Friday, October 30, 2009

Beck's Cajun Café opens

Want a muffaletta, or a Po' Boy? You can get them now at the Reading Terminal Market with the opening this past Monday of Beck's Cajun Café.

Alas, no beignets yet. Bill Beck, the proprietor, said he wasn't told when he ordered his mixer that it was on back order, but it is. So we'll have to wait to try this version of sweet fried dough.

She Who Must Be Obeyed and I visited the market today to sample Beck's fare. SWMBO ordered the muffaletta, I opted for the Oyster Po'Boy.

I didn't ask Bill where he got his bread, but the hoagie-style roll for the Po' Boy and the round, sesame seeded muffaletta bread were both excellent. (I can't compare to what you'd get in New Orleans, since I've never been there.) Although I generally like my hoagie rolls with a thin crispy crust, the soft-style long and round rolls were good protein holders.

SWMBO enjoyed the muffaletta, but she prefers the pressed style of this sandwich. Bill explained he modeled his on the version found at Central Grocery in New Orleans, which claims to be the home of this sandwich; Central's versions, and Beck's, is an unpressed sandwich filled with cold fixings. And the fixings are very good, indeed: mortadella, salami, tasso ham and aged provolone with a New Orleans style vinaigrette and adorned with an olive salad. And the sandwich is huge. The $8.95 "half" sandwich easily fills up two hearty eaters. SWMBO didn't eat half of a half; we took the remainder home and will press it on the stove between two cast iron skillets for lunch tomorrow.

Of course, the muffaletta is nothing more than a variant on the hero, sub or hoagie, something you'll find in any Italian-American community. The difference, to my mind, is in the breads and the garnishes. The olive salad on Beck's was superb, a mix of what seemed to be two or three different olives, including one that actually has a reddish cast.

My $7.59 Fried Oyster Po' Boy was a bit less massive, though it easily could feed two lighter eaters. The six large oysters were expertly fried with a breading of panko. They sat atop a hoagie style roll slathered in remoulade and garnished with lettuce and tomato.

If you're a root beer fan, be sure to order a bottle of the Abita root beer. It's a strong, herbal brew that will satisfy your root beer cravings. Just a whiff of it satisfies.

We also added the Cajun fries, which were tasty potato wedges spiked with onions and something to give them heat (maybe Tabasco or Crystal?).

Service at the counter (which seats about a dozen, I'd guess) was personable and fast.
Guacamole Weekend

Super Bowl Sunday is usually the peak day for guacamole. But with the Eagles playing Sunday, and the Phillies in the World Series Saturday, Sunday and Monday, why not dip into some this weekend?

The price of avocados and limes at Iovine Brothers' Produce shouldn't stop you. Large, Chilean Hass avocados were selling for a buck apiece today, and a lime will set you back a dime. Today the avocados were a bit on the firm size and could use a day or two of ripening. But they'd certainly be ready by Sunday.

Charlie, one of the managers for Iovines, says the Chileans have been in the avocado business for a long time, but the California Avocado Board worked to keep them out of the U.S. for the past 10 years. Now they're back, which means competition for both California and Mexico, the world's largest exporter of Hass avocados.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Headhouse Weathers Weather

At least for the hour after it opened, both vendors and customers were a tad scarce at the Headhouse Square Farmers' Market yesterday, each group deterred by the threats of the second successive Nor'Easter. Maybe it picked up after I left shortly before 11, when the weather appeared less threatening.

Although some merchants were among the missing because of the recent rains (Young's Flowers, for example, couldn't pick because of the South Jersey showers), most of the regulars were selling their goods. Tom Culton was back with his brassicas and winter banana apples, Beechwood, North Star and Three Springs showed off the fruits of their respective orchards, Savoie proudly displayed its variety of hard-to-find potatoes, Queen Farm put forth its usual enticing display of oyster mushrooms and specialty Asian vegetables, and tables of both Blooming Glen and Weaver's Way groaned under the burden of radishes, beets, turnips, chards, lettuces and other garden goodies, including some of the season's last tomatoes.

Birch Run's sign reminded me that, addition to intriguing cheeses, they also deal in veal. One cut that got my attention for future cooking was brisket, $9/pound. I've only had it once, at the expansive brunch served at Lacroix in the Rittenhouse Hotel. In that case it was corned (brined) before braising. Basically, it's meatiest part of a breast of veal without the bones.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

No Vacancies at the Market

If you want to start up a stall at the Reading Terminal Market, you'll have to wait for an existing vendor to fail.

With the recent move of the Fair Food Farmstand to the 12th Street side of the market, the opening of S&B Meats and Barb & Suzy's Kitchen, and next week's opening of Beck's Cajun Café all available space has been leased for the first time in a couple of years.

The move of Fair Food expands the available seating in the court closest to Arch Street, and it will remain that way, according to Paul Steinke, the market's general manager.
Jujubes and Kaffir Limes

When I think of Jujubes, I think of the tiny gummy candies from Heide's I would buy during my pre-adolescent years at the Saturday matinees at the Elmora Theater in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where I saw such classics as "X the Unknown" and "The Blob".

Little did I know there was another Jujube, which I found recently at Iovine Brothers' Produce at the Reading Termninal Market (photo top right). Unlike the sweet, sugary little pellets of my childhood, these Jujubes are alleged to have medicinal properties, as well as a more adult taste. They somewhat resemble dates and, indeed, are sometimes called Red Dates or Chinese Dates, though their origin is probably India. They have a wonderful scientific name: Ziziphus zizyphus. For those interested here's the Wikipedia entry.

The kaffir limes (photo at right) are also purportedly medicinal and are primarily used in Southeast Asian and Indonesian cuisines, frequently in a curry paste. They are also available at Iovine's.

With the coming of winter (it sure seems close with our recent weather) Iovine's is bringing in more citrus fruit. This past week Valencia oranges were available in bags at a bargain price of $1.99 for a four-pound bag. Tangerines were six for a buck, and Florida navels were five for $2. Cara Cara oranges were 3 for $1. Limes were a bit less pricey today, 5 for a buck. Lemons were 3/$1, but they were heavy with juice. After a hiatus of a week or so, red and green cactus pears are back in stock.

Figs remain available, at least those from California. A pint box of about a dozen brown figs was selling for $4.99 at Iovines. Chile, which dominates the out-of-season fruit market in Philadelphia, is expanding into avocados to compete with Mexico. Iovines was selling medium sized fruits this week, 2 for $1.49; smaller ones were in a separate bin for a quarter apiece.

For as long as I've been shopping there Iovines has sold tofu, but only the medium firm type they package into plastic containers in water. This week they expanded tofu offerings to include three or four additional firm and super firm versions, including a "tofu cutlet" ready for cooking. You can find them in the refrigerated cases by the Filbert Street checkout.

Unpasteurized cider is back in stock at Kauffman's Lancaster County Produce, available in pints and half-gallons. (In the past Ben Kauffman has also sold it in quarts; maybe he'll have those next week).

Kauffman's always has a nice selection of brassicas each fall, and this year is no exception, as demonstrated by the purple and white cauliflower, romanesco and broccoli in the photo at left.

One of the joys of Lancaster County in the fall is the appearance of local celery. Livingood's had them at the RTM this morning, $2 a bunch. The celery grown in Lancaster County is a tad less stalky and more leafy, but it's crispy freshness (versus the trans-continental California product) and deep green color make it welcome. I'll put some stalks on an old-fashioned relish tray, with a selection of olives, at dinner tonight. (Drat! I forgort to buy some fresh radishes to complete that tray.)

If we're lucky when we get closer to Thanksgiving we might see some white celery, which is the same thing as green celery except that the stalks are buried so they aren't exposed to light; the process is the same that produces white asparagus. This labor-intensive celery makes a wonderful side when braised in butter with a little white wine
Cheese Steaks Part 3: Spataro's

When I first started visiting the Reading Terminal Market more than a quarter century ago, Spataro's was known as the place where you could stop for lunch and pay about as little for a sandwich as humanly possible. Inflation and menu upgrades have changed that, though Spataro's (which has since moved from one part of Center Court to another) still represents good value.

The addition of cheese steaks to Spataro's bill of fare earlier this year is partly responsible for the hike in average menu cost ($7 for a plain steak, iirc). Their version of the cheese steak represents the third and final entry in my RTM survey of this Philadelphia classic.

The best thing about Spataro's is the meat. Although it would take side-by-side comparisons to confirm this (I've spaced my tastings over the past five or six weeks), I thought their meat was the beefiest I've tried so far, when compared to By George and Carmen's. There was also a satisfactory taste of onions in my sandwich though I could have used a bit more. The bread was okay, the typical soft steak roll -- I'd like just a hint of crunch to the crust.

The main failing was the cheese: I couldn't taste it, let alone detect the cheesy, gooey mouth feel I want my cheese steak to convey. As best as I could determine, they used two thin slices of American, though provolone is also offered. Another failing is the unavailability of hot sauce.

Still, it's a fine representation of a cheese steak and you won't be disappointed when you crave this icon of our fair city's culinary heritage.

More About DiNic's Pulled Pork

This morning Joe Nicolosi offered me a taste of some of his pulled pork fresh out of the oven. Gotta say, while this sandwich is excellent eating any time of the day, it's better if you can get it fresh before the fat has a chance to re-congeal. It absolutely melted in the mouth, with textural contrast offered by the crunchy bits. As previously noted, don't confuse this version with what you're likely to find in North Carolina: the seasonings are Italian (with tons of garlic), not barbecue.
Autumn at Headhouse

These Ying Yang dried beans from Culton Organics are just one of the many varieties of fall produce I found at Headhouse Square Farmers' Market last Sunday.

Tom also featured some delicious, though small, chestnuts. They roasted up perfectly (about 10 minutes in a 425 toaster oven; be sure to make a small 'x' on the flat side to avoid popping). Out of the first two dozen chestnuts I roasted, there were only two that were moldy/inedible.

Brussells sprouts have been making their appearance at local markets, too. Tom was selling his for $5 a quart. His white, purple or orange cauliflower and romanesco was $5 for medium-sized heads. Yellow string beans were $5/quart, sweet potatoes $2/pound. Among fruits, Tom had delicious Winter Banana apples as well as Asian pears; they were pricey at $1 apiece.

Pumpkins, as predicted in a previous post, are expensive this year. Blooming Glen's jack-o-lantern pumpkins were $8 apiece. Long Island cheese pumpkins, ideal for baking use, particularly pies, were $6 each; huge Blue Hubbard squashes were similarly priced. Butternut squash was more reasonable $1.25/pound, Delicata $1.50. Blooming Glen still had field tomatoes last Sunday for $3/pound. Potatoes, both all-purpose and small Russetts (baking) were $2/pound.

North Star Orchards' apples were all $2/pound, except the Honey Crisps, $2.50. Magness pears were $2.

Beechwood Orchards apples were $4/quart, $4.5o for Honey Crisps. Pears were $5/quart, chestnusts $6/quart.

Margarums also had potatoes, including $2/pound Russetts.
Farm To City In Winter

We're almost a month past the autumnal equinox, and that means farmers' markets will be shutting down for the season over the next month or so. What to do after that?

Well the Reading Terminal Market and its Fair Food Farmstand and the year-round Clark Park Market come to mind first. But Farm To City, Bob Pierson's organization, offers another option, Philadelphia Winter Harvest.

From November through April more than 500 food items are availble from this service, including organic produce, flavored vinegars and condiments, meat, poultry, eggs, raw and pasteurized milk, cream, yogurt, cheeses honey, maple syrup, canned and dried fruits, vegetables and herbs, breads, coffees and teas.

Under Philadelphia Winter Harvest, you can order once every two weeks for deliveries weekly (don't ask me to figure that out); deliveries are made to Old Pine Community Center where orders are available for pickup.

For more info visit then click on Buying Clubs, Philadelphia Winter Harvest.
I'm baaack

Haven't been able to post for a few weeks because (1) host server had been shut down for a week for upgrading, and (2) the prior week I was enjoying early autumn in the Northern Berkshires where good food, while not impossible to find, seems to be scarce.

But I'm back now and will be posting more soon.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Halibut Update

That halibut I purchased a week ago at John Yi's in the Reading Terminal Market (about one and a third-pound) wound up providing the basis of five servings: three for dinner the first night, them two "leftover" portions of fish hash.

I first encountered fish hash at a so-so short-lived fish restaurant on Mount Desert Island near Acadia National Park. The restaurant, Bulger's, was replaced after a season or two by XYZ, one of my fav Mexican restaurants anywhere I've been in the U.S.

Fish hash is nothing more than leftover fish turned into a potato-onion hash. It's best with a mild, firm white flesh fish like halibut or haddock. Here's my recipe:

Fish Hash

All purpose potato, 1 to 1-1/2 pound
Fish filet (white flesh), 6-8 ounces, cooked and roughy flaked
Onion, one medium
Bell pepper, one medium
Bacon fat
Cayenne pepper to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
  • Prep washed, skin-on potatoes into half-inch cubes. Dice onion to roughly the same size.
  • Melt 2-3 tablespoons bacon fat in 10-12 inch non-stick skillet over medium-high heat.
  • When fat is hot, turn heat to high and add potatoes and cook, undisturbed after initial tossing, for five minutes.
  • Return heat to medium-high, toss potatoes, add caynne, salt and pepper, layer onion and bell peppers on top. Cook for five minutes more undisturbed before tossing again. Continue cooking for about five minutes more, tossing occasionally to brown everything nicely. Add flaked fish, toss some more. When it's heated through, serve.
This makes a great supper dish when served with a good beer. It also makes a great breakfast dish. You could skip the cayenne by using a hotter pepper rather than the bell pepper.
Rittenhouse Plans Expansion

The Rittenhouse Square Farmers' Market, operated by Farm to City, is busting at its seams. The nearly 20 vendors I counted yesterday pretty much filled the north side of the square between 18th and West Rittenhouse.

To accommodate more stalls, Farm to City founder and director Bob Pierson has obtained the city's permission to expand the market along 18th Street, according to one of the vendors.

Although a couple of the stalls yesterday were promotional in nature (Zipcar, Otolith seafood CSA), most were selling the best of autumn's produce, dairy products and baked goods. Among them:
  • Crawford Organics' (photo) filled their three-slot space with beets, celeriac and small, fresh rutabagas at $2.50/pound and small (and overpriced) romanesco at $3 a head, among other items.
  • Hilltop Produce featured unpasteurized cider, $2/quart, $3/half-gallon, $4/gallon. Fahnestock Orchards' apple selection included Honey Crisps, Stayman Winesaps, McIntoshes, Empires, Jonagolds, Mutsus (a.k.a. Crispin), Cortlands and Fujis; all were $1.50/pound, except the Honey Crisps, $2.
  • Rineer Family Farm (which also shows up at South Street and other farmers' markets) still had raspberries ($3.75/half-pint, two for $7), cherry tomatoes ($2.25/half-pint, two for $4), heirloom tomatoes ($3.50/pound), and field tomatoes ($2.99).
  • Hails Family Farm showed up with a nice selection of dairy products, from milk to cheese spreads. They also stocked their all-natural cream cheese (no gums), which was briefly carried by Fair Food at the Reading Terminal Market; alas, the Wyalusing, Pennsylvania, dairy and produce farm no longer makes deliveries there.
  • Le Baguette Bakery had a nice selection of breads and pastries. I took home a $5 stromboli (made from baguette dough, so it was far better than Stouffer's French Bread Pizza) with pepperoni and mozzarella. Reheated at home for five minutes in a 350-oven, it made for a light, crusty lunch for two.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Autumn Events at RTM

Lots of events are on tap at the Reading Terminal Market this fall, starting out next Friday when The Reading Terminals, the market's own jazz combo, celebrates its' 25th anniversary.

The quartet is no ordinary group of part-time musicians. They're available for legal, political and medical consultations. Superior Court Judge Richard Klein bangs the skins. Ed Schwartz, former city councilman, tickles the ivories. Attorney Anthony Call plucks bass. Rounding out the combo is Dr. David Reider, assistant chief medical officer at Jeff, picking guitar. Before his death former City Councilman Thatcher Longstreth added vocals.

The Terminals technically celebrated their 25th back in August, but the market will officially observe their quarter century of jamming Friday, with special guest appearances from other Philadelphia jazz notables.

To learn more about the Reading Terminals, check out Dan Geringer's feature from the Daily News two months ago.

The RTM's annual Harvest Festival will be held for the ninth time on Saturday, Oct. 17. Filbert Street (a.k.a. Harry Ochs Way) will be transformed into an urban farm with bales of hay and corn stalks. The festival features seasonal foods, hay rides, a pumpkin patch, live music, pie eating contests, and more.

Throughout October, you can guess the weight of a giant pumpkin positioned in Center Court. The person who guesses closest without going over wins $100.

Old City Coffee roaster Art Dupras will lead a short conversation about the coffee roasting on Nov. 7 at 2 p.m. He'll showcase Old City's antique cast iron coffee roaster and demonstrate the complete roast cycle of a French roast. It's the free event is limited to eight attendees, so reserve your spot by sending an email to

Rick Nichols' occasional columns in The Inquirer about the region's "forgotten foods" intrigued RTM General Manager Paul Steinke, who decided to stage a festival devoted to these traditional comestibles. It comes to fruition Nov. 14 when the market sponsors an all-day celebration of Pepper Hash, Snapper Soup, Cope’s Corn, Fried Catfish and Waffles, and many more goodies.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Fair Food's Grand Opening

Fans of the Fair Food Farmstand crowded the aisles for today's grand opening of the non-profit group's new venue within the Reading Terminal Market.

The news media was also there, including three local tv stations and Steve Tawa of KYW radio, shown here interviewing Fair Food's executive director and founder Ann Karlen.

Marion Nestle, a professor at New York University and leading activitist for good food and good nutrition (she's the go-to source for reporters covering the subject) was the keynote speaker, as she was earlier this morning at the annual conference of Les Dames de L'Escoffier. In her brief remarks Nestle linked the revitalization of small farms with the health of American democracy, and praised the symbolic importance of Michelle Obama's support of a farmers' market near the White House.

The U.S. Department or Agriculture, which funded a grant to get the renovated Fair Food Farmstand rolling, sent James Barham, an economist with the department's Agricultural Marketing Service. Though agro-industry remains the primary focus of the department, small farmers are getting increased attention. Barham discussed how the department's promotion of "value chain collaboration" is working to develop relationships between food buyers (stores, distributors and institutions) and small-to-medium-sized farms.

Although she didn't speak at the ceremony or sit with the assembled dignataries, a key presence at the event was Judy Wicks, founder of White Dog Cafe and the White Dog Cafe Foundation. It was under the sponsorship of the foundation that Fair Food got its start. Recently Fair Food was spun off as an independent, free-standing non-profit.

Some of the biggest cheers at the event were reserved for the farmers who attended the ceremony.

Mike Holahan, president of the Reading Terminal Market Merchants Association and proprietor of the Pennsylvania General Store, brought a bit of pointed humor to the proceedings in his brief remarks. Mike observed that when market merchants gather to discuss a new vendor, and question why the market needs a particular store, such as a non-profit vendor of local produce, you can be sure of its success.

The local locavore establishment was much in evidence. In addition to many of its loyal customers, attendees included staff and volunteers from both The Food Trust and Farm To City, which both operate farmers' markets in the region, and The Common Market, a non-profit wholesale operation trying to build markets for the area's small farmers.

Although the Farmstand is the most visible of Fair Food's progams, it's hardly the only one. Among its other activities:
  • The Farmer Outreach Project, which assists limited-resource farmers by preparing them to sell products to the wholesale marketplace;
  • Farm-to-Institution, an effort also involving the Food Trust, the Common Market and other non-profits, to encourage institutions, distributors, and mid-scale farmers to work together to fuel the local food system;
  • Publications, including the Philadelphia Local Food Guide and Wholesale Guide to Local Farm Products;
  • Participation in the Buy Fresh, Buy Local campaign; and
  • The Restaurant Project, which encourages local establishments to source through local producers; Fair Food's twice-annual Farmer/Chef Gathering is an important part of this effort.
The Produce Aisles

Before the grand opening ceremony for Fair Food's new stall I wandered its aisles to check out the latest offerings.

Thanksgiving may be nearly two months away, but white and red heirloom cranberries from Paradise Hill Farm in Vincentown, New Jersey are much in evidence, making a colorful display next to pints of cherry tomatoes. For those who want to learn how cranberries are grown and harvested, Fair Food is sponsoring its third annual visit to the bogs. It will be held Oct. 25. For more info, email Louisa at It's a popular tour and includes a look at the farm's antique cranberry-harvesting equipment, so sign up soon.

It's been a sad season for pumpkins, as heavy rains took their toll on the region's crop. Iovine Brother's Produce has been holding the line on price so far, but as we near Halloween expect to pay more for your jack-o-lantern than in past years.

Limes are also dear: the price went up to 50 cents apiece this week at Iovine's. Lemons were three for a buck. A relative bargain are organic green peppers, which were actually less expensive than the conventionally grown variety this week: 89 cents a pound vs 99. Conventional red peppers were $1.49, orange and yellow bells $1.99, frying and hot peppers 99 cents. Ripe Jersey tomatoes were 99 cents. Rutabagas and size of small canteloupes were 50 cents a pound. Red, Savoy and regular green cabbages were 50 cents a pound.
'Messy' Recommendation at DiNic's

Messy of the Messy & Picky blog thinks the Italian pulled pork at DiNic's is the best sandwich around. I'm hard-pressed to place a single sandwich alone on a pedestal, even the No. 5 combo from Goodman's Deli of my youth, but DiNic's is certainly worthy of praise.

It's difficult to go for anything other than the roast pork with greens and aged provolone, though cases can certainly be made for other sandwiches at DiNic's. My buddy Ralphie the Winemaker raves about Tommy's cold roast beef with horseradish, roasted sweet peppers and provolone, and the Italian-style brisket is no less a masterpiece than the Jewish-style brisket (ask for it with extra fat) at Hershel's across center court.

Messy likes his pulled pork with horseradish and provolone. When I asked Joe Nicolosi what he'd recommend, he offered long hots and provlone. It was an excellent combination, even if the surplus of seeds in the pepper added a texture I could do without (the extra heat from the seeds was just fine). The only crunch I want on that sandwich is from the burned bits of meat, which the sandwich-makers make sure are mixed in with the tender, succulent, pulled-to-order meat. Just don't expect a barbeque style pulled pork. This pig sandwich is thoroughly Italian; those who abhore garlic should stay away.

So, next time you're at DiNic's, break out of the ordinary. Try your pork pulled.
Beck's Plans Oct. 14 opening

Bill Beck is getting closer to opening his Beck's Cajun Café at the Reading Terminal Market. A few weeks ago he advertised for help on Craig's List, stating the target for opening is Oct. 14. This week the counters are largely finished. There's even a Facebook page with photos of those beignets I'm keen to sample.