Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Washington DC Markets

The Lincoln Memorial.

The Air and Space Museum.

The Dupont Circle Farmers' Market.

Yes, it's a Produce Savant trip to Washington DC!

I hadn't been to DC for many years. On my last visit, I was so produce-starved I ended up buying a banana from an ice cream parlor. But things have changed since then.

I was delighted to find that farmers' markets have become popular and readily accessible since my last visit. When I asked the staff at our hotel about farmers' markets, I received some helpful and straightforward ideas, mercifully free of any good-thing-I'm-paid-to-deal-with-members-of-fringe-communities response.

But we found our first market serendipitously, while walking downtown. This market was held at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

The USDA market offered a two-fer: vendors plus the opportunity to see produce growing in the surrounding gardens. 
The selection of farm stands was small, but offset by the friendly vibe and the extreme convenience of finding the market without going out of our way. 

The market's modest size showcased the courtly manners of the vendors. These manners, coupled with the prominence of certain vegetables like lima beans and okra - while our markets in New York do have them, they occupy less actual and mental real estate - gave the market a semi-Southern vibe, not inappropriate for this semi-Southern city.   


Would it be snarky to note that the USDA farm stand that attracted the longest lines featured King Corn? Yes, skip over the fairy eggplant, tomatoes and okra to get to the market's real attraction, kettle corn.

Of course, like all travelers, we had to keep it moving.

Our next destination was the Eastern Market, a public market in the Capitol Hill neighborhood that first opened in 1873 - about 20 years earlier than Philadelphia's wonderful Reading Terminal Market.  Its 19th century building was gutted in a fire in 2007 but renovated and re-opened in 2009. My carnivorous friends were very impressed by the market's butcher stand. For us herbivores, the market was a little small. We were ready for some destination produce markets.

Next stop: the market at 14th and U Streets

I enjoy exploring urban neighborhoods like U Street, which added to the fun. This market had a nice selection of farm stands.

Although the prices seemed a bit high by New York standards - more on this later - the vendors did have a more formal system of discounting small and bruised produce than is common in New York.

I have to admit my favorite vendor was not a farm stand but rather No 1 Sons, produce picklers. As a connoisseur not only of farmers' markets but also their signs, I was doubly wowed.

Our final market: the huge Dupont Circle farmers market. 

This one is operated by FreshFarm, which also runs conveniently located markets in neighborhoods such as Foggy Bottom, Union Market, downtown Silver Spring (Maryland) and "by the White House." 

FreshFarm restricts participation to "farmers/producers who sell what they grow, raise or produce on their own farm or facility." All farmers must hail from the Chesapeake Bay Watershed region, which by FreshFarm's reckoning includes a 200 mile radius of Washington DC and the states of Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Virginia.

I enjoyed the extensive samples and some C-SPAN policy wonk celebrity sighting. I can't wait for the Us Magazine spread: "Celebrities are just like us - they shop at farmers' markets!" I'm just not sure that pundits count as celebrities.

I couldn't help but notice that the prices at the market - Dupont Circle especially - were steep, noticeably steeper than NYC's Union Square Greenmarket. I mentioned this to a FreshFarm staffer, and she responded matter-of-factly, "Oh, DC is much more expensive than New York in general." 

Huh!  This was news to me (and various chart-makers) - NYC's real estate costs are especially ridiculous - but we're happy to step aside. 

Lest you think the Produce Savant is a philistine with limited interests, I should add that I did visit many of Washington's great museums. Here are some highlights from the National Gallery of Art


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

What the heck is that? Romanesco

When I've seen romanesco, typically at farmers' markets, it's often been displayed next to the lovely purple and peach colored cauliflower, so I’ve assumed that this groovy-looking vegetable is just another cauliflower variation. But the truth is more complicated.

But before we look into romanesco's DNA, let’s first focus for a moment on its appearance. Romanesco looks like it should inspire a thousand architectural acid trips.

Its color is a lovely lime green. Its shape has been described as "spires and minarets" and "a natural approximation of a fractal." Fractals are shapes or patterns that look basically the same over a wide range of scales. Think of snowflakes. Or think of romanesco, whose little spiral buds join together to make up a kind of giant spiral bud. Romanesco is the the subject of this article by John Walker, called, “Fractal Food: Self-Similarity on the Supermarket Shelf,” which notes,

Nearly exact self-similar fractal forms occur do in nature, but I'd never seen such a beautiful and perfect example until, sometime after moving to Switzerland, I came across a chou Romanesco in a grocery store. This is so visually stunning an object that on first encounter it's hard to imagine you're looking at a garden vegetable rather than an alien artefact created with molecular nanotechnology. But of course, then you realise that vegetables are created with molecular nanotechnology, albeit the product of earthly evolution, not extraterrestrial engineering.

My informal survey about the romanesco's appearance elicited these comparisons and comments: coral reef; space ship; "definitely some kind of stone," "a vegetable pagoda," and "Did Gaudi eat this when he was designing some of his buildings?" 

Back to romanesco's DNA. As Walker notes, in some countries romanesco is called "chou," or cabbage; elsewhere it's romanesco broccoli or romanesco cauliflower. Broccoli, cauliflower and other members of the brassica oleracea family have cross-bred for centuries; cavolo broccolo romanesco (as it is known in Italy) apparently dates back to the time of Julius Caesar.

Which side of the family does romanesco favor? Botanical testing says cauliflower is its closest kin.

My own taste test agrees. Romanesco has its own flavor, reminiscent of cauliflower but sweeter. It keeps its shape well when steamed - you could break it up into florets later - and would make a fine addition to a crudite platter. Sauteing with garlic and red pepper flakes or a squeeze of lemon, as you might with broccoli rabe, is another good option. 

Here it is steamed and coupled simply with some sriracha sauce; other good options would be a garlicky dip or something zesty-Mediterranean, with capers and olives.  They'll play nicely off the romanesco's sweet vegetable flavor, but there's no real competition for its striking looks.