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Archive for October, 2006

To Market, to Market

Now that I have a new Saturday gig selling Italian wines at a lovely shop near Union Square, it’s become my custom to loop through the farmers’ market on my way to work. As I described in an earlier post, these waning days of early autumn are surely the market’s best. When I take my leisurely morning stroll past the piles of pumpkins and potted mums, I’m reminded of the markets I visited this summer. It seems like every country has their own focus – hanging meats of every variety and cut in Spain, rows of glistening fish in Portugal – but no one masters nearly every category like the French. Perhaps one of the only countries in Europe to still rely upon the open air market for daily supplies of fresh bread, meat, cheese and produce, the markets I saw in Provence made all other farmer’s markets I’d seen up to that point look downright shoddy. Let’s face facts – the French know how to eat.

With wicker baskets in hand, local men and women milled through the markets with expert eyes, selecting perfectly ripe specimens of fruits and vegetables, while greeting the visiting farmers with a kiss on each cheek.  The markets in Provence also cover some territory that the USDA would surely gasp at – fresh cheese so young the whey is still running out of it, handmade cured sausages resting uncovered on trays, rotisserie chickens still spinning on portable spits, and fish laying out on beds of ice. Throw in an impromptu jazz band on the market’s outskirts, and you’ve got an entertaining walk through the bounty of France’s farms. Oh, and did I mention the perfect picnic lunch that can emerge from a quick peruse through the market?

I couldn’t decide which pictures to highlight, so here’s a much more entertaining journey through what I saw. (Thanks for the tech advice, Rita!)

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Some things never change

oysters-plate.gifChange is good, sometimes great. And then there are some things that should never change. While new restaurants offer the excitement of unexplored potential, other places offer a warm, comforting routine. Last weekend, I visited just such a place – the Oyster Bar inside Grand Central Station.

Though now the shuckers are from Mexico and cellphone chatter echoes across the restaurant, walking into the Oyster Bar feels a bit like walking into a black and white photo. With arched, tiled ceilings that mimic the grand constellation-covered ceilings of the main terminal upstairs, the Oyster Bar invites weary travelers and curious tourists alike to settle into a seat at the bar or in the adjoining saloon and block out the madness of Midtown. Unlike the grand restaurants that look down upon the action upstairs, the Oyster Bar is tucked in a fairly quiet area, with windows facing a dim passageway that commuters stream down en route to the correct track.

The menu is strictly old school seafood house – boiled lobster served with clarified butter, seafood salad, chowder (both Manhattan and New England), clams casino, oysters Rockefeller, scallop roasts, crab cakes, and yes, oysters on the half shell! A large menu on the wall near the shuckers’ station displays handwritten signs with the current offering of oysters. Spanning both coasts of America and Canada, the choices range from the common Bluepoints to the quirkily named Tomahawks (from Long Island and Rhode Island, respectively).

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The oysters, served on a bed of crushed ice, come with a lemon wedge and two tiny paper cups – one filled with classic mignonette sauce and one filled with ketchup. The jar of horseradish sits next to the salt and pepper, ready to meet the ketchup and transform into cocktail sauce.

After downing several different kinds of the raw oysters, I was drawn towards a second order of the slightly sweet, firm Widow’s Holes (suspend all crude jokes at this point) from the East End of Long Island. Perfectly balanced between savory and sweet, metallic and meaty, the Widow’s Holes were definitely the highlight of my oyster exploration. What I relish about all oysters, though — not just the Widows Holes — is the slightly briny whiff of the ocean, followed by the mild seawater taste, all contained within that single slurp. Instant transport from the city to the beach in one bite.

The wine list is large, but surprisingly limited, given that the menu is seafood driven. In this temple to all things from the sea, I was dismayed to see so many oaky whites and big, robust reds. I suppose that if you’re going to keep a classic restaurant intact, you need a classic wine list, but this is one area I would’ve appreciated a bit of modernity. A California Cabernet does not, in fact, go with everything! The list is balanced evenly between whites and reds (unnessecarily so), and yet I struggled to choose a suitable white for oysters. In the end, I settled on a forgettable Chablis, but what I really wanted was a Muscadet or a minerally Chenin Blanc from the Loire. Even a steel-aged Chardonnay would’ve done the trick. Who orders Zinfandel with scallops anyway?

The scene is comfortable without trying to be. You can opt to sit at a table, but why would you? All the action’s at the various bars.

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On the left, a lone tourist studied his map of the city in between bites of scarlet lobster. His meal began with a carefully composed plate of oysters and ended with a perfect wedge of Key Lime pie, served on clunky diner china. Moments after he left, a ruddy faced man sat on the right. A pint of Brooklyn and six Kumamotoes, he ordered in one breath, with nary a glance at the menu. Two cops strolling through the terminal poked their heads in the open window behind the shuckers to crack a joke. Servers ran back and forth from the bar, carefully balancing chowders and bantering with each other. The manager came strolled over to announce the score to no one in particular, and that’s when I realized – how many times has this scene already been played out? And how many more times will it be? Hopefully I’ll be there one of those next times down the road.

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beer-pint-150.jpgFancy an IPA or an Extra Special Bitter? Lovers of bitter beer, beware – a large fire Tuesday at a hop storage warehouse in Washington State destroyed approximately 4% of the country’s entire hop harvest. Only time will tell whether or not this will translate into higher prices for certain brews that use large quantities of the delicate buds to add bitterness and aroma. Though hops are actually flowering vines, what brewmasters are really after is the tiny amount of sticky, yet highly flavorful resin that forms on the petals of the buds. Apparently this resin can also be highly combustible. Who knew that beer could be so dangerous?

But then again, there’s always prosecco. Woman of many talents, Paris Hilton, is the new spokesperson for a brand of bubbly-in-a-can called Rich Prosecco. paris_prosecco.jpg Though the fizzy beverage is all-Italian, it will be sold solely in Germany for now, with the possible addition of other foreign markets – apparently, it’s not legal to sell prosecco out of aluminum in Italy. While Miss Hilton declares the beverage “yummy,” Rich Prosecco owner Guenther Aloys has a more complex reason for selecting Hilton: “Nobody else currently embodies carefree lust for life as convincingly and glamorously as Paris Hilton. That’s why she’s matches Rich Prosecco so well.” Lest we forget, the heiress was arrested in early September on drunk driving charges.

If you think that most rice comes magically from a man named Uncle Ben, the Christian Science Monitor is ready to reeducate you on the dying art of harvesting wild rice. While most “wild” rice today comes in fact from cultivated paddies, some Minnesotans are keeping the tradition alive by hand harvesting the grains. For those in other parts of the country, Native Harvest – a project of the White Earth Indian Reservation – offers mail order for local wild rice, as well as other traditional food staples, such as hominy and maple syrup. The reservation also manages a handy website about the perils wild rice currently faces.

fresh-pork-dumpling.jpgSlate writer Tim Wu searches for authenticity of another sort in his feature about how to find real, honest-to-god Chinese style dumplings. Wu breaks down the regional differences between various types of dumplings, and he also elaborates upon the “magic ratio” that quality dumplings must achieve – the perfect balance between meat and dough. Whether five-for-a-dollar or upscale Asian fusion, the road to dumpling making is lined with potential landmines.

In case you missed it, last weekend was the 21st Farm Aid concert. Though it may seem somewhat surreal, this year’s concert was held in the urban jungle known as Camden, New Jersey. willie_nelson_marijuana_american.gifConcert organizers pointed out that the concert is also meant to draw attention to urban farming projects, as well as the problem of poor nutrition in the inner city. And heck, NJ is the Garden State after all. At any rate, Willie Nelson was able to spring the slammer in order to join pals Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp and Neil Young, among others, on stage.

And it looks the Farm Aid money will be much needed this year for many small, family farmers in the Midwest, who are facing the second warmest year on record since 1895. The high temps have led to a severe drought across much of the country, which has also dried up harvest profits. Many small scale farmers are not eligible for the same subsidies as the big boys, so get out to the local farmers’ markets to show your support!

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Farewell, summer days

pumpkins.JPGThe seasons in the city shift in less perceptible ways. Painted toenails disappear under socks and sensible leather shoes. Sweaters hide limbs with quickly fading tans. The afternoon light grows leaner. At this time of year, when a brisk morning can be followed by an absurdly warm afternoon, though, the changing seasons are reflected nowhere more clearly than the farmers’ market. New York may not have crunchy leaves underfoot, but the produce at the market acts as a seasonal barometer.

Though summer’s exited the room, right now are the markets’ days of glory. Insanely large quantities of summer crops – peaches, tomatoes, basil, sweet peppers, corn and the like – are breathing their last breath, offering up one last grand hurrah before they disappear until next year. Nudging alongside these bright characters, however, are the new cool weather neighbors – the gourds, the squashes, the root vegetables and the apples. In one crate, it’s easy to see a picture of ‘Hello fall; goodbye summer.”

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And there’s something sort of sweet and fleeting about perusing the bold flavors of summer in sweaters and jackets.

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P.S. Don’t forget to stock up on one of my favorite late summer/early fall treats — the concord grape. Insiped California table grapes these are not! Dark purple and deliciously toothsome, these varieties of “fox” grapes are a Northeast specialty and will remind you of what real grapes taste like — perfumed, grapey goodness.

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