Friday, October 28, 2016

Gupta reflects on 16 months leading the market

Anuj Gupta in chefs whites at recent Harvest Festival
A lot of the small stuff – but very important stuff – has been changing at the Reading Terminal Market. Things like adding a bolstered schedule of events at the market's kitchen, recipe cards using ingredients from market merchants, a wider social media presence, and more frequent evening programs and events. And then there's the stuff that never changes – the myriad details to keep the market operating smoothly, working with the market's board in selecting new vendors when the rare vacancy occurs, and managing the market's landlord-tenant relationships with its 80 vendors.

All this and more are on the plate of Anuj Gupta, who took over as general manager of the market 16 months ago. As Gupta sees it, his job is to build on the solid foundations left behind by his predecessor, Paul Steinke, who now runs the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.

Gupta's overriding goal is to "recenter the market into Philadelphia’s culinary world and put it on top again."

That's a challenge, especially with the opening of the new, enlarged Whole Foods off the Parkway which, through its design, tries to mimic the Reading Terminal Market with shop-like areas for meat, fish and cheese, a food hall-like eating area, and stalls operated by local restauranteurs. Other competitors nipping at the market's heels include MOMs Organic Market, which is slated for the new East Market Street development at 11th street, just around the corner, and the ever-expanding Snap Kitchen prepared food chain.

To compete Gupta believes the market must make the customer experience as good as it can be.

One step in that direction is a service half-heartedly tried with little success about a dozen years ago at Iovine's Produce Market: bag storage. Gupta is bringing it back, under the "Shopper's Concierge" moniker, but thinks with additional promotion and services it can succeed where it's predecessor failed. 

"I've shopped here for many years as a regular Saturday morning customer, and I stopped when I couldn't carry anymore," he said. "I would have bought more if it was easier to get around."

The weekend-only (for now) concierge service, located behind the Head Nut near the Shoe Doctor and rest rooms, will store your purchases as you shop, including those that must be refrigerated, and, on Saturdays, bring them out to your car when you're done.

Gupta acknowledges there's no guarantee the new service won't fail like the earlier one, but "we’re going to keep doing it. I’ve realized how long it can take for things to adapt here, to merchant or customer behavior. Maybe in the long run it doesn’t work, and if it doesn’t we’ll get rid of it. But it’s impossible to try something for even three months and come to any conclusion."

Communicating the market's offerings is an important part of the effort, and the market has upped its game in the social media arena. Christen Rhoadarmer, a graphic designer Gupta added to the market's small management staff is also charged with generating social media contents and works with Gupta to produce the market's live video feeds, usually interviews with vendors, on Facebook.

Key among the benefits Gupta inherited from his predecessor is the market's solid financial footing.

Before taking on his new post Gupta led the Mount Airy USA community development corporation where, like many non-profits, "I could not fundamentally change the dynamic of every two weeks trying to make payroll, which bills I could pay, which bills I couldn't." Although proud he left the organization in better financial shape than when he arrived there, he's thankful for the strong financial condition of the Reading Terminal Market. "While we raise money here, we do it for special capital projects, it’s not for our survival," he said. "And that’s huge relief. I’m able to spend my time on my job, that’s a tremendous benefit to any non-profit organization."

One capital project recently completed is "invisible to customers but has great impact top market’s operation." That's a closed-water loop which functions as a heat removal system for the basement, a non-ventilated, non-air conditioned space where temperatures could become unbearable with the heat thrown off by all the refrigeration units supporting the main floor vendors.

Work to capture that heat started under Steinke and followed through under Gupta's leadership. With the completion of the project this past July, "everyone who has refrigeration equipment has to link into it, taking the hot air previously dumped onto the floor into the water discharge. It’s already had an impact." With the excess heat now helping to heat the market's hot water system, it "opens up a lot of additional possibilities of using space downstairs, and there’s still a vast amount of space that we don’t use because it’s been so unbearable."

On the customer front, the market is working with the hospitality school at Temple University to develop an "ambassador" program. When implemented, Temple students will wander the floor of the market helping visitors find merchants and directing them to services.

Gupta is also working with Drexel University to develop a better way to convey the market's past.

"The market's history is rich in so many ways: architectural, operational, the legacy of family owned businesses, the diversity of our customer base," he said. "You don’t get any sense of that in a formal way when you come here."

(In his conversation with me, Gupta overlooked illustrated history of the market on the wall of the Rick Nichols Room at the rear of the market by Molly Molloy's and Center Court. But few folks take the time to read the history, which the retired Philadelphia Inquirer journalist wrote.)

Still, Gupta laments that "most people don’t even know it was an operating train shed. When out-of-towners come and I give them a tour I tell them when you bought the Reading Railroad in playing Monopoly, you also bought this building. They’re quite surprised." 

Vendors on Videos

Nick Macri of La Divisa interviewed by Anuj Gupta as Christen Rhoadarmer handles video feed

Earlier this autumn the Reading Terminal Market inaugurated a series of "Ask the Experts" videos on its Facebook page, featuring market merchants discussing the specialized items they sell. RTM General Manager Anuj Gupta conducts most of the interviews, but retired Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Rick Nichols also leads some.

The videos are fed live on Facebook, but you can find an archive of the "Ask the Expert" series – as well as videos from the market's City Kitchen cooking demonstration series – on the RTM's FB page. Here's a quick compendium of links to the "Ask the Experts" videos posted so far.

Amy's Place, kitchen supply store.

La Divisa Meats, fresh red meats and charcuterie.

Mueller's Chocolates, chocolates and other candies.

Pennsylvania General Store, Keystone state-made foods and kitchen crafts.

Hatville Deli, Pennsylvania Dutch style deli meats.

Kauffman's Lancaster County Produce, fruits, vegetables, dry foods, Amish crafts.

Cookbook Stall, cookbooks and food magazines.

Giunta's Prime Shop, meats, poultry, deli meats.

Condiment, prepared sauces, marinades, doughs.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Apples to keep

The Esopus Spitzenberg apple
Ben Wenk and I spend nearly five minutes at this morning's Headhouse Square Farmers Market discussing apples and cider, and one variety in particular that he is selling for the first time this year, the Espopus Spitzenberg.

Ben, who brings his family's Three Springs Fruit Farm output in the Adams County, Pennsylvania, fruit belt, to markets here, in Maryland and the District of Columbus, was quick to note the apple was Thomas Jefferson's favorite.

It's one of mine, too, and not only because of its flavor and storage qualities. As I noted in a post five years ago, when I purchased the variety from North Star Orchards, the apple is named after the Esopus Creek in Ulster County, New York. I took many a dip in this icy-cold, rocky waterway in the northern Catskills during family vacations in the 1950s. The Espopus is a favored trout stream and also feeds into the New York City water supply through the nearby Ashokan Reservoir.

The apple offers great balance between sweet and tart, with a honey-colored, crisp and spicy flesh and a orange-dappled skin. The Espopus Spitzenberg's complex flavor is matched by its pleasant aromatic qualities, making it an excellent "dessert" apple, one that's meant to be eaten as is (though it's a good cooking apple, too). It's not an easy apple to grow, however, and prone to just about any disease that strikes other apples.

Like many late season apples, it 's a "keeper" which, like a fine wine, improves with age; the apple you put in the crisper today will be even deeper in favor come late January and February.

Ben had a full bin of another "keeper" today at Headhouse: the Arkansas Black. perhaps the hardest, crispest apple I've ever tasted. It might lose a bit of that crispness after a few months of storage, but it will still be suitably crunchy. As it stores it will even become darker in color, as well as develop a waxy finish. Unlike the Esopus, however, it's a rather one-dimensional apple in flavor: all sweetness, with little apparent tartness. Still, it's a tasty apple with admirable qualities. Although it's parentage is a mystery, the Arkansas Black is probably descended from the Winesap.

If Ben still has them next week I'll buy a big bag of Esopus Spitzenbergs for my crisper. But the "keeper" I'm waiting for is the Newtown Pippin, another variety that improves immeasurably after a few months in storage. North Star Orchards usually has them in November. As a rule, the later in the season an apple matures, the better it is as a storage apple. The Newtown Pippin will soften just a tad in storage and it's skin may wrinkle a bit, but it's fine eating.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Lamb shoulder: a bargain cut with plenty of flavor

Arm cut, with round bone, most fat along edge
Blade cut, with fat throughout, flat bones
In the more than 10 years since this blog started I've posted at least a dozen items about lamb. Here's another, this time focusing on one of the few remaining bargain cuts: shoulder.

Most of the time I go for shoulder chops, which could be purchased this past weekend at the Reading Terminal Market for $5.49 to $8.99 a pound, about half the price you'd pay for loin or rib (rack) chops.

Martin's Quality Meats & Sausages was the low-price leader, selling lamb from Catelli Brothers, a South Jersey processor and distributor which raises lamb on its own farms in Quebec and buys lamb from producers in the western U.S., Australia and New Zealand. La Divisa Meats sold at the highest price, using meat from Jamison Farm in Latrobe, a boutique producer of Pennsylvania lamb which also supplies top restaurants, including Blue Hill. Giunta's was in the middle, at $6.99, with Colorado lamb distributed by Marcho Farms of Souderton. (Over at the new Whole Foods, shoulder chops from Iceland sell for $7.99. Because it is leaner than most other lamb, it has a milder flavor; for me, that's a negative, but others find that appealing.)

As much as I enjoy a thick loin chop or lamb "lollipops" cut from the rib, the heartiest lamb flavor can be found in the shoulder chops.

The cut is less tender, which is one of the reasons why shoulder is less expensive than loin or rib. Just as in beef steaks, the more tender cuts command a higher price. But what the shoulder lacks in relative tenderness, it more than makes up in flavor. And even though shoulder isn't as tender as the other lamb cuts, it can still be rewarding when simply grilled; it may be a bit chewier than the other cuts, but it's not too tough for the high, dry heat.

Shoulder chops come in two different cuts: arm and blade. Arm chops, as you might expect, are cut from the part of the shoulder closest to the arm, hence the round bone you'll find in this style. The blade cut comes from closer to the neck and features -- guess what -- the shoulder blade bone.

In recipes they are fairly interchangeable. Although some think the arm chop is more suitable to braising than the blade, both can be broiled, grilled or pan-fried. The arm chop will have less fat overall as well as less marbling. The blade looks like a smaller version of the beef chuck blade steak and has more marbling. No matter the cooking method, shoulder needs to be cooked to at least medium, and also holds up to longer cooking -- though if you go beyond medium well you do risk shoe leather.

If you're braising them you can go with a thick cut, but when grilling, thinner is better; I like them cut no more than three-quarters of an inch.

When I stopped by Nick Macri's La Divisa Meats he only had large pieces of shoulder, not chops, but he was more than happy to cut to order.

Before grilling I bathed them in a yogurt marinade. Although the marinade has some ability to tenderize, it won't turn the chop into a tenderloin. Instead, I use the marinade for flavor.

For the two chops (which weighed in at a total of 14 ounces, just under a pound) I mixed about four ounces of full-fat plain yogurt (not Greek) with a couple tablespoons of olive oil, four cloves of minced and mashed garlic (adding a little kosher salt while scraping the cutting board with the back of your chefs knife turns minced garlic into a mash), the zest and juice of a small lemon, and whatever spices or herbs strike my fancy. This time it was cumin and cardamom -- two tablespoons each, ground. I placed the chops in a single layer in a non-reactive baking pan, salted and peppered them, then spread the marinade on both sides of the chops. I covered and refrigerated them for six hours, though you could certainly leave them overnight or cut the time down to four hours.

I didn't bother wiping off the marinade when it was time to hit the grill, I just placed them on the hot oiled grate over a medium fire and cooked about four-to-five minutes a side for medium.

I cooked up a mess of mustard greens with garlic as my side dish. A cold lager or your favorite red completes the meal.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The new Whole Foods: Glitz with your biodyamic organic probiotic grub

Coffee bar along Hamilton Street facade
The crowds were thick this weekend at the new Whole Foods just north of the Parkway. Which is why I waited until 7 a.m. Monday to visit.

I wound up spending the better part of 90 minutes sipping coffee and wandering its aisles, asking questions of the cheesemongers, fishmongers and meatmongers at this pantheon to conspicuous consumption of comestibles.

First, though, I need a caffein jolt, so after arriving I ordered a coffee and "Krough-Amann" from the coffee bar's small collection of pastry and bagels. This offspring of the cronut came in two varieties: one with ham, swiss cheese and topped with confectioners sugar and, the one I selected, filled with a little bit of feta cheese and a single stripe from a sun-dried tomato. Too greasy. I'd rather have a grilled cheese sandwich with bacon.

The coffee bar turns into a real bar at 11 a.m., with wine, beer and cocktails. The coffee itself is a Starbucks clone. Since I'm not a Starbucks fan I wasn't impressed, but that's a matter of taste; you might like it.

The store's designers are no doubt betting that a goodly number of the many Fairmount residents who walk by each morning on their way to Center City offices will stop by for coffee and more. Its entrances are aligned with the street to draw them in.

Some initial reactions to what I saw during my early morning stroll through the aisles:

Pre-made meal kits in one of the refrigerator cases, right next to pre-made whipped cream in clamshell containers. No aerosol Reddi-Wip here.

Over in the bakery department a good selection of loafs. What I particularly liked was the self-service bread slicer.  (They must have not run this by their corporate lawyers.)

The cheese selection is good but missing items it should have, like a really sharp cheddar, what I fondly call "rat cheese", the type of cheddar that crystallizes, crumbles and tastes intensely salty with a hint of sweetness. When I asked the cheesemonger how long the cheddars had been aged, he didn't know. He thoughtfully tried to find out, but their reference data sheets hadn't been organized yet.

Meat on the hook at Whole Foods
Meats have always been a Whole Foods strong point. At the old store there was a small case where you could see some beef aging; here they've got a big walk-in box filled with a couple of sides of sheep, pig and veal, as well as primal cuts of beef aging. At least one on-line commentator I read complained about having to view meat on the hook. Really? Where do you think your hamburger comes from?

Although Whole Foods hasn't shaken it's reputation as Whole Paycheck (most items are pricier than you'd pay elsewhere for similar quality) you can find the occasional bargain. One example: I regularly buy U.S. wild-caught frozen shrimp, shell on but cut and deveined at Wegmans in Cherry Hill for about $30 a two-pound bag. Here they were $20 for the same weight, although the shell wasn't cut along the back nor were the veins removed. Still, a very good price for a high-quality product.

The fresh seafood section at the new Whole Foods keeps up their quality standard and the prices, while a bit high, are within range, more expensive but better quality than the Reading Terminal Market, but less broad a selection. They will, however, cook whatever you like in-store, something I first encountered in midwestern supermarkets like Schucks in St. Louis.

I liked the idea of the self-serve fresh pasta case and will get around to trying them some day soon.

The produce at WF has never impressed me, the quality better and the prices cheaper at the Reading Terminal. In one news report on the new store, the writer noted that if they don't have a produce item, they'll order it for you, citing dragonfruit and prickly pears as examples; no need to order these at Iovine Brothers at the terminal, which stocks them regularly.

Next time I'll have to come for lunch to try out the four stalls from Dizengoff (hummus), CHeU Noodle Bar, Severino Cucina Rustica, and the vegan Wiz Kid from Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby. The pita at Dizengoff is mixed and baked on site.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

"No, we don't have quiches. We do have knishes."

As I waited for my belly lox this morning at the counter of Schlesinger's Deli, Locust Street, Philadelphia, that's what the server told a potential customer on the phone: "No, we don't have quiches. We do have knishes."

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Veal returns (for one day only) at DiNic's

For 20 years, veal scaloppine sandwiches were on the menu at DiNic's in the Reading Terminal Market. But when the increasing wholesale cost of veal reached a level that required a too-pricey price on the sandwich, owner Tom Nicolosi switched out pork for veal.

In an application like scaloppine, the taste difference between pork and veal is minimal, especially when served with plenty of peppers and onions. But the very fact that the menu board read "pork" instead of "veal" caused sales to plummet. Eventually, the stall removed scaloppine in any form from the menu.

But this week for one day only, Thursday, DiNic's will bring back veal scaloppine with real veal, though cut from the shoulder not the leg to keep the price point within bounds, according to Joe Nicolosi, who took over the stall a few years back from his now mostly-retired dad.

At the same time, Joe has dropped his experiment of preparing cracklings as an occasional adornment to his sandwiches. Simply a case of not worth the extra effort from the business point of view, though the handful of customers who looked forwarded to the cracklings are no doubt disappointed.