Saturday, July 14, 2012

Truthiness in Labeling

Ground sirloin (foreground) and chuck roast (upper left) at Martin's
 When it comes to hamburgers, I ask the butcher to grind meat to order for me. It's not that I don't think the pre-ground meat at a good butcher shop isn't good -- it usually is. (I'm always a bit more suspect of the pre-ground meats I find at supermarkets, especially if it's ground off-site by a larger processor.)

I ask for grinding to order because I prefer chuck rather than round and/or sirloin, or the less desirable cuts found in "hamburger". I think the flavor of meat ground from the chuck far superior to others. And since I prefer my burgers cooked very rare, I don't want the meat sitting around, even for less than a day, after grinding, giving any bacteria a chance to multiply.

Usually I ask Charles Giunta to grind up chuck for me at the Reading Terminal Market. But earlier this week when I stopped by Charles was busy and said I'd have to wait about an hour until he had a chance. Since my meter was just about expired, I thanked him and went to his brother's shop, Martin's Quality Meats.

When I asked the counterman for chuck, he tried to steer me (pun intentional) to the "ground sirloin" on display, priced at $2.99 a pound vs. the $4.59 I'd pay for chuck. "It's chuck, too," he said.

I suggested he look at his butcher's chart: sirloin comes from the back end of the animal, chuck from the shoulder. Either the ground meat was chuck and it was wrongly labelled, or he was fibbing. And I doubted it was chuck because if it was, he wouldn't be selling it for $1.60 less a pound that unground chuck, even accounting for the extra fat that's usually thrown into ground meat.

"I'm just trying to save you money," he said. I thanked him for the consideration, but said I preferred chuck and am willing to pay for it. He finally relented and ground a hunk of chuck roast to order -- I asked him to de-bone a piece of short rib and throw that into the grinder as well to provide a bit more fat as well as flavor.

I wound up with a bit over two pounds of ground meat for a bit over $11, enough for seven five-ounce burgers (I don't like behemoth burgers, like the half-pounders you tend to find at too many pubs). They were tasty and good. But I still had a bad taste in my mouth from the buying experience.

I don't know why the counterman tried to get me to buy the ground sirloin, other than his stated reason of trying to save me a buck or two. Maybe he simply didn't want to take the time to run it through the grinder, though there weren't many customers and his co-workers could easily handle others while he was tied up serving me.

This is hardly the only example of unclear or downright untruthful labeling to be found.

I've written before about the loosey-goosey nomenclature for salmon. John Yi at the Reading Terminal continues to sell "Wild Organic King Salmon". What that really means is that it's farm-raised king which had been fed "organic" feed.

Since it's Alaskan salmon season I had a hankering today for king (also known as chinook) salmon. Over at John Yi's they had "Wild King Salmon" at $17.99/pound, a relative bargain. But when I asked where it was from I was told it was New Zealand.

There's no such thing as a commercial king salmon fishery in New Zealand. There is, however, a substantial farm-raised king industry; indeed, New Zealand is the world's largest producer of this product. I don't have any qualm about the quality of the product; my issue is misleading labelling by retailers.

(There is some "wild" sea-run king salmon in New Zealand, but it's not fished commercially. It was brought to Kiwiland in the late 19th century in form of eggs from California kings in an attempt to establish the species there as a sport fishery.)

At the Reading Terminal Market Yi's and Golden Fish do have truly wild Alaskan salmon right now: sockeye priced at about $14 a pound; it's also an excellent fish like truly wild king, but it has a slightly different flavor profile and the filets are considerably thinner.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Bonanza of Peaches, Apricots

Ben Wenk of Three Springs Fruit Farm stocks more peaches
They cherries may be done for the year, but the procession of stone fruits marches on at local farmers' markets.

Sunday at the Headhouse Square market Three Springs Fruit Farm and Beechwood Orchards presented both white and yellow peaches, and rosy, appetizing apricots. Beechwood also had some nectarines, which Ben Wenk of Three Springs plans to harvest this week. Blueberries, raspberries and blackberries also filled farmers' tables.

Definitely time for some cobblers!

Last week, with tomatoes now tasting real, I made some gazpacho to bring to our Fourth of July block party. I got my recipe from behind the pay wall at Cooks Illustrated, but there are similar recipes you can find on-line. What made this version striking was that it was creamy -- without the addition of any cream. That's accomplished by whizzing about two thirds of the tomatoes (along with green pepper, cucumber, red onion, garlic and crust-less white bread) in a blender, then dribbling in olive oil to emulsify the soup. This makes all the other versions I've tried look like watery salsa.

Fresh Chickpeas: Good but Pricey

Tom Culton reduced the price of the chickpeas he was selling Sunday at the Headhouse Square farmers' from the previous week by two bucks, so a light pint cost me $5 rather than $7.

Still, they were rather pricey considering that once shelled they produced only half a cup of legumes.

They were extraordinarily good. I cooked them simply: a two or three minute douse in gently boiling water, followed by a quick sauté in olive oil, garlic and a couple twists of black pepper.

But considering the cost, yield, and nearly 40 minutes spent shelling the peas, it's a pricey delicacy I'll probably pass on in the future.

In the process of shelling the chickpeas, about 10 percent turned out to be black. I cooked both the black peas and the greener ones together, and both tasted fine.

Tom says he has a lot of black chickpeas growing, but doesn't have the time to harvest the crop. Instead, he'll dry them on the vines, then bring the harvest to a local mill to turn into flour later this season.

Lester Halteman Dies, 76

Lester Halteman
Funeral services were held today for Lester Halteman, 76, who operated the eponymous butcher shop and deli in the Reading Terminal Market until he sold the business and retired about a decade ago. He died July 6 at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.

L. Halteman Country Foods started out as a poultry purveyor, but expanded over the years to include fresh meats, deli meats and cheeses. Amos Riehl continues the business today.

Lester and his wife Millie were featured in "Reading Terminal Market: A Family History", a video recounting the history of the market through interviews with long-time merchants. They were among the honored attendees when the Reading Terminal Market Merchants Association premiered the video at a gala party in the market in 2009.

In the video the Haltemans "told vivid stories from their long tenure.  In fact some of the best moments in the film were theirs," wrote RTM General Manager in an email announcing Lester's death.

In recent years a number of the market's long-time merchants have died. Most recently, Domenic Spataro, whose son continues the family sandwich business, died in January at age 96. Butcher Harry Ochs died at age 80 in December 2009, just a few months after the video's premiere party.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Veggie City at Markets

A.T. Buzby's summer squashes and eggplants
Buzby's carrots
Summer vegetables are hitting their peak at local farmers' markets. Today at Headhouse Square was no exception.

Corn is coming into its own, though prices can vary widely. Over at the Reading Terminal Market Ben Kauffman was selling his Lancaster County ears for 75 cents apiece, but Iovine's has Bucks County corn for less than half that price: three ears for a buck.

Tomatoes are also starting to taste real. Blooming Glen, one of the Headhouse vegetable stalwarts, had field tomatoes for $3/pound, and a few heirloom varieties for $4.

Those cheap frying peppers I found at Iovine Brother's Produce over the last few weeks have gone up in price to $1.49/pound; they were 99 cents. But we're starting to see bell peppers at the farmers' markets: Tom Culton had green peppers today, and Weaver's Way purples.

Cultton's cornichons
I've making my third batch of kosher pickles of the season right now, using Mark Bittman's recipe which is nothing but cucumbers, salt, garlic and coriander seeds (you could use fresh or dried dill if you prefer). I wasn't going to make the third batch, but Tom Culton's gherkins just looked too good to pass up. Although at $5 for a box with a net weight of one pound, six ounces they were priced considerably more than full sized kirby cukes, I think they'll make great crisp pickles. Culton, who is into all things French these days (just take a look at his new sign, here) calls them cornichons.

Among the other interesting veggies Culton had this week were chickpeas in the shell ($7 a box) and good looking red and golden beets, sans leaves. Here are the pix:

Culton's chick peas
Beets from Tom Culton

Cherries Almost Done

Jostaberries at Beechwood Orchards
Dave Garretson of Beechwood Orchards, selling today at Headhouse Square Farmers' Market, says don't count on seeing any local cherries this time next week. In past years he's brought in some from New York State, which run a few weeks later than ours, but he's goint to skip extending the season that way.

Today he was the only vendor I spied with cherries -- none were visible at Three Springs Fruit Farm, the other usual stall carrying them and where I picked up a quart of Montmorencey pie cherries last week. Garretson had both sweet and sour cherries today. The red and rose sweets were selling for $4/pint or $7.50/quart.

I took advantage of the sour cherry season while I could, since they tend to be here for only a few weeks: three quarts of sorbet, a couple cobblers, and a tart. Time to move on to blueberries and blackberries. (The raspberries look good, but too pricey for anything but a garnish or mixed with yogurt when they're $4.50 for a half pint.)

The last few weeks fruit vendors have been featuring a number of different gooseberries and their close relations. Last week Beechwood had Jostaberries, a triple cross of North American coastal black gooseberries, European gooseberry, and black currant. Best in cooked applications or jams and preserves.

Some of Beechwood Orchard's stone fruits
Other varieties of stone fruit are supplanting cherries now: peaches, plums and apricots. The peaches I picked up yesterday at Fair Food (from Beechwood) had good flavor, though just a tad watery. I expect they'll intensify with the weather we've had lately.

Although they don't usually show up for another week or so, since every other crop is advanced this season, why should apples be different? Beechwood had Lodis (best for sauce and cooking rather than eating out-of-hand) for $2/pound today.

North Star Orchards, which specializes in apples and pears, usually doesn't start selling at Headhouse until August. Maybe if their crops are as early as everything else seems to be this season, we'll see them back in a few weeks.

Pot Pie Savings

Chicken and turkey pot pies are more of an autumn or winter thing for me, but if you enjoy them in the summer. you can safe $1.75 on a small pie if you head over to Martin's Quality Meats in the Reading Terminal Market. Where Fair Food sells the small pies for $12.50, Martin's asks $10.75, iirc.

Lobster Tales at Reading Terminal Market

New neon sign on John Yi Fish Market let's you know they've got live lobsters
Live lobster at John Yi
John Yi Fish Market has got live and cooked lobsters, but no lobster tank, at least not yet. Golden Seafood has a new tank, but it isn't filled. Both intend to rectify their respective situations soon.

Live lobsters are once again regularly available at the Reading Terminal Market, something that hasn't happened since Coastal Cave closed with its owner's retirement April 1.

At $11.99 a pound, John Yi's lobsters are a trifle dear, but that's pretty much the standard once you get away from the Maine and Nova Scotia coasts. In Portland, Maine, last week, 1-1/8 pounders were selling for $3.99 at wharfside fish markets, 1-1/2 pounders $4.99, some of the lowest prices in years for softshell (newly molted) lobsters, which are more common that hardshells during the summer months. (And no, you can't eat the shell of softshells as you can softshell crabs.)