do not lease to franchises."

Yet before talks ended when Olivieri filed his suit late last July, the RTM had never held discussions directly with Tony Luke Jr., but with parties the market believed represented him, according to Steinke. "We always felt we were dealing with him." That may be the case, but Steinke's response has as much fudge in it as the display cases at Mueller's Chocolates and Pennsylvania General Store.

Steinke said "All discussions were shut down before they got very far by Luke himself. I know he had interest in becoming a tenant here, but once the lawsuit was filed those discussions were terminated and, by his own decree, won't restart until the legal issues are resolved. We haven't had any discussions with Tony Luke's since last July." Any rumor, he said, "is speculation at best."

So, why did the TL franchise rumor appear just a week or so before the trial? It's mere speculation at best on my part, but Olivieri's only hope is for politics to save his bacon . . . I mean, cheese steak.

Where do the merchants stand on all of this? I've yet to find a merchant who supports the market's decision to oust Olivieri, but every one I've spoken with thinks it should never have reached the litigation stage. At least a couple are puzzled why Olivieri continues to spend big bucks fighting a losing battle (he's complained to many, including me, about his legal bills).

All the merchants I've spoken with support the general direction and management of the market under its current leadership (board and manager), even though they remain critical of Rick's ouster. What confidence the merchants do have in market management would be undermined should it try to bring in a franchise or any business that smells of franchise, even if it isn't a franchise in legal form.

Unless there's a weekend surprise settlement (never an impossibility as a trial date nears), it's come down to Crushing Your Enemies on both sides come Monday's court date.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

RTM Butcher Closing

Dutch Country Meats is throwing in the towel at the Reading Terminal Market. A combination of poor volume, management issues and personal concerns has caused proprietor Jake Fisher to shut down his operation after this Saturday. Jake took over the business from prior owners about a year ago.

Jake has tried to make a go of it, bringing in German wurstgescheft specialties from Rieker's of Oxford Avenue (including the snapper soup which won him a market-wide competition this winter, hence the photo with Paul Steinke, RTM gemeral manager). He also had featured selected baked goods from Haegele's Bakery of Mayfair/Tacony until another RTM purveyor complained. So, for the time being at least, to obtain those goodies you'll have to make the trip to one of the Northeast's great neighborhoods.

It's too early to figure out who will replace Dutch Country Meats or how long the space will be vacant. Although Steinke will make another effort to lure Rieker's to open under their own name, they've shunned the opportunity in the past. He doesn't have unrealistic expectations that they will jump at the chance now.

Another possibility is that the market just can't support another butcher. With Harry Ochs, Martin's, Giunta's and L. Halteman all doing well, there simply may not have been enough business to go around.

The space Fisher is vacating has been problematic at least since the rehabilitation of the RTM in the mid-1980s as part of the convention center project. It was briefly occupied by Moyer's Pork Products following the reconstruction until Bob Moyers and his family decided to concentrate on their processing, catering and retail business in their home village of Blooming Glen. (I miss those deeply-flavored, home-smoked, no-water added hams; a road trip is in order, especially since Bob now has a BBQ tent in front of the store!) After Moyers departed Charles Giunta held down the stall selling pigmeat for a while before trying the wholesale business as a sales rep; he's been doing much better since he reentered retailing with his wide range of meats across from Iovine Brothers' Produce. Jake's predecessor owner of Dutch Country Meats also gave up the ghost after a few years concentrating on pork products; they added German-style cold cuts after Siegfried's closed in the space that is now the Little Thai Market.

Fair Food Expanding

The Fair Food Farmstand, which sells much of the same produce from the same farms as many of the farmers' markets around town, is bursting at the seams. They'll be expanding their retail space by building out to the next column in the Arch Street side seating area. They've already increased their cold storage ability, including a new walk-in refrigerator with 50 percent more capacity to hold goods before bringing them out to the retail floor.

Best gets closer

One large stall that should be filled sometime this summer (one hopes) is the former Margerum's / Natural Connection. Jonathan's Best has placed signs on the space saying they'll be coming soon. Translation: they'll sign a lease and begin refurbishing the space as soon as their financing comes through. The upscale grocer has been in business in Chestnut Hill for a couple of decades.

Amish Leases

The market has concluded all lease renewal negotiations except with the Amish merchants. Steinke said the market is committed to allowing them to maintain their current market hours and product lines. At least a couple of the Amish merchants still don't like the idea that other merchants can be open on Sunday, even though they are not required to do so. The Amish vendors are there Wednesday-Saturday, closing at 3 p.m. Wednesdays and 5 p.m. on the other days. Steinke said Sundays have not been a stumbling block. The Amish merchants, he acknowledged, are one of the market's special attractions, "so we're trying to preserve the status quo". Steinke won't get into details on the remaining issues, but believes the leases will be concluded soon. Because of the special issues involved with the Amish vendors Steinke said he left negotiations with that group for last.

Pennsylvania Dutch Festival

The Pennsylvania Dutch Festival is scheduled for August 7-9. Last year the Amish merchants shut it down over the Rick's Steaks brouhaha. It's doubtful market management would have scheduled the event if they thought the Amish would repeat their boycott.

The Ice Cream Festival is scheduled for Saturday, July 12.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Memorial Day Weekend Marketing

With the holiday weekend, traffic seemed just a little slow at both the RTM and Headhouse Square: not dead, mind you, just a tad less frenetic.

Which doesn't mean there weren't wonderful foodstuffs to acquire at either one.

Blooming Glen has been back at Headhouse for the past couple weeks, displacing Weaver's Way as the anchor produce vendor at the Lombard Street end of the shambles. They featured a humongus crop of French breakfast radishes. A more peppery, larger elongated French radish could be had at Weaver's Way. Talula's Table also returned this Sunday after a brief hiatus. Another vendor which missed the opening few weeks but is now a regular is Buoni Amici of Hammonton, selling greens, spinach, veggies, berries, beets and other produce. A.T. Buzby's strawberries were selling for $5 a quart. Culton Organics has been featuring baby artichokes recently; I didn't check the price this week, but the week before they were two for $4. Il Professore, a Roman food maven acquaintance, undoubtedly purchased a few.

My purchases at Headhouse this past Sunday included some wonderful looking frozen pork steaks from Natural Meadows Farm. They only raise Tamworth hogs, a heritage breed. Although comparatively lean compared to other heritage breeds, it's still considerably better marbled than today's factory pigs. The steaks I purchased looked suitably, but not too, fatty. We'll let you know when they get et.

Over at the Reading Terminal Market, the Fair Food Farmstand alone offered berries at three different prices depending upon provenance. The conventional berries, from a Delaware grower, sold for $3.50/pint or $6/quart. "Chemical free" berries from Rineer Family Farm were $4.50/pint. Organic berries from another grower were $5/pint. Fair Food also continued to sell snow peas at $4.50/pint.

Local strawberries were also in evidence at Iovine Brothers Produce for $2.50/pint and Kauffman's Lancaster County Produce for $3.50 a half pint or $4.95/pint. L. Halteman also featured local berries ($3.99/pint) and scallions $1.29 bunch).

My Memorial Day weekend grilling consisted of chicken in a coriander-cumin rub (Friday), partaking in a block party Saturday (we supplied cupcakes), hambugers Sunday (ground to order by Harry Ochs, 1.25 pounds chuck + six ounces filet mignon), and hot dogs Monday (the five-to-a-pound "Syd's" kosher style beef dogs from Best Provision, Newark, only available by making a trip to the plant).

We met friends for brunch at the RTM Sunday morning, but by the time we arrived at 10:30 a.m., Hershel's East Side Deli had sold out of all varities of bagels save one, the "everything" bagel. My hand-sliced belly lox was yummy on the salty bagel.

If you like Cracker Jacks, you'll love the Keystone Krunch sold at the Pennsylvania General Store. It's not inexpensive ($9.99 for a large bag which has about six normal servings, though the nutritional info label says the bag holds four servings), but it's far superior, even if you don't get a prize. The caramel covered confection includes not just popcorn, but almonds and, true to Pennsylvania style, pretzels. Great when watching the Phillies crush the opposition, as they did the last two days as I was enjoying Keystone Krunch. (Pennsylvania General Store created the blend and originally made it, but they've farmed the manufacturing out to Asher's.)

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Clark Park Offers Choice Choices

With more than half a dozen vendors selling fresh produce this early in the season, Clark Park Market in University City/West Philadelphia offers plenty of choice. I stopped by at opening at this year-round farmers' market sponsored by The Food Trust for the first time and was impressed by the quality. Flower vendors and bakers supplemented the produce stalls, and expect more farmers to sell their goods as the season progresses.

Two vendors today offered strawberries though one, Landisdale Farm (Jonestown, Lebanon County, photo at right), was basically sold out by the official 10 a.m opening (get there early). Both Landisdale's and Fahnestock Fruit Farm's berries were fairly tasty and sweet for early season berries, priced at $3.50 and $4.25 a pint, respectively; the berries from Fahnestock (Lititz, Lancaster County) were bigger (ideal for topping a shortcake), but both were tasty.

As demonstrated in the photo immediately below, most of Fahnestock's stock today, however, was devoted to tunnel tomatoes, $2.50/pound iirc. Landisdale's tables groaned under a wider variety of spring vegetables.

Other produce vendors at Clark Park today: Pennypack Farm of Horsham, with vegetables and greens; University City High School, with spring root veggies, herbs and flowers (photo below); Margerum's with spring veggies, herbs (fresh and dried), and dried beans and fruits, among other products; Keystone Farm, from way up north in Rome, Bradford County, selling not only veggies, but eggs, beef, pork and lamb, and cheese from the nearby LeRaysville plant; and Eden Garden of Dillsbury, York County, selling greens.

Other vendors included two flower stalls (Triple Tree Flowers, Lancaster, and Heinsohn's Greenhouse, Bangor, Northampton County) and two bakers, Slow Rise of Lancaster and Forest View Bakery of Lancaster. Slow Rise offers artisan breads while Forest View sells traditional Pennsylvania Dutch pies, cookies and other sweets.

If you live in Center City, Clark Park is an easy subway (Routes 13 or 34) or bus (Route 42) ride.

Local Snow Peas At Fair Food

I was a little surprised to see snow peas, which seemed at least a couple weeks early at the Fair food Farmstand at the RTM this morning. They looked great, priced at $4.50/pint, and hail from Green Meadow Farm in Gap, Lancaster County.

Both Fair Food and Kauffman's Lancaster County Produce are selling local berries, priced at $5, give or take a nickel, per pint. Although they were picked an overnight truck ride away, the South Carolina berries at Iovine Brothers Produce represent good value at $1.99 pint and looked tasty; they're the best bet if you need to induce berry intoxication in a big crowd. Iovine's also scored some less expensive avocados, for $1 apiece, and good looking string beans at 99-cents/pound.

Kauffman's scallions, berries and asparagus

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

'Dinner: Impossible' visits RTM

Cleveland Chef Michael Symons, tagged by a crew including three cameras and assorted production folks, visited the Reading Terminal Market this morning for an installment of Food TV's "Dinner: Impossible." Symons, an Iron Chef America champ, succeeds as program' protagonist prevaricator Robert Irvine.

The goal in this episode: cook a meal for residents of a seniors' residence. They were having a bit of a meat problem, however. After they bought enough pork loin to feed 250, producer Marc Summers learned that pork is the residents' least favorite meat. Oh, well. Can't bust the budget over a little detail like that.

Jim Iovine reports the crew purchased more than $500 worth of food from him, including half a dozen or so boxes of exotic mushrooms.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Ripe and Ready
Strawberries Hit Headhouse

It's only 35 miles from Woodstown, in South Jersey's Salem County, to Center City Philadephia. I'm sure glad A.T. Buzby Farm made the trip to Headhouse Square this morning, especially with the load of red, ripe, sweet and flavorful early strawberries they brought along.

Although we're likely to see even more intensively flavored berries in a couple weeks, these beauties hardly lacked in strawberry-ness. I tasted a couple right after I got home with my haul, but about half the quart has been sliced and now macerating for my breakfast yogurt (maybe with some squished, ripe banana added as well). The remainder will top ice cream for dessert tonight. They were priced at $5 a quart.

At Headhouse, no merchant can sell before the market manager rings the bell, literally. So I stood next to the French radishes at Weaver's Way's stand, blocking all other potential buyers starting at three minutes to 10:00 a.m. (Last week they were gone in a flash). I got mine, as well as a bunch of pristine dandelion greens. Over at Culton Organics I picked up a couple of leeks for $6 (I forget the pound price), which will be grilled to accompany Country Time Pork's chops purchased yesterday at the RTM's Fair Food Stand.

Talula's Table brought along paté this week as well as all those sausages. The summer sausage I bought last week was spot on. No doubt abut it, Talula's is better than the summer sausages I've bought from Miesfield Meat of Sheboygan or Usinger's of Milwaukee, but it's not three times better than a quality commercial version. (Talula charges more than $20/pound vs. the $7.50 you'd pay for a good Wisconsin summer sausage from Miesfield of Sheboygan or Usinger or Milwaukee, and that price includes the shipping). And it's not that Talula's overcharges based on its raw material and production costs; it's just that the larger firms specialize and take advantage of economies of scale Talula's hand-crafted method can't match. So, if you want a six-ounce stick of summer sausage, splurge on Talula's. But if you plan on making sandwiches for a gang, order from one of the Wisconsin butchers.

Pretty much the same lineup of vendors as last week: I counted 26 when I left the market at 10:30 a.m. The only additional vendor this week was a restaurant stall: Sylvie's Crepes, right across the way from La Taquitos de la Pueblos.

Cucumber and Onions, Anyone?

Cukes and onions make a great salad to accompany cold cut sandwiches, grilled meats and lots of other dishes. Both were on sale at Iovine Brother's Produce yesterday. The Vidalia onions were a cheap 50-cents a pound, while decent regular cucumbers (though with a heavy wax coat) were selling four for a buck. Also down in price this week, after many months in the stratosphere: limes, now five for a buck. Juice oranges were 25 cents apiece, and pints of South Carolina strawberries $1. Jim Iovine was also touting the California peaches and aprocits at $1.99/pound.

Over at John Yi's, the price of soft shell crabs went up to $6 apiece this week (two for $10); the softshells were $5.50 each at Golden.

This week's rains must have killed off the lilacs: Earl Livengood didn't have them this week. He did have some great looking lettuces (I picked up a head of romaine) and asparagus. I bought some of his very fresh eggs, mixed them up with gruyere, parmesan and romano cheeses, heavy cream and made a crustless quiche (inspired by Mark Bittman's Times' column last Wedneday) for dinner last night; I tweaked the dish with some lightly steamed chopped asparagus and gently fried dices of pancetta. Served with Earl's lettuce (and one of his greenhouse tomatoes, some Iovine cuke) and a baguette, it made a great dinner, especially accompanied with a crisp Riesling.

Like artichokes? O.K. Lee had gargantuan specimens for $1.69 apiece.

Local strawberries made their debut at the Fair Food Farmstand, which featured Rineers' crop, which you can also find at some of the area's farmers' markets. The stand also had a sale on some frozen meat products from a variety of vendors: it was priced for sale -- 50 percent off -- because of some packaging issues: won't hold up to long-term freezing, so thaw it now and enjoy.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Four Vendors Open Fairmount Market Season

Let them eat bread!

Each year, on the Saturday nearest Bastille Day, rowdy Fairmount residents gather in the street in front of Eastern State Penteniary's gate, demanding that Marie Antoinette be put to the guillotine. But before she is sliced and diced, Marie (played by London Grill co-owner Terry McNally) advises the rabble to eat cake, then promptly attacks them from the parapet by tossing Twinkies.

René Mondon would rather they eat bread.

The Collingswood baker is one of four merchants who opened the farmers' market at Fairmount and 22nd Street Thursday afternoon, directly across 22nd street from the historic prison. Mondon offers a selection of breads and pastries. Although I love the baguettes from Metropolitan and Le Bus, Mondon's are truer to the bread brought home every day in France: it's a tad denser and chewier, not as light an airy as the boutique breads. Which means it's bread for eating, not for display, and very versatile, since it's as good to eat for a sandwich or grilled over charcoal with garlic as it is to slather with sweet butter and jam. The bear claws, apple turnovers and danish pastries are fine, but what I really enjoy are the parmentiers, vaguely pretzel-shaped, light, sugary pastries that are an excellent accompaniment to Gallic coffee.

Mondon formerly based his wholesale bakery in Pennsauken, but has moved 100 percent of his operation to retail, with a store on Haddon Avenue in Collingswood and an expanded presence at farmers markets. He started going to the markets last fall, dabbling his toes at Headhouse Square with great success, along with the Collingswood farmers' market. This year he's at New Hope twice a week, Fairmount, 25th and Spruce, Headhouse and Haddonfield. Mondon explained that his wholesale business suffered after 9/11 because he supplied airlines flying out of PHL, and the prices demanded by hotels have simply become unprofitable for him. So, the Loire Valley native has placed his bet on retail.

Returning to Fairmount are Earl Livengood and Sam Stoltzfus. Manning Livengood's this week was son Dwain, offering rhubarb, potatoes, spinach and a few other goodies (but none of the morels which graced Livengood's Reading Terminal Market stand the past two Saturdays, courtesy of forager Sam Consylman). Dwain also sells beef from his own small herd. Stoltzfus offers a similar range of produce in season, with the addition of Pennylvania Dutch baked goods. I'm not fond of that style of pies and cakes, but if you enjoy them and live in Fairmount, Sam's got them.

Another new vendor at Fairmount is Bill Weller, who stands in this photo among a colorful raft of hanging baskets, potted plants, seedlings. We won't see Bill's main crops until late spring, since he specializes in stone fruits (cherries, apricots, peaches, etc.), pome fruits (pears, apples), and berries. But it's obvious he also has a green thumb for some very hardly looking plants for the patio or porch. The hanging baskets sell very well back in Bloomsburg, where his farm is located, Bill says. The larger baskets might be a tough sell here, though not because they aren't beautiful and fairly priced. Most shoppers at Fairmount arrive on food, and the hanging baskets aren't easy to haul home when you're also carrying a bag or two of veggies.
Aviator Park Market Opens

The sign says it all: first berries of the season. Highland Orchards Farm proudly displayed these gargantuan strawberries at the first day of the Aviator Park market, not just of the season, but ever.

The Food Trust established the new market at the urging of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association. The market, located on 20th street across from the Franklin Institute and Moore College, runs Wednesdays from 3 to 7 p.m.

Highland Orchard offered a much larger variety of fresh produce than anyone has a right to expect the first week of May. That's due to the Wilmington farm's use of greenhouses, though the berries, rhubarb, asparagus, and some of the broccoli were harvested from plants in the ground. Highland Orchard's Ruth Linton said some of the produce from the greenhouse (like the various legumes and Persian cucumbers) are grown in hanging baskets, while other crops (fennel, beets) are in planting boxes.

Among the other produce items on sale Wednesday: English peas (both in the pod and shelled), fava beans, salad greens, cabbages, baby bok choys, carrots, potatoes, leeks, scallions, onions, flowering chives, parsley and other herbs. Linton also sells mushrooms, meat, chicken and cheese from other area producers, and baked goods from her mom.

Highland also appears at a few other area markets, including Fitler Square.

The only other vendor at Aviator Park this week was Betty's Tasty Buttons. Fudge isn't exactly produce, but She Who Must Be Obeyed says it's one of the basic food groups, just like pizza and beer.

From Highland I bought the strawberries and a bag of Ruth's mother's donuts.

The donuts were in the soft-cake style (alas, not fried in lard, which gives a great crispy finish), with plenty of apple flavor and even a few bits of apple, presumably from chunky apple sauce. Just a light touch of cinnamon in the exterior sprinkling of sugar.

The berries were big and fire-engine red (if any fire engines were still painted red these days). Although the early season berries lacked the intensity we'll see in a few weeks, they were fresh-tasting and, the next morning, considerably brightened my bowl of puffed wheat. They were even better dipped in Betty's fudge sauce.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Headhouse Square Opens Season With 25 Vendors

The Food Trust began its 2008 farmers' market season with a bang: 25 vendors showed up for opening day at Headhouse Square Sunday. Considering how early it is in the growing season, that's a phenomenal turnout.

Among the returnees, whose wares are featured in photos at the right: Queens Farm, with their mushrooms and Asian greens, and Versailles Bakery, featuring breads and pastries.

Other vendors appearing today were: Hurley Nursery, plants; Los Taquitos de Pueblo, restaurant; Yoder Heirlooms, produce; Weaver's Way, produce; Joe Coffee Bar; Natural Meadows Farms, eggs, meats; S&S Kitchens, baked goods, preserves; Busy Bee Farms, honey, soap; Happy Cat Organics, produce; Young's Garden, flowers; Griggstown Quail Farm, poultry and pot pies; Patches of Star Farm, goat dairy, meat; Hillacres Farm, cheese; Mountain View Poultry Farm, eggs, poultry; Culton Organics, produce; A.T. Buzby Farm, produce; Talula's Table, charcuterie; Demarah, body care products and fragrances; Spring Hill Farms, maple syrup; Betty's Tasty Buttons, chocolate; Longview Flowers; Birchrun Hills Farm, cheese; Wildflour Bakery.

Versailles Bakery, which last year just sold at Headhouse and the Haddonfield NJ Farmers' Market, is adding other local markets this season, starting Thursday at Fairmount & 22nd. Versailles will also sell at Schuykill River Park (Spruce & 25th) and New Hope. They retail at the bakery, 1026 Haddon Ave., Collingswood NJ.

Versailles won't be the only new vendor at the Fairmount market, according to The Food Trust's Jon Glyn. Amish produce seller Sam Stolfus is scheduled to return. New vendor Bill Weller's Orchard Hills Farm of Bloomsburg will start out selling budding plants and hanging baskets, but is expected to expand offerings as the season progressses, starting soon with strawberries and asparagus, then leading up late-summer stone fruits and other goodies.

Bryan Sikora of Talula's Table (that's Bryan on the far left) said he'll be bringing a couple of patés in the future, along with his wide ranging sausage selection. I tasted the lamb curry with golden raisins, dry juniper and summer sausages. The lamb had nice but manageable heat along with the sweet notes, the juniper was pleasantly smokey, and the summer sausage (which I bought) cries out for some Spotted Cow Ale from Wisconsin, home of many fine summer sausages.

One of last year's farm vendors who didn't make it back is Old Earth Farm. I've been told they've shuttered their operations.

At least for much of the first hour, crowds were manageable, not at all like a peak summer weekend. I left before the 11 a.m. speechifying began, but a band was playing from the small plaza leading into New Market opposite the Shambles.

Youngs Flowers, no longer at the Reading Terminal Market, also sells at Rice's Market in New Hope this year. That's a long haul for Russell and Pamela Young (pictured at left) from their greenhouse operations deep in South Jersey's Salem County.

Weaver's Way held the entry corner spot opposite the Young's. Their fine selection of radishes, pictured below, disappeared quickly. The photo was taken shortly before the market's 10 a.m. opening bell; the radishes were gone by 10:30.

Lilac Time at Livengood's

A couple of bushes worth of French and common lilacs brought a delightful fragrance to center court at the RTM yesterday, tended by Joyce Livengood (right). She was selling the French lilacs for $12 a bunch, the common lilacs for $9.50 (two for $18). Livengood's might have them available again next Saturday.

Also on sale at Livengood's this week was Earl's deep green spinach, $3.95 bag. Plenty of Sam Consylman's morels this past Saturday, too. Livengood's begins the farmers' market season this week, putting in appearances at South & Passyunk (Tuesday, 3-7 p.m.) and Fairmount & 22nd (Thursday, 3-7 p.m.)

Another specialty of Sam Consylman is poke (photo left; click on any image to see a larger version), whose roots he gathers in the fall then stores in a root cellar until they develop new shoots in late winter and spring. Sam says the young shoots make mighty fine eating. This winter his production was disappointing, but spring seems to have put them back into gear. Plenty were for sale at Livengood's stand Saturday at $3.25 a bunch.

This coming week's predicted warm weather might lead to strawberries next week from some of the region's farmers. They'd go great in a pie with the rhubarb for sale at Livengood's (pictured at right), Fair Food, Kaufman's Lancaster County Produce and other produce vendors.

Both O.K. Lee and Iovine Brothers Produce offered one-pound bags of key limes yesterday. You could save a buck by buying them at OKL, $1.99 vs. $2,99.

The ramps at Iovine's are considerably less expensive than those at Fair Food Farmstand, but at least judging from what was on the shelves Saturday the quality was a bit better at FFF. Prices were $3.99/bunch at Iovine's, with a bunch weighing in at about four ounces for $16/pound, vs. $27/pound at FFF. Fair Food Farmstand co-manager Sarah Cain proudly displays her bounty in photo at left.

The market begins a week-long ad campaign on KYW Newsradio Monday. The 30-second spots feature Mike Holahan, president of the Reading Terminal Market Merchants' Association and owner, with wife Julie, of the Pennsylvania General Store.

So far 40 merchants have agreed to stay open until 7 p.m. on June 30 and July 1 and 2. No, not because the Independence Day celebrations. It's because 8,000 souls will be attending "New Awakening 2008", a meeting of JAMA, a prayer and spiritual awakening movement arising out of the Korean-American community. Another 8,000 conventioneers can be expected to munch their way through the market May 14-18 when the Oncology Nurses Association meets.

Visitors to the RTM are running six percent ahead of last year. The running total for 2008 has topped 1,876,000, vs. 1,770,000 for the same period of 2007.

The "tenant obtained" signs are up in the vacant space formerly occupied by Natural Connections and, before that, Margerums. As previously noted, it will be occupied by upscale grocer Jonathan Best, expanding to the RTM from its Chestnut Hill shop.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Reprise on Morels!

April showers bring May flowers. And May morels.

Sam Consylman called last night to say the heavy rains earlier this week in Lancaster County caused an explosion of morels. Indeed, Sam quipped that he "ate $10,000 worth" over the last few days. At $85/pound, that's a lot of mushrooms (more than 117 pounds' worth). Okay, so maybe Sam was indulging in a bit of hyperbole, at least in terms of his personal mushroom consumption. But I have no doubt of his account of the dramatic increase in morel availability.

Sam said most of what he's picking now are white morels, morella deliciosa (the scientific name says it all), which is the immature version of the yellow morel, morella esculenta. Expect to find them at Earl Livengood's center court stall at the Reading Terminal Market Saturday. You can find my recipe for morel cream sauce at the end of this post.

The Fair Food Farmstand does lots of good works, but it loses a gazillion points for murdering the English language when it insists on calling fiddlehead ferns "wildcrafted," just as it labeled dandelions last week. What's wrong with "wild-harvested" or "foraged" or "gathered"? Does everything have to be made? Can't we just have a eureka moment and "find" things? I want to know what, precisely Vollmecke Orchards (the Coatesville CSA which sold the ferns to Fair Food) did to "craft" these lovely spring veggies?

In any event, you can obtain some nice, freshly harvested fiddleheads there. (At least you could Thursday afternoon. Last week the stand sold out its 10-pound allotment in a few hours.) If Fair Food sells out, walk over to Iovine Brothers. Jim Iovine expected to have them on hand this week, although they will be pricey. Fair Foods was selling them for $17/pound. Jim Iovine hadn't received his when we spoke yesterday, so he couldn't quote a firm price, but figured Fair Food's price isn't far off the mark. I serve them steamed or, after parboiling, sautéed, usually with garlic, though combining them with ramps can't be a bad thing. Just go easy on the ramps so as not to overpower the fiddleheads. To prep the fiddleheads, just remove any papery feathers you might find by rubbing them off and rinse.

Iovine also expected more deliveries of ramps for this weekend, which have been selling for $3.99 a bunch. That's enough to sauté in bacon fat for home fries with a couple of medium-sized potatoes, though two bunches would be better. Be sure to use the leaves as well as the bulbs.

Headhouse Opens

Reminder: The farmers' market at Head House Square opens for the season this Sunday. Hours are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Morels In Cream Sauce

Serve this over your favorite pasta (I think it works better with vermicelli or linguine rather than thicker ones such as penne). It also works over toast points. A good, crispy Riesling pairs wonderfully with a cream sauce. I enjoyed a Hermann Wiemer 2007 Dry Riesling (Finger Lakes) with this sauce over vermicelli. It's not a cheap dish to make, since the morels for a single serving will set you back $10 or more per person. You can trim the costs by cutting back on morels and adding other mushrooms, fresh or dried. If dried, use the strained reconstituting liquid to provide a flavor boost. (You might be tempted to add some grated cheese to the cream sauce as it finishes; I restrained myself because I think it interferes with the morels' flavor. A little bit of thyme, salt and pepper are all the sauce needs.)

To produce enough for one serving (the recipe scales up easily), I halved three or four ounces of Sam's morels lengthwise and let them sit in some well-salted cold water for a couple of hours, then removed to paper towels to let them air dry a bit. (The soaking helps rid the morels of any tiny litter critters that might linger, though I've yet to see any in Sam's harvest.) Start cooking by sweating a minced shallot in butter over medium-low head, then adding the morels to sauté over a medium-high heat. After four of five minutes, when the morels are just starting to brown, remove them (morels tend to discolor cream when cooked together). To the pan add about four or five ounces of heavy cream with some thyme and reduce over medium-low heat by half, adding salt and pepper to taste toward the end. Return the morels to the pan to reheat, then add drained pasta to the pan and toss, or serve over toast points.