Thursday, June 26, 2008

Trickle to rivulet to torrent

The trickle of summer fruits I wrote about before the summer solstice is turning into a rivulet. Soon we'll have a raging torrent.

Over at the Fairmount & 22nd Market today, Sam Stoltzfus offered black raspberries at $3.95/pint; Earl Livengood had his organic raspberries for a little bit more. Bill Weller was selling what may be the season's last strawberries, $4.50/quart, along with blueberries and dark, sweet cherries, the best I've had so far this season: big, plump with juice, flavor and sweetness. Livengood also had the first Lancaster County corn I've seen this season (not his own but from another Lancaster County farmer). The fourth vendor at Fairmount today was Versailles Bakery.

At last Sunday's Headhouse Square market, Culton Organics featured haricots vert, pricey at $7 but delectable looking. Sweet cherries at Beechwood Orchards were $6.50/quart or $3.75/pint, with blueberries at $4.50/$2.75 and strawberries $3.50/quart. Margerum's was selling blues for $3.50/pint, Buoni Amici for $3, with cherries priced at $5/quart or $3/pint. Every vendor's lettuces and greens looked inviting.

Over at the Reading Terminal Market, Benuel Kauffman's Lancaster County Produce offered sweet cherries (and a few sour pie cherries, too) at $3.95/pint. We should start to see more pie cherries this weekend; the pie cherry season is short, usually no more than two or three weeks. Ben also has red and yellow pear tomatoes ($3.95/pint) and sun golds ($4.95).

Those bargain limes at Iovine Brothers, which had been 10/$1, were 5/$1 last time I checked. Still less pricey than the lemons @3/$1.

The Fair Food Farmstand expects a planoply of fruits and veggies this weekend. Its weekly newsletter said they'll have pie cherries, red and yellow sweet cherries, red currants, gooseberries, red and black raspberries, blueberries, sweet corn, and Brandywine tomatoes among other goodies.

A couple weeks ago I mentioned the wild Alaskan king salmon selling at John Yi's for $22.95/pound. I should have waited a few days. Since early last week it's been $19.95. And for you shrimp 'n grits lovers out there, John Yi has some outrageously sized extra jumbos from the U.S. South Atlantic coast (that means South Carolina or Georgia, folks) for $22.99; they come in at four to six to a pound. Actually, these big shrimp look ideal for the grill. Now that spring is officially over, the price of mackeral surged a bit to $3.99 from $2.45-$2.99. Wild and farm-raised striped bass (the latter are actually a cross of striped bass and white bass) selling for an identicial $5.99 for whole fish; a very similar marine bass, farmed European Branzino, is $8.99.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Hail The Summer Solstice!

As the solstice approaches (this coming Friday, 7:59 p.m.), summer fruits are trickling into the marketplace.

Local cucumbers (yes, it's a fruit, not a vegetable, though we tend to treat it as the latter, just as we do the tomato) could be found at both the RTM (Benuel Kauffman's Lancaster County Produce) and a couple of stands at Headhouse Square (A.T. Buzby, among others). Benuel just had kirby cucumbers (the type that makes the best pickle), while Buzby had both kirby and traditional salad cucumbers. I used the salad cuke yesterday as a garnish to chicken and cold noodles in sesame sauce; the kirby cukes, which were fairly large, have been quartered and, since last night, have been sitting a brine with lots of smashed garlic and coriander seeds, well on their way to becoming kosher pickles. (By this morning they had reached the "new pickle" stage; I figure they'll be halfies by tonight.)

In the realm of fruits that we think of as fruits, Buzby also had the first Jersey blueberries of the season, $3.50 a pint, iirc. Also at Headhouse, Noel Margerum featured pretty good tasting sweet cherries, $3.25/pint; another vendor (sorry, didn't write it down) had a semi-sweet cherry that I tried and thought a bit on the tasteless side.

We're approaching the end of the strawberry season, but fine examples can still be had. The $6 quart I purchased from Culton Organics at Headhouse were particularly good: the best I've had this season, large, but deep red, sweet all the way through and strong in strawberry flavor. Culton also has a huge crop of tunnel-grown apricots; the traditional orchard variety are still a few weeks away.

Over at the RTM, Earl Livengood has got some tasty, freshly dug new potatoes. They were selling for $2.50 a half-pint, $3.20 a pint and $4.50 a quart. The pint weighs in at about three-quarters of a pound, so the effective price is about $4.25 a pound, pricey for potatoes, but when you can get them fresh dug, a luxury worth trying. (Ben Kauffman was selling red new potatoes at $2 a pint.) All the farm vendors at RTM (Livengood, Kauffman and Fair Food Project) and at Headhouse featured peas both in and out of the shell.

Salmon Expensive

To go with those potatoes and peas, I splurged and purchased a wild Alaskan king salmon filet from John Yi at $22.95/pound. It was delicious, especially when gently slow-roasted as recommended by eGullet poster Vadouvan. A classic early summer meal.

Even though the salmon season has been underway about a month in Alaska, prices remain very high. Copper River king just couldn't be had here; in Seattle the going price has been $40 a pound. Copper River sockeye is considerably less pricey, and a delicious fish in its own right, but my fish mongers haven't had it yet, though Whole Foods has it for $21.99, but the end of the Copper River season is upon us; other runs will replace it and the price should go down, we hope. What's keeping the prices elevated is the closing of the California salmon season this spring because stocks are so low. Reduced commercial catches are also foreseen in Oregon and Washington, so Alaska (and British Columbia) are the only wild salmon games around, and prices have rising in response to market conditions. My advice: learn to love bluefish. (Taras Grescoe wrote a recent op-ed article in the New York Times entitled Sardines With Your Bagel? that I highly recommend.)

Quick notes. Birchrun Hills is offering veal as well as cheese. The ground veal was selling for $7 when I last checked two weeks ago. . . . Broccoli is much in evidence at the markets, cauliflower can't be far behind. . . . Didn't check this week, but last week the Hass avocados at Iovine's were selling for $1 each, Vidalia onions 50-cents a pound. . . . Time for limeade. Iovine's featured some juicy limes with heft at 10 for a buck; lemons remain relatively dear at 3/1$. . . . Hardshell crabs $2 each or $19.95/dozen at John Yi.

Musical stalls at RTM

A deal is in the works to fill out what had been Dutch Country Meats. Although negotiations are continuing, there's an agreement in principle for Benuel Kauffman to expand his produce stand across the aisle and take over the walk-in refrigerator that served the butcher, and for the manager of the Dutch Eating Place, Roger Miller, to buy Fisher's Soft Pretzels from Paul Fisher and move it to the remainder of the Dutch Country Meats space. Fisher would then expand his candy and sweets business to the part of the stall now occupied by his pretzel bakery.

A cheese steak operation won't necessarily replace Rick's when he vacates October 31. RTM GM Paul Steinke would like to place a more traditional market purveyor in the space, maybe even an expanded Fair Foods Farmstand. The idea, he said, would be to showcase the market as a venue for purchasing food for home consumption.

Market promotion

The Reading Terminal Market is emulating the city's "no questions asked" campaign to get residents to turn in illegal firearms. Only the market wants your shopping bags.

Steinke abhors seeing his regular market shoppers carrying cloth bags advertising competitive food vendors, such as Whole Foods. So he and the merchants are trying to do something about it. Beginning today, shoppers who turn in cloth bags from the other venues will receive a replacement bag with the RTM logo and $5 in Market Money to be spent with RTM merchants. The "No Questions Asked" promotion is limited to the first 200 customers who bring their bags to the RTM office, located up the stairs across from Tootsie's Salad Express. An ad campaign touting the program starts this week in the Inquirer, Philadelphia Weekly, Citypaper, South Philly Review and Weekly Press.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions!

It's pretty hard not to contain myself this time of year when visiting the Reading Terminal Market or one of the farmers' markets around town. Kind of like the stress-inducing choices She Who Must Be Obeyed and I faced on our honeymoon in St. Martin. Do we sun by the pool? Or maybe the lagoon? Or the ocean front? Decisions, decisions, decisions!

Only this time, it's about produce.

French Breakfast or Cherry Bell radishes? Snow peas or sugar snaps or English peas? Asparagus or Poke? And which of the many pints or quarts of deep red strawberries should I acquire? Decisions, decisions, decisions!

I opted for the breakfast radishes and sugar snaps which will go into a salad along with red onion slices, orange sections and fresh mint from the garden. They will accompany grilled duck breast, followed by a strawberry-banana concoction from "Sorbets!", Philadelphian Jim Tarantino's wonderful little compendium of all things icy but cream-less.

This is probably the last weekend for poke at Livengood's, collected and nurtured by Sam Consylman.

Fair Food's prices are usually a tad dear, but the strawberries are competitive, particularly when considering the quality. All of the vendors at the RTM and farmers' markets have had exceptional berries the last few weeks. A lot of warm, sunny days without too many deluges of rain are the reason.

The weather has been a boon to the stone fruits, according to the farmers I've spoken with. A day or two or awful weather could always ruin the crops, but let's keep our collective fingers crossed. Cherries should start showing up in a couple of weeks.

The first cucumbers are also starting to make an appearance. Benuel Kauffman had tiny Kirby cukes today, though they were not as crisp as I would like for my pickle-making (just a salt brine with some garlic and dill: no vinegar or sugar for me). One of the Headhouse Square vendors (I forget who) expects to have some this Sunday. Ben was the only vendor at the RTM today with local English peas (both shelled and unshelled). Fair Food is particularly proud of the tiny white Hakurei turnips from Gottschell Farms on sale today; I'm not a turnip fan, but these diminutive beauties looked swell, and can be eaten raw, I'm told.

This little piggy . . .

Dwain Livengood has added pork to the frozen meats available at the family's stand (Tuesday afternoons at South & Passyunk, Thursday afternoons at 22nd & Fairmount, all day Saturdays at the RTM). The offerings include no-water added ham steak slices and bacon cured by one of the few remaining family-owned USDA-inspected processors in Lancaster County, Smuckers Quality Meats of Mount Joy. Lancaster Farming had an excellent article on the decline of the small meat processors in April.

Fair Food Newsletter

If you don't subscribe to the Fair Food Farmstand's weekly newsletter, you can always check it out at their website for what's in season. You can now find it online; it's usually posted on Thursdays. Just surf over to this link and bookmark it.

Getting Drunk With Mojo

Does anyone else besides me regard as essential can't miss viewing "Three Sheets" on the HD-only Mojo channel? I mean, Zane Lamprey spent at least half of his recent episode on Denmark extolling the virtues of Akavit!

Crunch Correction

Last week I raved about Keystone Krunch, a Cracker Jack-like conconction from the Pennsylvania General Store. Former Saturday Morning Breakfast Clubber Jan McBaker brought to my attention that it's Crunch with a "C".

Monday, June 02, 2008

Rick's Steaks Exits Market Oct. 31

Rick Olivieri has until Oct. 31 -- Halloween -- to serve cheese steaks at the Reading Terminal Market.

Under the terms of a settlement announced in court before trial was to begin this morning, Olivieri will avoid being on the hook for nearly $700,000 in the RTM's legal fees if he vacates the market peaceably. (Olivieri's own legal fees are understood to be in the six-figure range, also.) The settlement also frees him from nearly $27,000 in rent penalty fees he held back.

The sole issue that would have come to trial if the settlement had not been reached was Olivieri's claim for restitution for improvements to the Rick's Steaks stand in anticipation of his lease being renewed. Under the settlement, Olivieri receives $1,500 for those improvements without any admission of guilt by the market.

Throughout the morning in Judge Mark I. Bernstein's courtroom, Olivieri appeared confident and smiling, with his family by his side and more than a half-dozen fellow merchants seated behind him. In speaking with reporters after the settlement was announced in open court, however, he needed to take several brief breaks to compose himself.

Olivieri said he considered market management's actions toward him "despicable," repeating his charge that he was singled out because he had aggressively represented merchants as president of their association during lease negotiations. RTM spokesman Kevin Feeley denied those charges, saying Olivieri had sought lease terms for his own business that were different than those he negotiated for other merchants.

Olivieri became most emotional when speaking of his five full-time and four part-time employees. "I've got employees who've been with me for 20 years. It's like a family," he said.

The cheese steak scion is looking at potential locations for when he leaves the market, but admits "you'll never find a location like the market. But I've got a good customer base, and people will seek me out." He also will continue his license agreement for the Rick's Steak stall operated by Aramark at Citizens Bank Park, at least through the end of this season.

When asked why RTM agreed to the settlement, Feeley, the market's spokesman, said management "wanted to do this as humanley as possible. The judge was ready to evict him today." He added that as part of the lease, tenants are responsible for legal fees the market faces when tenants sue them over lease and related issues. Of the nearly $700,000 in the market's legal fees, about $250,000 were for the market's suit against Olivieri seeking his eviction, and $445,000 for the market's defense of Olivieri's suit against the market.

Feeley and RTM Board Chairman Ricardo Dunston made a point of stating that the legal fees incurred by the market will have no impact on the rents charged to merchants or market capital improvement programs. Those fees which are not reimbursed by the market's insurers would come from the non-profit corporation's contingency reserves, they said.

As for who will be a new cheese steak vendor at the market (Spataro's in center court also serves cheese steaks), Feeley said that since the market now knows it will have the Rick's Steaks space available after Oct. 31, it can seek a new tenant. He noted that all discussions with Tony Luke's ended when Olivieri filed suit last July, and that Luke had said he would not entertain opening in the RTM until Oliveiri's dispute was resolved.

Dunston and Feeley emphasized that the market's by-laws preclude any leases to franchises.