Friday, July 16, 2010

Check Me Out this Weekend!

The Philly Food Feed is everywhere you want to be this weekend. Ben(me) will be working Clark Park on Saturday and the Headhouse on Sunday. I work for Noelle at Margerum's Herbs Etc., a stalwart at both of the aforementioned markets. Later on in the season I'm going to do a profile on Noelle I think. Come say hello.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Getting Back on the Organic Horse

Well, not literally. However, there is a bit of truth in my overly wrought attempt at a humorous title for this entry...the Philly Food Feed Farmers' Market Marathon had been put temporarily on hold until the end of my wisdom teeth convalescence, which has gone on so long that I swear my oral surgeon's initials are BP. They say that its worse when you are older, but it isn't like I'm Andy Rooney. Incidentally, did you ever wonder what the deal is with bloggers who think they are comedians? I digress...
The teeth are better and I anticipate making it out to at least one new market this week, as well as probably to one or two of my old haunts. I know you all are out there waiting with baited breath about where I am getting my next radish, so I will earnestly (try) to stick to this commitment.
You know, I talk to more than a few people who claim that they read the blog, but nobody ever comments. Most of the time you don't even click the "I Like This" button and I KNOW that some of you have to like something here. Its getting so bad that I actually got a like on my last post and then found out that it was from my MOM. That's cool and I am flattered, but it is sort of like her telling me that I am the handsomest kid at school. Whatever, its cool. I'm really just playing. But seriously, if people don't start picking it up around here, I'm going to start keeping prime radish locations to myself.


Thursday, July 8, 2010

How to Pick a Watermelon

I have (had) no idea how to pick a melon. None. That was until I came across this how-to from Francis Lam at Salon magazine. I wanted to share this because I can't be the only one confused in the art of watermelon picking.

How to choose (and store) a watermelon
Forget hocus-pocus like tapping. Here's how to select and store, with a surprise tip from a pro on how to serve

What's more carefree than watermelon in the summer? Eating a wedge so big you can't see out the side, splashing yourself with juice ... Well, if you're standing outside in 103-degree heat, hoping to buy a watermelon good enough to justify living in whatever hell you do that gets this hot, things suddenly become a lot less carefree. Stakes is high for this watermelon, son!

So, yesterday, when it was in fact 103 degrees in the g*****mned shade, I stood in front of the swimming pool-size bin of watermelons at my supermarket watching people go through their selection rituals. One man insisted that he could tap-and-listen his way to juiciness and, as if to impress the pretty woman next to him, proceeded to refine his technique until it looked like he had to do nothing more than touch the fruit, like a spiritual laying on of hands. It seemed a bit silly, all this hocus-pocus, but I understand the need for belief: What's sadder than cutting into a mealy, bland watermelon?

I took my chances on a 15-pound baby and carried it home on my shoulder. Then, this morning, unwilling to ever leave such a decision to fate again, I called an expert -- Darryl Mosher, a farmer and professor of product knowledge at the Culinary Institute of America, who happens to have grown a watermelon or several thousand. When picking one for himself, this is what Darryl looks for.

Shape: You want a symmetrical shape. If the watermelon is narrower on one end or misshapen, it means it grew in fits and starts, and was probably water-starved at one point. I don't even really know what it means for a melon to be water-starved, but it sounds a little too Gitmo for comfort.

Color and spotting: Color itself isn't a great indicator (some heirloom varieties are particularly gorgeous, and aren't even green). But look for melons with a bright skin; dullness may indicate that it's been sitting around. More important, look for the "field spot," a large-ish splotch of creamy-to-yellow or even orange color. This indicates that the melon was allowed to sit in the field for a good long time, maturing and producing sugar. Avoid melons where the field spot is white, pale green or nonexistent.

Pick it up!: One of the best tests requires a bit of effort -- you want to choose one that is heavy for its size, indicating that it's full of juice. If you don't know how much a watermelon should weigh, pick up a few that are the same size in the bin. Keep the heaviest one.

Red or yellow? Seeded or seedless?: As a man of prejudices, I spit watermelon seeds at seedless watermelons and look at yellow watermelons with a jaundiced eye. But Darryl doesn't think these things matter very much in terms of quality. Until recently he would have preferred seeded over seedless, but new seedless varieties can be plenty delicious. And of course there are wonderful heirloom varieties, but to learn about those you should ask the market or grower directly.

Storage and shelf-life: Watermelons can seem to last for weeks in the fridge, but Darryl recommends you keep them just a bit cooler than room temperature, eat them as soon as possible, and refrigerate them only after they're cut, or only for a few hours before serving if you want to serve them cold. The cold fridge degrades their flavor and texture (even as it keeps them from rot), characteristics that already start to deteriorate the moment they're picked. "Any grower will tell you that the very best watermelon is the one that you break while harvesting and end up eating," Darryl says. So buying local watermelons is ideal if it means they get to your market from the field more quickly.

Serving it ... warm and salty?: Most people, me included, like to refrigerate their watermelons because they're so refreshing cold. So Darryl stunned me when he said, "You know, I like my watermelon heated. I put it out on the blacktop, in the full sun, and cut it hot." It allows its true flavors to come out, he says. "It's like a totally different fruit, aromatic, more along the lines of some tropical fruits. They get almost a mango flavor."

While we're on that subject of odd serving suggestions I am actually fond of lightly salting watermelon for a taste contrast, and just last night, my ladyfriend made a refreshing salad of watermelon, cucumber and Greek tzatziki.

A final word of warning: All the above said, choosing a good watermelon does involve a fair deal of hoping for the best. You can't sniff them very successfully because their skins are so thick, tests like tapping for sound are inconsistent, and the single biggest factor in quality is how long the fruit has stayed in storage, something you can't really tell until tasting it. But if you can trust your market and go through the above steps, you're well on your way to burying your face in sweet fruit.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Farmers' Market Mumbles...and Bad Teeth

I know, I know. I have not posted anything substantial for a while. I build you all up with the Philly Food Feed Farmers' Market Marathon and then I disappear, like the last piece of grilled summer squash on your plate. I can only apologize and say that wisdom teeth extraction at 32 is a bitch. For real. Here I am, a week later, and my face still looks like Rocky, albeit from about the sixth round as opposed to the 8th. I'm also still in enough pain that I went back to the dentist today to make sure I didn't have "dry sockets" (look it up, you know I did). He said no, and sent me on my way with some more painkillers. Awesome. I know that wisdom teeth shouldn't interfere with writing, but they hurt really bad! Wah! Moving on...
Its July and the weather is heating up, and so is the behind the scenes world of the Philly farmers' market scene evidently. As some of you probably already know, Three Springs Fruit Farm will not be attending Saturday's market at the Piazza at Schmidt's. If you are a regular customer of theirs on Saturday, you will be able to find them at the famed Greensgrow Farms for their Saturday market. This isn't the first defection from the Piazza this season and apparently it isn't without acrimony. Three Springs commented on the move on their Facebook page:
…we feel a lot more comfortable with the folks at Greensgrow - we already have a great relationship with those guys. At the Piazza, it felt like they were more concerned about the Farmers Market getting in the way of whatever else they had planned than they were concerned about providing good food for their residents and the community. e feel a lot more comfortable with the folks at Greensgrow - we already have a great relationship with those guys. At the Piazza, it felt like they were more concerned about the Farmers Market getting in the way of whatever else they had planned than they were concerned about providing good food for their residents and the community…We had started building some great relationships at the Piazza Farmers Market, but we felt like we were going to be limited in our ability to serve those folks - they wouldn't know where we'd set up from week to week, the hours of the market etc. - all things beyond our control. I hope that market becomes successful but I also hope that if you miss us, you'd come visit us just a few blocks north at Greensgrow.
I wanted to get the manager of the Piazza Market, Kyle Perry's perspective on the comments from Three Springs. He had this to say:
We face a unique challenge at the Piazza. Not only are there logistics with the market-setup but also with other events, a wider scope of geography than what other markets have to deal with, a lack of totalitarian oversight, plus all of the other first-year market issues. Contributing to the issues are those farmers/vendors who are not willing to work with me and these issues, and who have visibly not been vested in the market. Facebook is an interesting site, and provides insight into relationships with others not already evident. Three Springs if I'm not mistaken last mentioned they were even attending our market last sometime in May. They consistently mentioned appearances at other markets. Peaches arrived last week at other markets, and in fact a blurb went out on their Facebook page that they would be available at weekend markets.
I posted on our page that information. Lo and behold, no Peaches for the Piazza. In other words it's been evident that we have been treated as a second-tier market by them, and also feel it was a bit influenced by "farmers market politics" in this city. In summary, we're happy with our remaining farmers/vendors who are seemingly committed to the success of the market.
So there you have it. When I first got into the whole "local food scene", I erroneously believed that everything was hearts and flowers and everybody got along with everybody else and everybody was a hippie. After visiting markets and meeting farmers and market managers and the like, I have found that farmers' markets are a business like any other. This doesn't surprise me or disappoint me - it is what it is. As long as I and others have access to fresh, local, nutritious food - fight it out amongst yourselves.