Saturday, May 25, 2013

Lamb Shop Arrives at Reading Terminal Market

Breast of lamb, cut into riblets, a.k.a. Denver Ribs
Border Springs Lamb Farm opened its Reading Terminal Market retail outlet about a month later than planned, but the Virginia sheepery appears to be worth the wait, based on the fresh breast of lamb I purchased this morning.

For the moment they are only selling fresh lamb and sausages, but they hope to offer prepared foods sometime next week. And the prepared foods have me salivating -- see the menu synopsis at the end of this post.

I was taken aback when I asked the price of the lamb breast, a cut I adore. At Martin's and Giunta's the going price is less than $4/pound; Border Springs charged nearly $8. But before walking away I asked Aaron, one of the folks behind the counter, to open up a pack so I could examine it. Upon inspection I quickly agreed to purchase two breasts (four pounds) for my Fairmount block's Memorial Day party. These were the meatiest breasts of lamb I've ever encountered, but with still enough fat to endear them to me. Just look at the accompanying photo and see if you agree. On the package the whole breast is identified as "short ribs". When cut into riblets they're often called Denver Ribs, since much of the U.S. lamb industry is based in Colorado.

Since lamb ribs, even these relatively lean ones, tend to flare up on the grill, I'll be simmering these in water to pre-cook. Once the block party begins I'll finish on the grill with a sweet cumin-inflected sauce to give them the desired char.

Boneless, the breast of lamb (a.k.a. lamb belly) is an excellent meat to baconize, something I did a few years go with success. But since Border Springs will be selling lamb bacon, I may let them do the curing and smoking in the future.

Other than the breast, overall prices at Border Springs are close to what you'll pay for the commodity lamb found at supermarkets and most butchers. (And I'm not disparaging the "commodity" product; lamb from high volume producers is one of the best quality and least processed red meats you can find.) The rack of lamb and loin chops are $15/pound, about what you'd pay elsewhere. Bone-in leg is $9, also competitively priced. Shoulder chops are $7.50-$8, vs. $7 at most other establishments. So the premium, where it exists at all, is negligible if the quality is as good as it looks to be.

When they start cooking next week, Border Springs will even offer breakfast dishes:
lamb hash with potatoes, onions, peppers and friend egg or lamb sausage with gravy and biscuits, $6.50. Lunch sandwiches will include gyro or sausage at $7.25-$7.50, or meatloaf, pulled shoulder, or smoked leg at $9.50, lamb burger for $11. Eat-in or take-out items will include pot pie or lamb rice and chick pea bowl at $11, lamb stew at $10, and kebabs in Korean marinade at $5 apiece or two for $9.

I plan to work my way through the menu with gusto.

Strawberries and Snap Peas

Lettuce deal at Iovine Brothers, Reading Terminal
For the past two Sundays there have been strawberries at the Headhouse Square Farmers Market, courtesy of South Jersey grower A.T. Buzby. They've been deep red, inside and out, with decent but not knock-your-socks-off flavor. I've had some leftover in the 'fridge for nearly a week, without too much deterioration.

The relative refrigerator longevity derives from the design of the berry, introduced about a dozen years ago in Florida for its commercial industry. It was created for its ability to withstand the rigors of long-distance shipping and still retain good color, shape and flavor.

In coming weeks we'll see plenty of other stawberries with deeper flavor, if sometimes less perfect shape and a more diminutive size. But as a harbinger of things to come, Buzby's product was much welcomed, and delicious atop fresh-baked Bisquik short cakes with fresh whipped cream.

Asparagus has come into its own, and what I've had has been good. Two weeks ago Tom Culton had both cultivated and wild asparagus. Tender spring greens are easy to find, too, including dandelion greens suitable for adding raw to salads or cooking.

Another welcome returnee at last Sunday's Headhouse market was a snow pea variety of sugar snap peas at Culton's stall. The regular sugar snaps should be appearing soon, too.

Farmers' markets don't have a monopoly on local produce. At the Reading Terminal Market Iovine Brothers Produce has been featuring local lettuces. Earlier this week there were gorgeous heads of Boston lettuce for 89 cents a pound. Today I spied baby romaine heads at 99 cents. Both come from Flaim Farm, a large grower in South Jersey. In addition, the Fair Food Farmstand at the RTM offers plenty of local produce, including those strawberries from A.T.Buzby.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Headhouse Opens, Shy Some Delayed Vendors

Opening day shoppers at Headhouse Square

Culton's black salsify
Five vendors didn't make the opening bell for the first 2013 session of the Headhouse Square Farmers Market, including Happy Cat Farm and Queens Farm.

The culprit was traffic. If the morning closure of the Broad Street exits of the Schuykill Expressway and I-95 because of the Broad Street run wasn't enough, a tractor-trailer crash on the northbound interstate made sure the five vendors -- and thousands of other travelers -- didn't reach their destinations on time. Shortly after the opening Katy Wich, manager of the market for the sponsoring Food Trust, said all were expected to show up, just later in the day.

There were some produce gems to be had from the growers who made it on time.

Tom Culton featured scorzonera, also known as black salsify, and some over-wintered parsnips with gorgeous celery-like tops, as well as some early aliums.

Blooming Glen's radishes
Blooming Glen Farm had a nice variety of greens, including Russian red kale and broccoli rabe, along with a huge mound of pristine French breakfast radishes.

Other produce vendors included A.T. Buzby, with plenty of Jersey asparagus as well as hothouse tomatoes; Three Springs Fruit Farm with plenty of storage apples; Weaver's Way; and Root Mass Farm.

Among other vendors at today's market were Frecon Farms, selling hard cider and apple vinegar; Porc Salt, with Matt Ridgway's charcuterie; Sue Miller's Birchrun Hills with her cheese, veal and pork; Griggstown Qual Farm; Hillacres Pride, cheese, poultry, eggs and beef; Otolith Sustainable Seafood; and Weaver's Way. Market Day Canele and Wildflour were the two bakers who showed up on time (Ric's was delayed by the traffic).

Headhouse wasn't the first of the seasonal markets to open in May. On Thursday the Fairmount Market, also sponsored by the Food Trust, opened for the season. New to that market this year is Queen's Farm, replacing Earl Livengood.

Border Springs Plans May Opening

Rendering of Border Springs Farm's new stall
Border Springs Farm hopes to open its Reading Terminal Market stall selling fresh lamb and prepared products before the end of May. Its website is still saying April.

It doesn't look like much is happening in the stall, across from Godshall's Poultry and Franks-a-Lot, other than the plastic sheeting covering the spot. But RTM General Manager Paul Steinke said that's because all the millwork is being built off-site for installation when completed.

Cheese at the Reading Terminal Market

Fair Food always has an enticing display of artisinal cheeses
With the opening earlier this year of Valley Shepherd Creamery it's easy to forget other vendors also offer fine examples of this basic foodstuff at the Reading Terminal Market.

Longtime vendors Ed Sciamanna of Salumeria and Jack Morgan of Downtown Cheese are the go-to stalls when your tastebuds crave a fine brie, traditional geitost, genuine Swiss emmentaler or many of the world's other great cheeses. Fair Food concentrates on cheeses made within a half-day's drive of Philadelphia which you would otherwise have to obtain by visiting the farm or seeking out at one of the city farmers' markets. (Before Valley Shepherd opened its RTM shop Fair Food frequently carried one or two of that North Jersey producers varieties.)

Sometimes, however, it's not the fancy, $26 a pound cheese you crave, but that flavored spread for crackers, or just some sliced domestic Swiss for your sandwich. If that's the case, head over to either Hatville Deli or Riehl Deli (L. Halteman Family), two Pennsylvania Dutch vendors. The pimento spread at Riehl's makes a fine, easy and cheap accompaniment to a bottle of beer while watching the game.

A more limited but specialized selection can be found at Wursthaus Schmitz, with a few German dairy products, like Quark.

Another spot for specialized ethnic cheeses is 12th Street Cantina, with a strong inventory of essential Mexican cheeses if you plan on making queso fundida or other South of the Border dinners.

And Hershel's East Side Deli will cut you a hunk of creamy cheese to bring home to accompany their smoked fish.

Doughnut Taste Test

There are two camps when it comes to doughnut-lovers: those who adore raised yeast doughnuts, and those who prefer cake doughnuts.

I'm among the latter, with a taste acquired in childhood through the local "donut man" who sold either plain or powdered doughnuts, fried in lard, out of a World War II Army surplus bus. You had to eat these fresh out of the fryer, otherwise they were leaden.

While the new Bieler's Doughnuts at the Reading Terminal Market can't compete with childhood memories, its cake doughnuts (at least the plain and powder sugared varieties) make a fine pairing with coffee. And unlike the doughnuts of my youth, Bieler's says properly packed its doughnuts will stay fresh considerably longer. I'll leave the analysis of the raised doughnuts to aficionados of the yeast version.

My only complaint is the same one I have for all of Bieler's baked goods, and it's the same one I hold for all Pennsylvania Dutch baked goods: they are simply too sweet for my taste. I also find the various flavorings altogether too commercial, i.e., artificial, even when they aren't. But lots of folks do enjoy the highly sweet Amish-style baked goods, and if you count yourself among this throng, you will enjoy Bieler's donuts.

Bieler's outdoes Dunkin' Donuts and Tim Horton's when it comes to sheer variety. For each style, cake or raised, there are a plethora of frostings, fillings and flavors. I did find the fruity-filling in one I tried early on excessively runny, but a foodie friend raved about the creme filling (note the spelling is creme, not cream). Alvin Bieler said he and son Kevin, who runs the stall, are making about 40 varieties.

When they first opened more than two weeks ago, Bielers did have some issues with their fryer's temperature control. The first batch I sampled were way too greasy. Since then they've got the fryer temperature under control, and the result is a doughnut you can enjoy, if not guilt-free, at least dripping grease-free.