Saturday, April 30, 2011

Meeting Mustard Royalty

Eric Rygg (left) wears his three medals after the presentation
by Barry Levenson, founder of the National Mustard Museum

Eric Rygg of Kelchner's Horseradish Products,  based in the Philly suburb of Dublin, is mustard royalty.

That honor was certified Friday night by none other than the Clown Prince of Mustard-dom, Barry Levenson, founder and Grand Poobah of the National Mustard Museum in Middleton, Wisconsin, just outside Madison.

The event celebrated the winners of the 2011 World Wide Mustard Competition and also featured the First Annual Iron Mustard Chefs Challenge. And no, I'm not kidding, though Levenson frequently does.

At the event Rygg accepted medals for three mustards produced by his family-owned business, which includes Kelchner's and Silver Spring Farms of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Within the Horseradish/Wasabi Mustard competition Kelchener's Hot Mustard with Horseradish took the bronze medal, while gold went to Silver Spring's Beer 'n Brat Horseradish Mustard. (Brats, keep in mind, are almost as identified with Wisconsin as cheese curds and the Green Bay Packers.) Silver Spring's Organic Deli Mustard took the silver medal in the Organic Mustards category.

Rygg is president of Kelchner's, a firm which has another Philadelphia area connection since it markets condiments under the Bookbinder's brand, which it acquired a few years back. Kelchner's also has a substantial distribution business of products from other manufacturers, so they handle the oyster crackers you find filling the bowls at the Oyster House on Sansom Street, as well as providing the horseradish. (Rygg is trying to convince Sam Mink, owner of the Oyster House, to ice the tableside horseradish because the product rapidly loses pungency once opened and allowed to reach room temperature.)

It's horseradish, rather than mustard, however, that flows through Rygg's veins. In 1929 his great grand-father Ellis Huntsinger started Huntsinger Farms in Eau Claire. Today Huntsinger is the world's largest grower and processor of horseradish, so it was no accident that when Kelchner's was put up for sale a year or so ago the Wisconsin family firm acquired it.

Iron Mustard Chefs Challenge

As a string quartet serenaded visitors to the two-floor museum in beautiful downtown Middleton, attendees at the Evening of Mustard Royalty could sample the dishes cooked up by the chefs using some of the award-winnng condiments (ketchup was verbotten).

Culver's Pretzel Lobster with sweet potato
fries; Deviled Egg from The Cooper's
Tavern graces table also
My favorite entry, and the winner, was created by the Corporate Chef for Culver's, a Wisconsin-based hamburg and custard chain (and very good fast-food type burgers they are, with good custard, too). Jim Doak wowed the crowd and the judges with his Pretzel Lobsters. Even if he used slippery lobsters, a South Seas crustacean which is not a true lobster, it was nonetheless extremely delicious. Doak took the tail meat and dipped it into a batter with Aldrich Farms Sweet & Hot Mustard (the gold medal winner in the Pepper Hot Mustards division) which included finely ground pretzel, with crunchier pretzel pieces added. It was then deep fried and served with sweet potato fries and accompanying mustard-enhanced sauce. For a second dish, and a glorious dessert, Doak served Culver's custard spiked with more mustard (just enough for a back bite after a few spoonfulls) and crushed pretzels. Neither dish, he admits, will appear on the chain's menu anytime soon, but he had great fun putting it together.

Another standout from the chefs was a pulled pork dish created by David Heide of Liliana's Restaurant in the Madison suburb of Fitchburg. The meat filled a crepe topped with sour cream and Terrapin Ridge's Blueberry Honey Mustard, the gold medalist among the Fruit Mustards.

Rod Ladson of Johnny's Italian Steakhouse in Middleton forwent red meat in favor of chicken. He prepared parts bathed in a combination of mustard-infused black beans served with orzo (sorry, I didn't note the mustard used).

Two restaurants whipped up deviled egg dishes. Alas, I'm not an egg eater, so I can't comment on anything other than the artistic, colorful beauty of the finger food, especially the pastel-hued eggs created by Tim Larsen, executive chef at one of my favorite Madison restaurants, The Cooper's Tavern, where there's a dish of of pork belly and mac 'n cheese with my name on it for dinner tonight. (Tim also does an out of sight marrow bone dish at this detour-worthy gastro pub on Capitol Square.)

About the Museum

I first visited the museum with SWMBO, a Wisconsin native, about 10 years ago when it was located in Mount Horeb, some 20 miles outside Madison. Two years ago Barry Levenson moved the mustard mecca to Middleton. Levenson founded the museum while serving as an assistant attorney general for the state; he now devotes his full-time energies to this one-of-a-kind shrine to the seed and its offspring.

Friday night's event was a kick-off fund-raiser to convert the museum into a registered non-profit, since Levenson will quickly note that it's a passion from which you cannot make money. Going non-profit will allow Levenson, a native of Worcester, Massachusetts, who retains his New England accent in the face of all the Wisconsin-ese talkers surrounding him, to go after grant money as well as public donations.

Crack commemorating 1939 visit
by King George VI to Canada
While the main floor of the museum offers plenty of mustard and mustard-related tschochkas for sale as well as exhibits, the lower floor is crammed with thousands of mustard jars and paraphernalia Levenson has collected in his life-long obsession. One wall is covered with glass cases filled with mustards arranged by state and nation of origin. He's also got a collection of ceramic mustard pots, and during the ceremony made special note, given the morning's royal wedding, of a crock commemorating King George VI's 1939 visit to Canada.

More than 5,600 jars of mustard fill the museum, and I have no doubt Levenson has tasted them all. About 500 mustards can be purchased at the museum. Since the Madison area is dominated by the University of Wisconsin, you can also purchase a "Poupon U" t-shirt, which gives some indication of Levenson's standard of humor.

During his legal tenure Levenson had the occasion to argue before the nation's highest court on behalf of the state. “I argued a case before the Supreme Court with a mustard jar in my left pocket,” he says. “We won.”

There's no lack of levity in Levenson's approach to mustard. If you like low humor, by all means subscribe to The Proper Mustard Newsletter, where sharp wit and bad puns spice up mustard lore.
Ramps at the Dane County Farmers Market
(Click on photo for enlarged version)
Back To Madison
I wake up early for the Dane County Farmers Market

This weekend marks my annual trip to Madison, and that means Saturday morning at the Dane County Farmers' Market.

A few weeks ago, visitors to the market site would have had to deal with thousands of protestors, since the market is located on the square surrounding the Wisconsin state capitol building. With the protestors (mostly) gone, the Saturday morning market takes center stage.

Of course, with Wisconsin being almost three weeks behind Philadelphia in terms of growing season, not much in the way of fresh produce could be found. The queen of those items, at least for me, were the ramps, which only one of the roughly 100 vendors featured. These, as you can see in the photo, were near-pristine, with broad, clean leaves and healthy bulbs. To bad I don't have a kitchen available during my stay. They were priced at $3/bunch, but given that a bunch was about 50-70 percent larger than a bunch I'd pay $1.99 for at Iovine's, it was at least comparable in price, maybe better.

The same stall also featured black radishes, Jerusalem artichokes, burdick and other winter roots.

Over-wintered Spinach and green onions, with an occasional appearance of rhubarb, predominated at the produce stands, especially the Asian farmers, whose presence I failed to not in my previous visits; this year there were at least half a dozen. At other stalls you could purchase hothouse lettuces, greens, parsnips and hydroponic tomatoes and cucumbers. One farmer specialized in potatoes.

At 7 a.m., an hour after the market
opens, shoppers seek the best produce
One counter-culturist produce grower specialized in herbs and roots for tea, including fresh dug comfrey, and nettle leaves.

Otherwise, bakeries, cheese-makers, meat-sellers and horticultural stalls filled up the sidewalks along the capital building.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Asparagus Arrives

Two vendors at the Reading Terminal Market offered locally-grown asparagus last weekend.

Ben Kauffman of Lancaster County Produce was selling his for $3.99 pound, but he only brought about two pounds to market and was sold out before 8:30 a.m. on Saturday. He had a more plentiful supply today, as shown in the photo.

Steve Bowes, the farmer who sets up his stall Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays in the piano court, offered his priced by the bunch, the price worked out to nearly double Kauffman's.

Expect to see more asparagus this weekend at the same stalls, as well as at the Rittenhouse Square and Clark Park farmers markets on Saturday. Maybe Fair Food will have some at the RTM as well. And, of course, Headhouse Square when that farmer market begins the 2011 season on Sunday, May 1.
LCB Glitch Delays Booze at Markets

A purported computer glitch at the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board is holding up two transactions related to Philadelphia markets.

The LCB has temporarily "lost" applications of Blue Mountain Vineyards and Molloy Molloy's. The former is seeking to sell its wine at the Rittenhouse Square farmers' market. The latter, as previously reported here, is a venture of the Iovine brothers to take over the Beer Garden at the Reading Terminal Market and recast it as a gastro pub. The computer glitch is expected to delay each of the endeavors by a couple of weeks.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

 Ramps are Back! Spinach Deal!

Clockwise from top left: spring
onions, leeks, ramps
Ramps and morels are sure signs that spring is here -- even if they have to be "imported" from other states.

Iovine Brother's Produce had them Saturday. The ramps, as you can see from this photo, were thin on the leaves, but the bulbs were nice. Great to add to home fries made in bacon fat. I used the morels (along with hedgehogs and chanterelles) to surround a de-ramekened portion of crustless quiche; I topped the fungi with a shallot-inflected beurre blanc. That and a good baguette welcomed spring to my kitchen. The ramps were priced at $1.99 for a small bunch, which, IIRC, is a better deal than last season.

Bagged flat leaf spinach at Iovines was a big seller last week at the Reading Terminal Market. Given how much spinach cooks down, if you had a hankering for creamed spinach to accompany some steak this deal would have been hard to resist. Other good deals at Iovine's over the weekend included Texas sweet onions, 69 cents (pretty good while you're waiting for Vidalia season), both lemons and limes at a more reasonable 25 cents apiece, and two heads of Iceberg lettuce for a buck.

The Chilean grapes have yet to reach bargain levels so far this winter, but with the season peaking south of the Equator, maybe they will soon. The best price I've seen for seedless whites has been $1.49, but they're usually $1.99; reds and blacks are $2.49 and up. I actually found a better deal for bigger seedless whites at Whole Foods a couple of weeks ago: that's a rare occurence given than Iovines usually beats WF on both quality and price for just about everything.

Spinach deal at Iovine's last weekend
Farmers Markets: May 1 Start

City farmers market organizers are gearing up for the 2011 season, which starts Sunday, May 1, at Headhouse Square, followed on Thursday, May 5 with the Fairmount market

All winter long you could have taken advantage of the Saturday markets at Rittenhouse Square (operated by Farm to City) and Clark Park (operated by the Food Trust).

Root vegetables, of course, are prime fare at the winter and early spring markets. Rineer's Family Farm had some exceptionally sweet over-wintered parsnips and carrots when I stopped by Rittenhouse in late March. (The latter I consumed raw, the former as a parsnip rösti.) I also picked up some frozen Alaskan shrimp from Otolith ($16 a pound, shell on, IIRC). Although the roster changes each week at Rittenhouse, you can usually find a couple of produce stalls, a baker or two and some "value added" sellers.

This past Saturday at Clark Park included two bakers, Noel Margerum (produce and her delectable preserves, as well as a dry bean selection), and a couple of other produce vendors, including one with hoop house salad greens.

Not Old Order

This Amish Country Microwave Popcorn, found last weekend at Kauffman's Lancaster County Produce, wouldn't be too useful in an Old Order Amish home. Last time I checked, microwaves required electricity.

Cherry Grove Cheese at Salumeria

One of the region's better artisinal cheesemakers is Cherry Grove, located between Princeton and Trenton. The Fair Food Farmstand was the only stall where you could find Cherry Grove at the RTM, but now Salumeria has added their product. Cherry Grove also sells at a couple of the farmers markets, including Rittenhouse, which has been going strong all winter long.
Another Cheese Steak

Over at Passyunk and 23rd , not far from some big box stores, stands one of Philadelphia's myriad cheese steak joints.

Philip's is certainly worth a try before you head to BJ's, Home Depot, Staples or Shop Rite. I didn't try any of the other sandwiches, but the cheese steak, available with Whiz or sliced cheeses, was right up there.

The meat had a beefier flavor than lesser steaks. The portion of meat was generous enough, though certainly not overstuffed, providing the right ratio of meat to onions to bread. I ordered with sliced American instead of my usual Whiz last week and the dairy flavor was there but very subdued; in the past I've had the Whiz and prefer the sauce it makes, especially when you ladle hot sauce from the counter container onto your sandwich.