The Quest for Produce Greatness

After another exhausting grocery run, I slumped into the apartment. Weary, I dragged a chair to my cabinet, and carefully stacked the cans on a shelf, making sure they were steady. I pushed all the cans to the back, stuffed in all the other non-perishables, and then slammed the cabinet closed so that nothing would fall on my head. That taken care of, I made a mental note to step back when I next opened the cabinet.  Carefully, I emptied the remaining bags of their well-chosen produce, and gently placed the fresh fruits and vegetables in their proper crispers.

Later that night I spoke with my grandmother, and told her of my victorious, if lengthy, shopping experience. Sine I hadn’t lived  in the neighborhood long she asked, a bit hesitantly, where I went shopping and if the store was any good. I laughed.

“I go to four stores a week,” I chortled, struck by the absurdity. “Some are better than others.”

“Four stores!” she said with wonder. “You go to four stores a week?”

“Three of them are for produce,” I hastened to clarify. “One has really good produce, one is cheap, and the other is really my local farmers’ market.”

“Oh, that’s fine” she agreed.

My family puts a high premium on good produce. Rather, my grandfather made the quest for produce greatness his retirement plan. My dad has always claimed that had Zaidy played the stock market as he did the produce market, he’d have been a very rich man. Instead, we had the very best produce that could be procured.

One summer day when I had nowhere to go, I was taken by my grandfather on a produce foray. He drove past the city limits, leaving behind all the stores I knew. He drove out to a Shop N Save, parked, and made a bee-line for the vegetables. He knew what he wanted, and after turning over this and that, made his selections; he paid and we got back in the car. It wasn’t until he pulled out that I realized we weren’t done. Two stops later – to two stores even further from where we lived – we had two full shopping bags and a long road home. Once we made it back to my grandparents’ house the caliber of the produce made it obvious why we’d traveled so far for so little. It really was that good.

I’m not the shopper my Zaidy was; I don’t research the circulars, nor do I follow crop developments with his intensity. However, I refuse to settle for standard produce. I shop for seasonal fruits and vegetables with an eye to quality and price. Here are my top three produce stores:

Fairway  http://www.fairwaymarket.com/

There are multiple locations and all of the produce is ripe and fresh.  The prices are even reasonable.

Tu Pais  St. Nicholas & 183 Street

Cheapest produce south of Hunt’s Point. Along with cheap prices you can find some great-tasting, along with the cheap-tasting, produce. Since the produce is outside all day – and sometimes all night – it’s best to get there early in the morning. Going after 7PM, when it’s closing up, or on a hot summer’s day, can be a mistake. However if you get there at the right time you can buy two weeks worth of great-tasting produce – 3 eggplants, 1 cabbage, 12 peppers – for under $15. To the store owners I’d like to say “Tu pais, es mi pais.”

United Nations Farmers’ Market http://www.grownyc.org/greenmarket

There are farmers’ markets all over the city, but my personal one is across the street from the United Nations – though the same farmers frequent other markets. All year long they have the best variety of apples in New York City, and if it’s seasonal produce you crave its products are sometimes better than Fairway – and usually the same price. Out of season, you can still get great produce here, but the prices might make you wish you hadn’t. I don’t know what the vetting process is to become a farmers’ market seller, but they sure find the friendliest farmers in the greater metro area.

Produce shopping is a science, anyone with the right formula anyone can get the right results. You now have the formula, all you need is the wherewithal. The quest for great produce is long, but the rewards are great.

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Squash Soup: Sweet or Savory

“You really don’t have to like squash,” Ellen tried to reassure me as I scooped the innards out of a piping hot butternut squash with more speed than care.


“I know,” I replied in irritation as I waved my hand briskly in the air, trying to cool it down. I ran it under water for a moment, and then returned to scooping out my squash, this time with more care and less speed.


As Ellen knew, my squash trials began when my mother sent me a letter. Included in that letter was the recipe – her favorite of that week’s batch in the local paper – “Oven-Roasted Vegetables Glazed with Apple Cider, Dried Cranberries and Pumpkin Seeds” [ http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/11321/1190303-34.stm#ixzz1jlyIsCXe ] and her excited comments on its success. As far as I can recall, the only squash my mom ever brought into the house were decorative gourds. Given her history, I took this new-found enthusiasm for squash as an indicator of a truly fantastic recipe. Given, the recipe my mom sent me was not quite as she’d found it.  My mom can make any dish, or a facsimile of it, from what is already stocked in the pantry. The actual recipe she sent me was marked up to be user-friendly and pantry-conscious. So inspired, I set  out to replicate my mother’s success; therein was my downfall.


I made the squash, following a mix of the recipe’s directives and my mom’s helpful hints and shortcuts. The best report of the dish is that it was quite edible. I was not deterred, though I did give away the remainder of the sqash. With my mom’s enthusiasm still running high, I decided to give her new favorite fruit a second chance. This time, it would become a hard-to-disappoint-dish: soup.


As I stood in the kitchen pureeing my Savory Squash Soup,  surrounded by dishes I’d dirtied in the process, Ellen again reassured me that I did not need to like squash. When I confessed that I already maintained an active dislike of the fruit, she suggested I stop buying it. My protests that soup would be different made no impression on her wary gaze.


“If I don’t like this, I’ll stop,” I said, probably unconvincingly. “Or I’ll try a different squash soup.” The Savory Squash Soup was excellent, but if it hadn’t been the Sweet Potato and/or Squash Soup a friend made later that day would have kept me buying, and eating, squash.


 Savory Squash Soup
1 acorn squash
1 butternut squash
oil as needed
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2-5 cups vegetable broth, as per desired thickness
1 tsp curry
salt to taste
red pepper flakes to taste
Cut squash in half, de-seed. Roast on oiled pan for 45 minutes at 425. Sautee onions; remove squash from oven and scoop innards into sauteed onions. Add vegetable broth, curry, salt, and pepper. Bring mixture to a boil, cover and reduce to a simmer for five minutes. Puree mixture until smooth, heat five minutes more and serve.

Sweet Potato and/or Squash Soup

1 tbsp flour
1 tbsp margarine
1 1/2 c vegetable broth
1 tbsp light brown sugar
1 1/2 c cooked and mashed sweet potatoes can be replaced in part of full with squash
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 cup soymilk
Salt

Over a medium flame, stir together flour and butter in a soup pot. Stir constantly until roux achieves a light caramel color. Add the broth and brown sugar, bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer. Stir in the sweet potatoes/squash and spices, bring to a boil again and cook for 5 minutes. In a blender, puree the soup then return it to the pot. Add soymilk, reheat soup; season with salt and pepper.


Moral to the story: listen to your mother.

Success in Finding the Dress

Tulled-up and sequined-out is the latest in wedding dresses; a fact which is plastered across any one of the myriad of bridal-wear magazines. Wedding dresses are not just a fashion statement, they’re an industry. An industry which comes with its own magazines, stylists, and – most importantly – warehouses of dresses. Of course, a dress which resembles neither the wardrobe of a vamp or ballerina-on-steroids is dispersed to one of a myriad boutiques, thrift shops, and gamachs where brides search for that elusive pretty – and occasionally affordable – dress.

There are many bridal stores across the country – big, little, good, and bad – but there is one which surpasses all others in prestige. The best and most famous of them all is Kleinfeld. A friend of mine, soon-to-be-married, once waltzed in to see what all the buzz was about. She was stopped in her tracks by the question, “Do you have an appointment?” People who buy dresses there plan their weddings nearly a year in advance, since the wait-list is long and appointment times are scarce and sacred. Kleinfeld is built for those who plan to live in a Barbie Dreamhouse and have a wedding to match. Most other bridal stores are more flexible in their scheduling, pricing, and dream-to-reality service.

As with any thrift shop purchase, find a wedding dress in one is elusive, tricky, and fun. The variety is great – summer dresses next to fall dresses, vintage gowns next to pre-aged denim getups; the selection is difficult to sort through. In the interest of profit, and efficiency, most thrift shops will pile up dresses through the year and open up their wedding dress treasury once a year. This method guarantees them a brisk business when the dresses go on sale, and gives the brides a chance to find an sightly and affordable dress amid the cast-offs and castaways. The real danger with the annual aspect of such sales is that people have prepared for it by storing up their hopes and practicing their right-hooks. With a limited selection of dresses brides do practice runs beforehand, learning how to snatch a dress off the hanger, and from other shoppers, with equal agility. Thrift shops are the way to go if you want something that either Great Aunt Selma would find appropriate or your neighbor with the pink flamingo statues would find tasteful.

Gamachs are for those who are brave of heart and clad in tights of bullet-proof black. They are filled with dresses in every stage of cleanliness, decay, and glamour. All are frum-wedding ready, but some of the proprietors will wonder aloud if you really need that sort of service, given your current outfit. Pricing depends on their city of origin, ranging from free to horribly expensive. Likewise, the dresses range from new and beautiful to used and garbage-ready. Finding a dress you like usually takes time and effort – and there’s no guarantee that your size 6 figure will be suited to your dream dress, available only in a size 14.

Recently there has been an uptick in the, rather sisterly, decision to borrow a dress. A friend of a similar size, and similar taste, can be the perfect place to find a free dress without stress or hassle. The bride-to-be knows how the dress looks in photos and on the dance floor, and has a first-hand account of how it handles in between. The loan of a dress frees the lender from purchasing a wedding present, takes a load off the bride’s mind, and makes everyone happy.

If all else fails, take a page from your grandmother’s handbook and buy a tasteful pink suit you can wear on any occasion. You’re so retro, they’ll be calling you fashion-forward.

Soup: The Beginning of A Series

Buried deep in the fridge, it lives on. Inside a white ceramic pitcher it settles and then begins to seethe. Two weeks later it’s discovered, all visible portions covered is a soft white film of mold. This is the sad story of forgotten soup which a family friend, and wonderful chef, once told me typified her 20s. Every few weeks, or so she told me, she would make a new soup. The soups would vary from week to week and season to season in content and texture, but she always had the next soup in the back of her mind and the previous one in the back of her fridge. It was only when she’d made the soup, and needed the pitcher as a container, that she would realize, once again, that the previous soup iteration had never been finished and was slowly molding away.

I still wonder how she could let her soups go so bad.

My fridge is half-bare, and I make only one dish at a time. Yet, between stacked produce and hefty containers, food gets pushed further from my line of vision until it disappears. Once it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind and presumed polished off, or forgotten. Inevitably, every week or two I am forced to search in the deep reaches of the fridge and discover the remainder of a dish whose time had come and gone. A quick sigh of regret, mixed with relief that it was found at all, and the leftovers are thrown away, the dish cleaned, and the incident forgotten. Yet, there are exceptions to every rule: I have not lost soup deep in the recesses of the fridge.

Soup is too precious a commodity to lose. Soup is perfectly hot in the winter and cool in the summer – and vise versa if so desired – so that it’s just right at every time of the year. Once it’s made, soup can be reheated innumerable times, and develop greater flavor each time. There’s nothing bad you can say about soup, except that it’s gone too soon.

This year, I’ve embraced soup as a full-fledged nutritional meal. Consider this the beginning of a series.