Wednesday, March 31, 2010


It must be spring, because Iovine Brothers Produce touted the first ramps of the season this week.

They're only $1.99 a bunch . . . but the bunches are very small. The one I picked out seemed the heftiest, and it weighed out at only two ounces. That puts the cost at somewhere around $16/pound. It's a good thing a little goes a long way. I plan to use them with some halibut tonight.

Also featured at Iovine's this week:
  • California strawberries, $1 for a one-pound pack
  • Lettuces, 99-cents a head (romaine, iceberg, green and red leaf)
  • Asparagus (U.S.), pencil thin, $1.99/bunch
  • Seedless grapes, $1 for one-pound pack
Rittenhouse Going Strong

The Rittenhouse Farmers' Market, which went year-round this past winter, is attracting more vendors as spring arrives.

Last Saturday the market, operated by Farm To City, boasted four actual producers of produce or dairy products, along with two bakers and a chocolatier. Daryl Rineer had four tables worth of root veggies, storage apples and a few other goodies. Davidson Exotic Mushroom provided fungi. Hail's Dairy brought their cow udder output, in both fresh and cheesy forms, and Linden Dale Farms offered goat cheeses and products. Breads, rolls and pastries were supplied by La Baguette while Amaranth offered its gluten-free equivalents. John + Kira were there with chocolates.

In future weeks before the spring produce arrives (which isn't that far away) you will probably see two more cheese makers. Cherry Grove, from the Lawrenceville NJ area, is renounded for their tomme and other cow milk cheeses. Rabbits Run specializes in aged goat cheese; that's a rarity in these parts, since most goat cheese producers in these parts stick to fresh cheese.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Nolia Chocolates
Add to your list of fine truffles made locally

We're blessed in Philadelphia with some excellent chocolates made in the region. John + Kira, Neuchatel, Eclat and others, including those made in-house at Lacroix.

Now add Nolia to the list.

From somewhere near the Old Kensington-Northern Liberties demarcation line, Kristin and Samantha are concocting some great flavors using single origin Carenero beans from Venezuela.

She Who Must Be Obeyed attended a tasting Saturday at the home of one of the principals in Fairmount and was bowled over. This is a lady who, when asked for her favorite chocolatier, answers: Marcolini of Place du Grand Sablon, Brussels.

I tried a few from the small box SWMBO brought home.

Rosemary Goat. Inspired by a flavor fav at Capogiro, the rosemary comes on just strong enough without overpowering the other components.

Bourbon Cherry. Simply put, the best damned cherry cordial I've ever tasted. The cherry itself, as well as the filling, have an intense bourbon flavor which, again, augments rather than overpowers this bonbon's cherryness.

Raspberry Champagne. 'Nuff said.

Lemon Pepper. The hit of Saturday's tasting, and my No. 2 behind the cherry among those I tasted; the bits of pepper pepper the top of the chocolate. iirc, SWMBO said she was told the pepper comes from a single estate of one of the principals' acquaintances in Costa Rica.

SWMBO also tried a Mango Buttercream which she found appealing.

There are lots of other flavors, as well as those they make when prime ingredients become available; these aren't listed on the website, but when you order an assortment a couple of these will be included.

Nolia appears to be priced competitively for high quality chocolates. The 12-piece assortment SWMBO brought home for $20 weighed out at 7.5 ounces, which works out to less than $43 a pound. The 24-piece box, assuming it weighs in at 15 ounces, would be priced at less than $41/pound.

I didn't try them, but Nolia is offering a variety of filled Easter eggs, including a large hollow egg filled with truffles.

You can order online, with shipping charges (First Class or Fedex) extra, though you can avoid those by arranging to pick up your order in town.

For any Manhattanites reading this post, another tasting will be held this Thursday in NYC. Although it's by invitation, my guess is you can wrangle an invite to contacting Kristin via the website; just tell her I sent you.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

More About Meat

I had a chance to talk a bit about beef today with Nick Ochs of Harry G. Ochs & Sons (shown at right getting into the spirit -- and garb -- during the Pennsylania Dutch Festival at the Reading Terminal Market a few years ago).

The Ochs stall has long been known as a purveyor of prime beef, but given my conversation with Charlie Giunta a few days ago (see earlier post) I wanted to know a bit more about his beef.

Nick said he uses the same suppliers in Lancaster County as his dad Harry did. He exclusively buys USDA prime beef sides, which was a mild surprise to me, since I thought only some of his inventory was prime. The only time he orders choice, he said, is when a customer specifically requests it; an example he gave was someone who wanted ribs with a bit less fat on them.

His suppliers hang the sides he selects for four weeks, which is as long as most butchers and restaurants selling or serving dry aged beef. Even the meat that goes into his ground beef ages that long since it's all coming from the same sides and ground at the store.

A few customers like their beef for steak and roasts aged longer, and Nick obliges. Lynn Abraham, for example, goes for six weeks. He's even had a rare customer (a Manhattanite who forsook Lobel's for Ochs via mail order) who asked for eight weeks. Beyond eight weeks, says Nick, the beef becomes way too livery tasting. Occasionally, when his supply at the store is low, he might pull some sides from his suppliers' aging rooms at three weeks, but that's the exception, not the rule.

All of Nick's beef and poultry comes from Lancaster County. The lamb and pork come from farther afield.

Nick said his sales of prime dry aged beef have held up pretty well, even though they took a dip early in the recent recession. Five or six years ago a lot of market shoppers thought the lack of bright red color like they find in supermarket wet aged beef indicated poor quality. Today more shoppers are aware of prime beef and its characteristics, Nick said.

Benuel Kauffman

Kauffman's Lancaster County Produce has been a fixture at the Reading Terminal Market for 20 years. Benuel is among the handful of greengrocers who work directly with area farmers to bring their fruits and vegetables to the Reading Terminal Market. (The others are Iovine Brother's Produce and O.K. Lee, who have contracts with farmers to provide certain produce, Fair Food Farmstand and, to a lesser extent, L. Halteman.)

Ben says his customers have been asking when they'll start to see green things at his stall, which is now stocked with beans, canned goods, preserves and other packaged foods. If the weather cooperates he expects asparagus to show up in about three or four weeks.

Don't curse all that snow we had this winter. Ben says the thick layer of white stuff melted slowly, which was very good in prepping the soil for planting and for those crops already in the ground waiting to spring up with longer days and moderate weather.

Ben's been working in the market since the early 1980s when he helped out a fellow Amishman who operated a produce stand at the market, originally located where the Down Home Diner rules today. With the improvement of the market during convention center construction his predecessor moved to the seating area closest to Arch Street. A few years later he left the market, so Ben established his stall where Moyer's Pork Products of Blooming Glen was ensconced for a few decades. (You can still see the lettering for Moyer's stall at Ben's; we both lament the loss of Moyers and his superior hams, the best either of us have ever tasted.)

Although Ben obtains most of his produce from neighbors, he outs in a few crops himself, including green beans, peas and a few other vegetables.
Vernal Equinox
At Clark Park

The first day of spring -- and a gorgeous one at that  -- drew plenty of shoppers, vendors and a couple of music makers Saturday to the year-round farmers' market in West Philly operated by The Food Trust.

Even the daffodils cooperated by coming out in bloom.

If you wanted a few salad greens, they could be obtained from Brogue Hydroponics. The York Country grower, after an experiment for a few weeks last year, added Clark Park to their regular rotation of farmers' markets this year. They also sell at Eastern Market in York, Anselma Mill Market in Chester Spring and Bel Air Market in Bel Air, Maryland. The six-greenhouse operation, which also wholesales to restaurants, utilizes integrated pest management.

Other produce vendors at Clark Park (whose fresh offerings were mostly restricted to root vegetables and storage apples) included Eden Garden, Hail's Family Farm (dairy), Mountain View Farm (poultry), Landisdale Farm, Keystone Farm, and Noelle Margerum.

Also on hand were Forest View Bakery, Market Day Canele, John & Kira Chocolates, Slow Rise Bakery, and Honest Tom's Tacos.
Farmers' Markets: Early May

Although a couple year-round farmers' markets are open (Clark Park, Rittenhouse Square and the Piazza at Schmidt's, Saturdays, Suburban Station on Thursdays), the full range of city and suburban markets will start to open in early May, starting with Headhouse Square on May 2 and Fairmount on May 6.

As I wrote last spring (see post) the Reading Terminal Market is considering sponsoring a farmer's market. Although nothing's set in stone at this point, it's looking likely for opening sometime this spring or summer, probably in cooperation with Farm To City. It would be open on Sundays and located on the sidewalk adjacent to the open air parking lot across 12th Street from the market.
More Strawberries

Earlier this week Iovine Brothers Produce featured California strawberries at $1.99 for a one-pound clamshell. Today they added Florida berries at the same price. As good as they looked and smelled, I'm still holding off until our local berries appear in May.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

WiFi Back

WiFi was back in service at the RTM this morning when I checked.
Giunta Tries Again

When Charles Giunta opened Giunta's Prime Shop at the Reading Terminal Market a couple years ago his goal was to offer natural, hormone-free meats. It didn't work. As Charlie has complained to me on numerous occasions, customers like all-natural, hormone-free, no-antibiotics beef, but few want to pay the freight. Price beats all.

As evidence, he points out that the Reading Terminal Market has the highest volume of food stamp purchases in the state, and these shoppers have to be particularly thrifty. Shoppers who are fortunate enough not to need food stamps are just as thrifty. With few exceptions they also buy on price, though just like food stamp shoppers they seek the best possible quality for their buck.

The market for the premium meat remains small. Either of the city's two Whole Foods store, which carry hormone-free, natural meats exclusively, sell only half the dollar volume that he does each week, Giunta estimates. Even Harry Ochs, long renowned as the market's premier butcher specializing in prime meats, doesn't move much of the good stuff: look at Ochs' cases and you'll see nearly half the space taken up by prepared foods and Boar's Head deli meats; much of the fresh meat that remains, while certainly of high quality, is conventionally-raised.

Although Giunta has concluded he can't make a living if he relied on all-natural product, that doesn't mean he won't stop trying to make it work, at least for part of his business.

This weekend, you can expect to see all-natural, hormone-free, antibiotic-free meats from Peterson & Shaner, a small-scale operation in Douglassville, not far from Pottstown.  Peterson & Shaner raises about 50 head of Black Angus for slaughter each year, as it has since the 1950s. The beef is grass fed until shortly before slaughter, when they are switched to corn and other grains grown on the farm. They are shipped only so far as a Quakertown slaughterhouse for processing, with the carcasses sent back to Douglassville where individual customers can order whole sides which are they butchered while they watch (and the customer does his or her own packing). They hang the beef for two weeks before they let the customer do the packing.

Because Peterson & Shaner doe not use growth hormones, the sides are smaller than most commercial beef, which means the steaks and other cuts will be smaller (though you can always get a thicker cut of steak if you want more meat). It also means don't expect any filet mignons, since the tenderloins are much too small.

Giunta made a trip Sunday to Douglassville and came back with three sides, which he's starting to cut today. As of this morning, he's still figuring out the pricing, but expect them to be a few bucks a pound more than his usual product.

If you want have access to this type of quality beef at the Reading Terminal Market, bite the bullet and go buy some this weekend. If Giunta doesn't move it at a price at which he can make a fair profit, don't expect to see it in the future.
Conch at Golden

First time I've ever spied it at the Reading Terminal Market, but Golden Fish had conch today, $12.99/pound.
A Little Bit of Spring

The chives in the backyard container started to shoot up last week, enough so I could clip some as a soup garnish last evening. But that doesn't mean we'll see local produce anytime soon. Maybe we'll see ramps (and they won't be local) by late March, and perhaps some tiny potatoes from Earl Livengood by mid-April, but asparagus will have to wait for late April, and strawberries another three weeks or so beyond that.

But if you're hankering for spring, there's alway Mexico and California. Iovine's Brother Produce offered asparagus and strawberries this week at reasonable prices, and the quality didn't look bad.

The Mexican asparagus, $1.99 for a one-pound bunch, was thin and bright green; though the purple-topped local variety will no doubt be tastier, these didn't look bad.

The California berries were huge, if not fully ripe. $2.50 for a one-pound clamshell.

Cacus pears must be in season in Mexico and Southwest. Both Iovine's and O.K. Lee have been selling them at bargain prices. The former had slightly smallish ones today at five for a buck today.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Beignets Are Back!

Bill Beck of Beck's Cajun Café says he's solved his beignet problem and assures me they're light and fluffy inside, and crispy on the exterior. I haven't tried them to confirm yet.

They are available on Wednesdays and Sundays only. Bill's beignet man (who comes in the night before to prep the dough) makes only enough for 30 orders each day.

Beck tried the beignets last year, but the results were inconsistent at best. He shut down beignets until he could invest the time to figure out what was goint wrong and fix it.
Foie Gras for Locavores

That goose egg flamboyant farmer Tom Culton displays at Monday's Fair Food Local Grower Local Buyer event isn't just for an omelet. His 300-goose gaggle is geared for foie gras production.

But don't go looking for the luxe liver at any of the farmers' markets he frequents. Culton has sold out his entire production to local restaurants.

Tom says the geese, which he regards as among the more intelligent food birds, are being humanely raised. The foie gras will be produced without force feeding.
Choptank Oyster Farm

Among the purveyors trying to increase its local market at the Fair Food Local Grower, Local Buyer event Monday was Choptank Oyster Farm of Cambridge, Maryland. They've been doing "sweet" Chesapeake oysters for a number of years, but recently started taking some of the bivalves and finishing them off in saltier water, hence, Choptank Salts, an erstwhile competitor to the Cape May Salts which have found favor with local restaurateurs.

Choptank Salts aren't quite as briny or minerally as the Cape Mays, but they remain a nice oyster for half-shell eating.

Bubba Parker, who was shucking and serving Monday evening, said Choptank is aiming at the local restaurant market, where they hardly have a presence. Because Samuels & Sons distributes their products, they figure they can make some inroads here.
Capon Battle

There's a bit of a discrepency in the prices of a particular poultry at the Reading Terminal Market.

At Godshall's Poultry, capons are priced at $3.99/pound while across the aisle at Giunta's Prime Shop they are $1.99. Giunta is selling birds produced by Eberly, which are free-range and surgically altered (which is more expensive for producers than chemically altered). I don't know whose birds Godshall's is selling, they they were marked free-range and naturally-fed, so I suspect they were surgically altered also.

If the birds weren't so big (capons usually run somewhere around 8-12 pounds), I'd do a taste test.

If you haven't tried one, do so. particularly if you favor breast meat, since capons, due to their alteration, have significantly larger breasts. Roast them just like a chicken; they'll just need more time because of the size.

American industrial agriculture, in its never-ending quest to sell more and meet perceived needs that really aren't, has unveiled a new fruit, the plumogranite.

Vinnie Iovine of Iovine Brothers Produce, Reading Terminal Market, says it should arrive sometime in July from California. It's basically a pluot (a plum-apricot hybrid) which has been endowed through botanical science with high anti-oxidant levels similar to those of pomegranate, hence the triple-combo name.

I didn't spy much else that's new at Iovine's during a visit yesterday. Green bell peppers are still more expensive than reds ($2.99 vs. $1.99), and the Chilean grapes still haven't reached bargain levels. Maybe it's just disruption due to the earthquake that should start to get back to normal soon.
We've (kind of) moved

Due to customer-unfriendly changes at Google, the location of the host server for this blog had to be changed. If you bookmark us, please update your bookmark for our new location:

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Local Growers, Local Buyers

Fair Food held its seventh annual gathering of local producers and local buyers at the Reading Terminal Market Monday evening, bringing together buyers for about 175 restaurants (including Jose Garces, at right), food stores and institutional kitchens with about 50 different growers and makers of produce, meats, seafood, baked goods and other food items.

"There's been more and more interest each year, it's amazing," said Deb Bentzel, who runs Fair Food's outreach to institutional food buyers, including hospitals.

Another Fair Food staffer, Leticia Garcia, called it "the best year yet" for the annual event, which affords producers and buyers the opportunity to hook up, making it easier for farmers and producers to sell their goods, and local buyers, primarily restaurants, to find sources aimed at pleasing locavores.

The Garces Group was well represented, and not just with the eponymous Iron Chef.  The chief buyer for his Philadelphia operations, Adam DeLosso, and Robert Scully, manager of Village Whiskey and Tinto, were also roaming center court.

A number of representatives from Whole Foods could also be found making the rounds, tasting the offerings and discussing possibilities with suppliers. Lankenau and Cooper hospitals, LaSalle and the University of Pennsylvania were among the institutional buyers attending. Restaurants, which represented about 80 percent of the buyers attending, represented the full range of Philadelphia eateries, as well as chefs you would expect to support local food endeavors, like Mitch Prensky of Supper.

Among the locavore "wholesalers" attending were James DeMarsh of Common Market, which distributes local produce out of its Hunting Park Avenue warehouse, and Casey Specht and of Lancaster Farm Fresh Coop in Leola (whose produce is displayed at left). DeMarsh and Specht both agreed that the annual gathering gives them a chance to meet new potential customers and let them know how they can meet some of their supply needs.

Although institutional customers represent a small market for local growers and producers -- they've been most successful in supplying restaurants -- hospitals, schools and other institutions with food service responsibilities represent significant growth potential. Schools look to be a particularly important aspect of this market, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the White House (through the First Lady Michelle Obama's efforts) are beating the bushes for better nutrition, and more produce, in school food programs, according to Fair Food's Bentzel.
Wifi Whiffs at RTM

The free WiFi network at the Reading Terminal Market has been down for about a week. So bring your 3G card if you want to surf or retrieve your email.