Saturday, April 24, 2010

Italian Festival Almost Wasn't

Today's Italian Festival at the Reading Terminal Market nearly didn't happen.

The reason: what many merchants consider a harassing approach by the city's Health Department.

Even the pig paid a price. The roast pig from Cannuli's couldn't be served from a single piece. Instead, the Health Department insisted it be cut up in smaller pieces. Hence, Tom Nicolosi of DiNic's and Rich Foley of Martin's took their knives over to Tootsie's to do the dirty deed. Ostensibly, according to RTM GM Paul Steinke, the inspector thought keeping the animal whole would not allow it to keep at a safe temperature.

The bureaucrats' insistence that one merchant submit a special HAACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) Plan for squeezing orange juice just for this occasion, something he does at his stall with Health Department approval, caused that vendor to withdraw from the festival.

As Steinke delicately told me, there was intense "interaction" with the health inspectors. Some of the merchants were less delicate.

Nonetheless, despite the diffficulties, center court was filled with tables displaying and dispensing Italian goodies, from espresso  from Old City Coffee to Italian style beef chuck roast from Dinic's.
It was not, however, the market's first-ever Italian festival. Dom Spataro said one was held in the early 1990s.

Of course, given the number of Italian-American merchants, every day is an Italian festival at the Reading Terminal.

Ramps and Fiddleheads

The Fair Food Farmstand at the Reading Terminal Market had great ramps and fiddleheads this week. Thursday parboiled the fiddleheads, completed cooking by steaming, then finished by tossing them in a little olive oil and garlic. Great accompaniment to some sockeye salmon from Trader Joe's I had defrosted.

Tonight the ramps will be roasted with fresh mushrooms, then added to kasha (buckwheat groats) to accompany some grilled country style pork ribs from Country Time Farms. Asparagus from Fair Food will complete the meal.

Both Fair Food and Iovine Brothers Produce offered two types of asparagus today. At Fair Food it was certified organic vs. the less expensive IPM (Integrated Pest Management). At Iovine's New Jersey stalks were $3.99 vs. $2.99 from those from California.

Over at John Yi's the soft shell crabs are back, pricey as usual: four for $20.

Friday, April 23, 2010

A Week in Wisconsin

She Who Must Be Obeyed and I returned Wednesday from what has become an annual spring trip to Madison and Racine, Wisconsin.

In recent years, the Madison part of the visit coincided with opening day for the Dane County Farmers' Market around the state capitol building. It also coincided with some early tulips, as seen in photo at right.

The pickings were slim last Saturday, as should be expected since spring in Madison is about two weeks behind Philadelphia. Cheese, of course, was plentiful, as was its sibling, curds, which only Wisconsinites and those seeking poutines can appreciate. Meats were available, and plenty of baked goods, but produce was largely limited to some greenhouse and root cellar items. Even with a paucity of produce, however, a trip to the market in Madison is always worthwhile.

The culinary highlight in Madison for us was a new restaurant, Cooper's Tavern on the north side of Capitol Square. It's billed as an Irish pub, but it's a lot better than that. (Though the one pub item I tasted was disappointing. More on that later.)

Beer is essential for any pub and Cooper's doesn't disappoint. They didn't have one of my fav Wisconsin brews, Spotted Cow, so I opted for its stylistic equivalent, Lake Louie Cream Ale. Tasty, but I still prefer the unfiltered Spotted Cow. Overall a lot of nice choices both on tap and in bottles: not an overwhelming number of beers like you'd find at Monk's but a broad selection to satisfy just about any craving. Speaking of Monk's, their Flemish Sour Ale, made in Belgium, made the draft list; Victory and Dogfish were represented among the bottles.

Bone Marrow!

For food I could not resist the veal bone marrow appetizer, a longitudinally sliced femur of fine fat. The lengthwise butchering of the bone made it easy to spread the marrow on points of pumpernickel. The whole dish was made even better by half a dozen cloves of roasted garlic to add even more depth to the marrow flavor.

With my diet blown between the marrow and the beer I went with a bowl of bacon-studded cabbage soup as my second and last course. Not exactly a diet dish, but no carbs beyond the cabbage's. It was a rich, vegetable soup that I'd gladly consume on a cold winter's eve.

My companions (SWMBO and Executive Chef Tim Larsen's mom, Marlette) went for the sliders, a salad and the cottage pie

SWMBO's sliders were made high quality meat and served on small rolls that seemed to be a cross between brioche and biscuit, accompaied by hand-made potato chips hot from the fryer. Her salad, one of four on the menu, was spinach with crunchy, sweet and savory accents provided by brandied cranberries,
walnuts, pear, apple, and crisped goat cheese in a balsamic vinaigrette.

The cottage pie was a bit odd on two counts. First, it wasn't cottage pie. Where shepherd's pie is traditionally made with minced lamb, cottage pie is beef. This cottage pie, however, was made from lamb. And it wasn't really a pie at all, or even a casserole where the meat and veggies form the bottom layer topped by mashed potatoes. Instead, this was a large lump of the potatoes topped and lamb and gravy. Certainly satisfying, according to Marlette, but not what I would have expected.

Highlights of the appetizers I intend to try on future visits include house made soft pretzels (strictly to compare with the Philadelphia version) served with a Belgian beer-Dubliner cheese dip; twice-fried Belgian fries (also done as poutine with gravy and curds); and, rounding out the appetizers, a take on Scotch egg using a local bratwurst patty as the wrapper. Among the sandwiches (all the popular meats plus burger, the latter accented with a couple strips of pork belly rather than bacon), I'd opt for the lamb on sourdough with tomato jam, caramelized onions and provolone. For an entree, I've definitely have to try the Pork Belly Mac with porter-glazed fresh bacon, Dubliner cheddar mac and cheese and baguette. Fish and chips, curried chicken (British style), goat cheese polenta and bourbon salmon with cranberries, truffled mushrooms, mashed and veggies are also on the entree list.

The lunch menu is pretty similar, less the entrees.

Coopers Tavern has only been open for a couple of months and still has kinks to work out: the server screwed up the order of service and, of course, blamed it on the kitchen. Tim wasn't in the kitchen, since we met him outside leaving as we were entering; my guess is he wouldn't be amused no matter where the failure originated. Still, that wouldn't keep me from returning. Larsen has created a something for everyone gastro pub menu that would be admired for both creativity and execution anywhere.

The following night we dined with an old friend of SWMBO, Jerry Minnich who long held tenure as the restaurant review for Isthmus, Madison's alternative newspaper. (Then again, everything in Madison is alternative; it's like Ithaca with a state capital thrown in.) Jerry took us to Bandung, a local Indonesian restaurant where he's a regular.

To start we shared an order of Otak-Otak, a fish cake grilled in banana leaf served with a spicy garlic peanut sauce. I would have eaten two orders myself: clean fish flavor and great texture set off nicely by the sauce. Jerry and SWMBO selected Krakatoa as their mains, a sizzling platter of lightly battered chicken breast (you could also get shrimp or tempeh) served on a bed of steamed veggies and bean sprouts with garlic sauce. Back to my diet, I ordered a bowl of Asse Cabe, shredded chicken attop soft mung bean noodles, lemon grass and jalapenos served in a candle nut and sweet soy sauce.

Bandung also offers a rikstaffel daily.


On to Racine, a city that until recently had more Danes than any other in the world save Copenhagen. And where there are Danes there's Danish.

The highest expression of the baker's art in Racine is the Kringle, the oval pastry pictured here at Bendtsten's. They come in myriad flavors, though the most popular for very good reason is the pecan; my favorite, though, is the almond macaroon.

Bendtsten's is one of three bakeries in Racine known for their kringle (the others are O&H and Larsen's), and each has their partisans. I'm in Bendtsten's camp. Maybe it's the 1920s era oven shown here. More likely is the fact that while the other bakers introduce vegetable shortening to their pastry, at Bendsten's is strictly butter, and lots of it. Whether you get one of the smaller single-serving pastries, a large kringle or any of their other goodies, Bendsten's has what my in-laws admitted is a flavor that "is how kringles used to taste".

Which is not to say that you should pass by the other bakeries. If cke is your thing, Larsen's is tops, especially their Danish layer cake, a soft yellow cake with raspberry filling and a luscious butter cream icing. Over at O&H, SWMBO adores the poppyseed sweet rolls (your basic Danish pastry). However, at O&H's Danish Uncle specialty store I make a beeline for the deli counter where I order the rollepølse, a brined, pressed lamb cold cut. Two pounds are now sitting in my home freezer.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Judge backs Giunta in chicken case

The chickens have come home to roast. For Charles Giunta that's a good thing.

A ruling today by Common Pleas Court Judge Mark I. Bernstein gave Giunta the right to sell hot rotisserie chicken from his stall at the Reading Terminal Market, Giunta's Prime Shop.

Giunta had been seeking to sell the cooked birds for more than a year, but was turned down by RTM General Manager Paul Steinke on the basis that Giunta's lease did not permit him to sell hot foods. Giunta sued the market and today Judge Bernstein ruled from the bench that there's nothing in the lease to prevent the butcher from selling the rotisserie chicken.

The market's board holds a regular meeting tomorrow and will consider whether or not to appeal.

Steinke said Giunta's lease was written to allow the vendor to sell pre-cooked meats for consumption at home as well as prepared meats (for instance, stuffed meats) for cooking at home, much as Harry Ochs & Sons does.

Also influencing Steinke's initial rejection of Giunta's request was concern it would harm the existing business of another merchant, Dienner's Bar-B-Q, which deals primarily in rotisserie chicken.

The suit has been simmering for about a year, but unlike the highly publicized and emotional battle with Rick Olivieri of Rick's Steaks, which took on the dimensions of the personalities involved, this was "strictly business". It totally lacked the histrionics of the earlier case which resulted in a settlement in the market's favor in which Olivieri left the market.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Livengood's Leaves RTM
But Farmers' Market to Start in May

After 17 years, Earl Livengood is leaving the Reading Terminal Market. But come May the market will add a farmers' market on Sundays with up to 14 growers and value-added producers.

In recent years the Lancaster farmer hauled his produce to the market, leaving his wife Joyce to staff the stall with a helper while he trekked to the Bryn Mawr farmers' market. This year, prompted by declining sales at the RTM, he decided to avoid the mileage by continuing at Bryn Mawr on Saturdays while adding a new market at the Upper Merion Township Building in King of Prussia.

The market's fees may not have been the major reason for Earl's departure; his rents ranged from $25 to $75/day, with the higher fee levied at the peak of the local produce season. A bigger influence my have been the competition due to the availability of local produce at the Fair Food Farmstand, Kauffman's Lancaster County Produce, O.K. Lee and Iovine Brothers

Livengood will continue to sell his produce (and son Dwain's beef) Tuesedays at South and Passyunk and Thursdays at Fairmount.

Paul Steinke, RTM general manager, learned of Livengood's decision Thursday. At the spot in center court where Livengood has sold since 1993 Steinke installed a table and a commemorative book, which shoppers could sign wishing the Livengood's good fortune in their non-RTM endeavors. No doubt Steinke wants to keep in Livengood's favor, should Earl find the other Saturday venues not as profitable and wish to return. Steinke would welcome him back with open arms.

The farmers market will begin either the second or third week of May across 12th street, next to the outdoor Parkway parking lot between Arch and Cuthbert streets. There's space for 14 vendors (no sandwich vendors). Farm To City, which will manage the market for the RTM, has lined up nearly half a dozen sellers so far, and hopes to fill it out by opening. Hours will 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays, with possible expansion to another day if demand warrants.

Jim Iovine, who owns Iovine Brothers with sibling Vinnie, told me he welcomes the competition. If it draws additional shoppers to the RTM, Iovine figures he'll get more business from buyers who can't meet all their needs at the outdoor venue. Iovine said Sunday remains one of his busiest days, third behind Saturday and Friday.
At the Reading Terminal

Wan's Seafood has the first Boston mackerel I've seen this season, but it was pretty wan-looking, and pricey at $3.49. Better to wander over to John Yi's or Golden Seafood: both were selling Spanish mackerel, $2.99 at the former, $3.49 at the latter. Spanish mackerel is just as tasty as the Boston variety, and quite similar in taste and a tad more meaty.

Speaking of seafood, you could get your shrimp and grits for breakfast today at the Down Home Diner. The Rock Shrimp Scampi and Grits special was $7.99.

Iovine Brothers Produce still had ramps, $1.99 for a bunch of four to six. Earlier this week I par-boiled the whites, chiffonaded the greens and added them to a foil package of halibut, carrots and parnips before baking for 17 minutes at 425F.

In addition to the ramps Iovine's had another sign of spring, California strawberries, $1 for a one-pound clamshell. And to go with them you could buy intensely ruby-red rhubarb from the Pacific Northwest, $3.99/pound.

A new item at Iovine's is Tropicana-branded clementines. It's the end of the season, but this Califormia citrus, selling at $5.99 for a five-pound box, had an intense, alluring aroma when you break them open.
Piazza Perseveres

The farmers' market at The Piazza at Schmidt's in Northern Liberties is going strong, at least to judge by the number of vendors. I counted 23 vendors this morning, though customers were few and far between during the market's opening hour beginning at 10 a.m. One vendor told me his shoppers tended to sleep in and not show up until noontime or soon thereafter.

Whether the vendors keep up their presence when other farmers' markets open and their selling opportunities multiply in May is yet to be seen. But those I spoke with have been happy with sales since the market opened in January

Producers participating today included:
  • Shellbark Hollow goat cheese
  • Highland Orchards, produce
  • Birchrun Hills Farm, cheese and meats
  • Weaver's Way, produce
  • Landisdale Farm, produce (also at Clark Park on Saturday)
  • Whimsical Farm, mushrooms, wool products (will add produce later this season, as well as their beef, pork, poultry and lamb come fall)
  • Culton Organics, produce, including fresh garlic
  • M&B Farview Farm, meats
  • Natural Meadow, meats
  • Hillside Nursery
Plenty of bakers and sweets-makers were there today:
  • La Baguette
  • Big Sky Bakery
  • Market Canele (sharing a stall with Joe's Coffee)
  • Amaranth Bakery (gluten-free)
  • Ian's Baked Goods (sharing stall with Culton)
  • John + Kira Chocolates
  • Wild Flour Bakery
  • My House Cookies
Other vendors:
  • Joe's Coffee
  • Verain-Savon, soaps and body goods
  • Barbie-Lu's Sassy Salsa
  • Penn Herb
  • Just Dogs Gourmet
  • Philadelphia Phaithful Sports Apparel
Produce was primarily root vegetables and storage apples, though some offered greenhouse greens. Culton was selling early spring garlic, dandelions and other greens.
More Goose for Gras

Tom Culton, whose Culton Organics supplies lots of regional chefs as well as shoppers at Headhouse Square and other farmers' markets with produce in season, is ordering more goslings to meet demand for foie gras.

This year marks Culton's first into foie gras production. When he first told me last month he had purchased 300 geese for his humanely raised foie gras his entire production had already been sold out, primarily to restaurateurs. Based on growing interest he'll be adding to his gaggle, therefore, there will be more geese for us to gander for gras.