Sunday, May 25, 2014

Headhouse: We've Got Green Stuff

Lettuce, bok choy and fennel bulbs from Blooming Glen
Crops that do best before summer's heat waves wilt them and us were the most attractive produce items during my visit to the Headhouse Farmers Market this morning.

Though the cheeses, meats and prepared foods always have their allure, when an item of produce is at peak, that's exciting. At least to me.

When you enter the Shambles from the Lombard Street entrance, you're greeted by the always-attractive displays put together by farmer Tom Murtha of Blooming Glen Farm. His lettuce, bok choy and small, young fennel bulbs, pictured above, were just some of his offerings, which also included spring onions, fresh green garlic and cooking greens.

Queens Farm was chock-a-block with spring produce too, from mustard to fresh bamboo shoots to a Chinese style lettuce whose stalk can be cooked. And, of course, their pristine cultivated oyster mushrooms. Other vendors with plenty of cooler weather items included Weaver's Way, Savoie Farms, Root Mass Farm and Beechwood Orchards which over the last year or so has expanded beyond tree fruit.

Culton's new signage
Another late spring crop that likes cool weather made its first appearance of the season: snow peas. Tom Culton was selling half-pints for $3, full pints for $5, as indicated by his chalk board, a new addition to the stall this year. Tom wasn't around this morning, so I couldn't ask about the provenance of the signage, but a Google search suggests "Red Rose Farm Feeds" is/was in Whiting, Vermont. Culton still had plenty of colorful rhubarb, asparagus, dress, and cucumbers among other items.

Strawberries were still in limited and pricey supply, with A.T. Buzby having the most stock at $7/quart. Savoie Farms had a few pints at $4.50 each. Maybe next week.

One of my purchases last Sunday was a couple of veal chops -- one rib, one loin- from Birchrun Hills Farm, the cheese producer. Of course, if you've got dairy cows you're going to have calves and, as I'm always told by some women friends, the males are mostly useless. In the case of male bovines, that means veal. Since Birchrun proprietor Sue Miller runs a caring operation, these are not penned up calves that provide most of the veal available in supermarkets. As a result, her veal is rosy rather than a ghostly white, but it's got more flavor and remains tender. Veal, no matter the source, is not for the parsimonious; as I recall the price was somewhere around $16/pound. But grilled to medium with just a hint of pink the center (you don't want to eat veal rare or medium rare), after a rub of cut garlic, a light application of olive oil and a sprinkling of salt, pepper and crushed rosemary, these chops were an incredible treat.

Modernized Stall for Cantina at Reading Terminal Market

New stall design for 12th Street Cantina

12th Street Cantina is putting on a new face. The Mexican restaurant/grocer redesigned and rebuilt its Reading Terminal Market stall last week, and it makes a much better and welcoming impression than the old, worn-out space.

I haven't tried the prepared food and restaurant dishes since reopening, so I can't say whether that's improved, too. I've never been impressed with the offerings, though I'm a regular buyer of flour tortillas, the fresh and young Mexican cheeses, the Mexican chorizo and, occasionally, the house made salsas which are all just fine for cooking at home. And it saves a trip to 9th street.

Melon Bargain at Reading Terminal

Buck-a-melons at Iovine Brothers Produce

They came cross country from Arizona, just long enough to ripen by the time they reached the Philadelphia Regional Produce Market on Essentington Avenue, hard by the auto dealers' strip. The wholesaler had to get rid of them, fast, before they rotted in their cases.

Coming the rescue, Jimmy Iovine of Iovine Brothers Produce, who took them off the wholesaler's hands dirt cheap and passes along the savings to us, the happy Reading Terminal Market shopper.

Jimmy was personally hawking these 'lopes yesterday morning like an old-fashioned street vendor, offering plenty of samples, assured after tasting that most shoppers would buy at least one.

I bought two. At a buck apiece, it was hard to resist. I should have bought four. They were dead ripe and as sweet and flavorful as late summer local melons. Two-thirds of the cut up fruit has already been consumed.

Iovine's still had the melons today, but with luck (as far as the merchant is concerned) they'll be gone by the time the market closes at 5 p.m. today. A perfect refresher for any Memorial Day picnic.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Pricey Local Strawberries Arrive

The Reading Terminal Market was first with local strawberries this season. Both the Fair Food Farmstand and Kauffman's Lancaster County Produce offered quarts today for $6.99 and $6.95, respectively. Expect to see more at local farmers' markets this week at similar prices until the main crop arrives in another couple of weeks.

Kauffman's Lancaster County Produce

Fair Food Farmstand

Twenty Seek Kitchen Space at RTM

The Reading Terminal Market received 20 responses to its call for proposals to operate the demonstration kitchen off center court. But none came from Marc Vetri or Jose Garces, either jointly or independently.

That surprised Paul Steinke, general manager of the RTM, who earlier received communications from two of Philadelphia's top chefs that they would submit a joint proposal.

Last week I was told by Elise Farano, Vetri Foundation administrator, that its director of culinary operations was handling the proposal. Trinity Busch, executive Director of the Garces Foundation, told me it was working on its own proposal.

The market's board will evaluate the responses with Steinke, who added that a few of them were merely "please include me" letters rather than the formal Request for Proposals sought.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

La Cucina Moves to Culinary Center

Anna Florio, who lost her Reading Terminal Market lease at the end of March to operate a cooking school in its demonstration kitchen, has moved to the Dorrance H. Hamilton Center of Culinary Enterprises, part of the non-profit Enterprise Center at 310 S. 48th Street.

La Cucina at the Market will offer similar programs at the center to what it offered at the market, according to Florio. These include cooking skills classes and a venue for kitchen-centric team-building events and private parties.

As it happens, the Center for Culinary Excellence has another former RTM vendor as its director: Delilah Winder, who operated the soul food restaurant at the market and other locations. The Culinary Center supports both established and start-up food businesses and food processors in need of commercial kitchen space and technical assistance. The Enterprise Center, founded in 1989 by the Wharton Small Business Development Center, provides access to capital, building capacity, business education and economic development opportunities to high-potential, minority entrepreneurs.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Garces, Vetri: Joint RTM Kitchen Bid

Expect a joint bid to operate the Reading Terminal Market's demonstration kitchen from Jose Garces and Marc Vetri. The bid, according to Paul Steinke, the market's general manager, would be submitted by their respective non-profit arms: the Garces Foundation and the Vetri Foundation for Children.

Rick Nichols, retired Inquirer food columnist, flanked by Steve Poses, founder of
Frog/Commissary, and Chef Garces, in the market's kitchen in June 2012
Other potential bidders include Drexel University, The Restaurant School, and the Opportunities Industrial Center. Steinke said private operators have also submitted proposals.

Trinity Busch, executive director of the Garces Foundation, in response to my inquiry, said "it's too early for us to discuss this as the idea is still in consideration by our team." A Vetri Foundation representative said the proposal "is still very much in draft". 

The star-power of a combined Garces-Vetri bid would be hard to beat. But the OIC, the pioneering job-training non-profit founded 50 years ago by the late Rev. Leon H. Sullivan, runs Opportunities Inn, a separate program to develop hospital industry workers. That effort is funded by the Reading Terminal Market's owner, the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority.  

The demonstration kitchen became available when the market declined to renew the lease of Anna Florio, proprietor of La Cucina at the Market, who had operated the facility at two different locations within the market since March 2008. In addition to classes, Florio ran kitchen-centric "team building" events for companies and other organizations.

Florio ceased operations at the end of March. In mid-April the market put out its request for proposals; the deadline is this Friday, May 16.

Steinke said he's waiting to review the proposals until after the deadline, but said there has been a "strong level of interest".

Sal Vetri, Marc Vetri's dad, and Brad Spence, Vetri's chef partner at Amis,
in demonstration at market's kitchen in June 2012.
Sharing the demonstration kitchen with a private operator, as was done with Florio, provided rental inome to the market, but there were also conflicts in the scheduling of events.

Such conflicts, said Steinke, "are very much on our mind. We need to preserve right to reserve the demontration kitchen for community events more frequently and intensively than in the past. Thats clear in the RFP and a priority well be pursuing as we review the responses."

Operating and programming the kitchen directly was one approach Steinke considered, which would require the hiring of at least one program manager by the market. Although that remains on the table, the market's board decided to ask for proposals in an effort to encourage other possibilities.

A Garces-Vetri operation certainly works to the market's advantage in terms of promotion: having the two chefs create and design programs would make the market's demonstration kitchen a culinary showcase. For the chefs and their foundations, operating the facility at the city's premier food mecca would bolster their non-profit programs and further their luminosity in the Philadelphia food firmament. Because of their educational emphasis, a joint Garces-Vetri operation would be less likely to create scheduling conflicts than a for-profit operator, who would seek to cater private events in the kitchen.

The Garces Foundation focuses on health, education and nutritional issues faced by Philadelphia's "underserved immigrant community", according to its website. The Vetri Foundation for Children "was established to help kids experience the connection between healthy eating and healthy living".

Operation of the market's demonstration kitchen would be a natural for either Drexel -- which operates culinary arts and sciences program under its Center for Hospitality and Sports Management -- or the Restaurant School.

In its request for proposals, the market asked for "the most creative ideas that can elevate and enhance the [market's] food and culinary traditions." The RFP said the market sees the demonstration kitchen "as a vehicle to increase the visibility of the market; serve as an engine for public and private education and instruction regarding the region's food traditions, cuisine and culinary arts; and operate in a manner that fulfills the market's mission." 

Any operator would also have access to the adjacent Rick Nichols Room, a multi-purpose event space with direct access to the demonstration kitchen. Both rooms are located at the head of center court.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

So Long, Sushi: RTM Stall Loses Lease

You will no longer be able to dine on sushi at the Reading Terminal Market after the end of the month. That's when Tokyo Sushi Bar's lease expires and it will not be renewed, according to RTM General Manager Paul Steinke.

This isn't the first time the propietor, David Dinh, has been told he would loose his lease. The last time was in 2005, when the stall had numerous cleanliness and health issues. David cleaned up his act and got a new lease.

This time, though the market's general manager, Paul Steinke, said the lease wouldn't be renewed. The primary reason, he told me, was the poor ratings Tokyo Sushi's food has received on Yelp, where few reviewers have anything kind to say about food quality or prices.

Steinke is unsure what will replace Tokyo Sushi. But the stall occupies a prime spot on Center Court, and putting in another restaurant-type lunch vendor will not harm the market's goal to limit this type of business to about one-third of the businesses there. Steinke will be able to extract a premium rent from a lunch vendor at this busy and visible location.

Although three Chinese lunch vendors have stalls at the market, Tokyo Sushi Bar is its sole purveyor of Japanese food.

Melon Roulette

Galia melon
One of the more difficult produce-buying challenges is to pick a ripe melon. Even in late summer, when local muskmelons (canteloupes) and honeydews proliferate, selecting a ripe melon remains, at least to me, a crap shoot. I've read all about thumping, netting, color, smell and every other method of melon selection, but picking the perfect melon can still elude me.

It's even more of a challenge when local melons are not in season. But I still love them, so I'll frequently pick up a container of cut up mixed melons at Iovine Brothers Produce at the Reading Terminal Market. The out-of-season watermelons are almost always sub-par, but occasionally the canteloupes and honeydews are sweet and less than rock-hard.

So it was with trepedation that I picked up a Galia melon yesterday at Iovine's for $1.99. Today I cut it up this Israel-created hybrid now grown worldwide, especially Central America where this specimen came from. I detected only a little aroma from the melon, but the netting was distinct and developed, so I gave it a shot. Success! The Galia is sweet with subtle flavor, and soft, ripe flesh. It should hold up in its container in the fridge for two or three days, but my guess is it will be gone by tomorrow night.

My go-to fruit between apple and strawberry season in recent months has been pineapple. I buy the trimmed, ready-to-eat whole pineapples packed in plastic bags at Iovine's, and they hold up for more than a week in the fridge. I just knife slices off the top as I want them. With rare exceptions these pineapples have been sweet throughout, with no woody flesh.

Besides oranges, the only other fruit regularly in my diet over winter and early spring are frozen blueberries, particularly the "wild" low-bush "arboreal" berries from Canada and Maine. They have the same nutritional content and benefits as the commercial high-bush berries, but a slightly different flavor, which I prefer. I find the best deals on the frozen wild berries at Trader Joe's and usually consume them mashed into plain Greek yogurt.

Still, as much as I like these fruits, I look forward to the local berries; local strawberries should start appearing in farmers markets before the end of the month, given that most crops are running about a week or so behind normal after this year's harsh winter.

Today at Headhouse I picked up about a pound of rhubarb from Tom Culton. I stringed it (as you would celery), cut it into two-inch lengths then cooked it for about 15-20 minutes with a pint of water, half a cup of sugar, and the zest and juice from one juice orange. It's now in the fridge and I'll enjoy it for dessert after whisking the "soup" to break up the remaining soft chunks of rhubart and top it with some fresh whipped cream. The recipe comes courtesy of Mark Bittman.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Butcher Shop To Change Owners

Giunta's Prime Shop, operated by Reading Terminal Market veteran Charles Giunta for nearly eight years, will have a new owner soon. Rob Passio, who's worked for Giunta a few years, expects to take over as the new proprietor next month if all the paperwork moves as scheduled.

Passio, who started in the trade as a teen in South Philly, has worked for a number of butchers, including Charles' brother Martin's original Philadelphia sausage factory, now in South Jersey. (Martin also operates Martin's Quality Meats & Sausages at the RTM.) He's also put in time at one of the former Genuardi supermarket meat departments.

Rob plans no changes in meat sourcing and staffing at the stall, located in the aisle between Iovine Brother's Produce and L. Halteman Family Country Foods.

He does hope to slowly add some value-added items, like marinated meats. Passio also expects to wait a while before changing signage to reflect new ownership.

Sure Sign of Summer: Soft Shell Crabs

One of the surest signs that winter is done and summer within sight is the reappearance of soft shell crabs at local fish mongers. Early season prices for these crustaceous delicacies are always dear, but they appear even higher this year, at least by the prices displayed at John Yi at the Reading Terminal Market, above.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Headhouse Opens With 30 Vendors

Green, purple asparagus from Three Springs
If there was any doubt Headhouse is the city's premier farmers' market, it would be dispelled simply by walking through the shambles today. I counted 30 vendors, with nearly one third selling their own produce, dairy or meat products.

There are also now two seafood vendors. In addition to Otolith, which sells high quality, individually quick frozen salmon and other Alaskan seafood, Shore Catch has joined the Headhouse roster. Shore Catch, which also sells at the Rittenhouse Saturday market and about half a dozen farmers markets in New Jersey, gathers finfish and shellfish (scallops and clams) landed by family-owned boarts at the Barnegat docks on Long Beach Island.

Blooming Glen garlic
The first asparagus of the season remains pricey, about $6/pound from most vendors. The one exception at Headhouse was A.T. Buzby, the South Jersey farmer who was selling one-pound bunches for $3.50. The higher-priced asparagus could be found at stalls from Tom Culton, Three Springs Fruit Farm and Beechwood Orchards.

Other produce offerings were largely limited to early greens, ranging rrom broccoli rabe and tatsoi at Blooming Glen and radishes at Weaver's Way to black salsify at Culton Organics and pea shoots at Root Mass Farm. Among Culton's other offerings were fresh eggs from two different breeds or heritage chickens.

Flowers were also in abundance, as shown in the two photos below.

Tulips and lilacs at Weaver's Way

Gerbers adorned wagon at Culton Organics

Livengoods Return to City Market

Joyce Livengood with lilacs at Reading Terminal Market in 20089
Livengood Family Farm, which for years sold organic produce at center court in Reading Terminal Market on Saturdays until 2009, abandoned city markets entirely last year. But this past winter son Dwain Livengood brought back the stall to the Saturday market on Clark Park.

The Food Trust, which operates Clark Park, has asked the Livengoods to limit its produce offerings at Clark Park and instead concentrate on meat. That suits Dwain just fine, since he's been concentrating on raising beef cattle, hogs, chicken and now lamb around the bend from dad Earl's and mom Joyce's vegetable farm just outside Lancaster's city limits.

Lamb is the newest addition to Dwain's production, which he started about 10 years ago with some beef cattle. The lamb, pasture-born and raised, is fed exclusively on grass. That's possible because the Dorper breed Dwain is raising (a South African originated cross of Dorset Horn and Blackhead Persian sheep) grows meaty on just grass, even in winter. And since it's a "hair" sheep variety, it doesn't require as much labor-intensive shearing as "wool" sheep do.

Dwain's current lamb offerings are currently limited to ground meat, shanks, necks, bones, kidney and head. But he also slaughtered a three-year-old ewe which has produced a bonanza of mutton cubes. Mutton is usually very strong in flavor, too much so for most American tastes. But Dwain said that this animal is rather mild in flavor. I bought a pack of rather lean-looking cubes (the strongest flavor is in the fat, which Dwain also sells) and plan to braise it as a curry tonight.

The young rancher soon will purchase some piglets to restock his pork offerings. But he warns prices will be higher this year because of a viral epidemic that started in the U.S. last year, causing millions of piglet deaths. The disease causes no threat to human health or food safety, but it is already increasing prices.  With beef prices already in the stratosphere because of drought and poor feed crops, chicken looks to be the least expensive of America's favorite animal proteins.

His lamb prices yesterday ranged from $9-$14/pound, depending on cut; the mutton fat is about $2.50.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Prime Beef at Halteman's

You can buy USDA prime beef again at the Reading Terminal Market for the first time since Harry Ochs went belly-up a few years ago.

Rib steaks in that class were on display this morning at L. Halteman Family Country Foods. Be forewarned, however: these are wet-aged steaks, not dry aged. The butcher told me they might go with dry-aged at some future point.

In case you're wondering, across the aisle Giunra's Prime Shop (one of two other butchers at the RTM) does not sell prime meats. Owner Charles Giunra tried that when he opened eight years ago, but found his customers wouldn't pay the price that prime beef demands. That said, Charles is a great meat buyer and while his beef is technically USDA Choice and wet-aged it's a very tasty, superior product.

Friday, May 02, 2014

Rhubarb, too

Strawberries are a few weeks away but rhubarb is here today. Fellow foodie Emily Teel suggests using sweet storage apples with rhubarb in cakes or pies. Mark Bittman has an easy recipe for rhubarb-orange soup as a whipped cream-topped dessert. The rhubarb in photo was at Countryside Farm & Bakery's Fairmount market stall yesterday.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Seasonal Farmers Markets Open

Countryside Farm & Bakery at today's Fairmount Farmers' Market

 Although a few farmers markets operate year round (Rittenhouse, Clark Park and Fitler Square), the first week of May brings the official opening of the area's sesonal venues.

The first to open was the Fairmount market at 22nd and Fairmount, which runs Thursdys from 3 to 6 p.m. into November. Two produce vendors -- Countryside Farm & Bakery and
Queen Farm -- Wild Flour Bakery and The Pop Shop (popsicles) were there for opening day.

Needless to say, produce pickings were slim, but the items offered were of good quality, particularly the kale, scallions and fresh garlic.

I was hoping, but not really expecting, to find local asparagus. Although some area growers -- particularly those in the warmer parts of Delaware -- have a little, the main crop won't begin until next week, although I would expect to find some at this Sunday's Headhouse market. However, expect to pay a stiff premium until the bulk of the harvest begins. Fair Food had some from Delaware at the Reading Terminal Market today; Benuel Kauffman offered some of what he said was asparagus from his garden, but more will be available next week.