A Sweet Discovery in Jamaica Plain…and Maybe Your Neighborhood, Too!

Cupcakes on wheels

Cupcakes to go

I headed over to Stillman’s Farmers Market at the Loring-Greenough House in my beloved Jamaica Plain to pick up some fresh local tomatoes on Thursday afternoon and was charmed to see a little white food truck parked in the driveway.  Strictly in the interest of journalism, I went over to investigate.  I was delighted to discover  The Cupcakory, a new addition to the local food scene.
The cupcake lady

Diane DeMarco is the owner and chef of The Cupcakory

Cupcakes and food trucks continue to be two of the hottest food trends, so a cupcake food truck is a genius combination.  Diane DeMarco bakes her cupcakes in small batches daily, using the best fresh, local and organic ingredients available. She works out of the Crop Circle Kitchen, a culinary incubator with commercial kitchen facilities based at The Brewery in Jamaica Plain, where many other local food producers are turning out delicious products.

DeMarco’s products are all vegetarian, including one vegan cupcake each day. I was immediately excited when I saw that she had a Salted Caramel on Chocolate Cake. I’d never heard of salted caramel until recently, when I tasted batch ice cream’s fabulous salted caramel vanilla ice cream.  By the way, Batch also operates out of Crop Circle Kitchen.

Salted Caramel Chocolate lusciousness

To further my journalistic commitment, I purchased a salted caramel chocolate cupcake and took it home for a taste test.  I stopped by  City Feed and Supply to pick up a pint of Batch’s salted caramel ice cream to go with it, but, sadly, it was sold out! Fortunately, I enjoyed the cupcake, even without the ice cream. The chocolate cake portion was moist and chocolaty but not too sweet, a perfect foil for the salty, creamy, sweet decadence of the frosting.

Plenty of customers have already found their way to the Cupcakory

“I don’t really do the typical American buttercream, which is butter and confectioner’s sugar,” DeMarco told me.  “I make the cupcakes to my own specifications, so I always want feedback. When people liked the salted caramel chocolate, I was thrilled, because now I know my tastebuds are pretty good.”

The Cupcakory has only been on the road for a month and is still figuring out where to go. Thus far, they’ve  been at various locations in Jamaica Plain, as well as the SOWA Open Market in the South End. Keep your eyes open – you may happen upon them at your local Farmers Market soon.

A Tasty Bite of the Big Apple

Farmers Market at City Hall

Farmers Market at City Hall

Michelle and I just got back from six delicious days in New York City.

Although we had some great meals—more on that below—I was actually more excited about the amazing produce we spotted in all parts of the city. From Rockefeller Center and City Hall Park to the famed Union Square Greenmarket, we were never far from a farmers market.

Longan fruit are sold on the street in New York's Chinatown

In Chinatown, where we stayed, the stores and street carts were loaded with mysterious green vegetables, tropical fruits, and bargain seafood (sea scallops for $5.99) that rivaled any of the farmers markets for freshness, color and variety.  Bunches of longan—a sweet, pulpy tropical fruit that I’ve eaten in Asia and Puerto Rico—were going for $3-$4 a pound. 

Chinese mystery vegetable

But I didn’t recognize the thin, two-foot long, tubular vegetable that appeared to be some type of string bean, or the bright pink, spiky ovals that we eventually learned were dragon fruit.  “If only we had a kitchen to cook in,” I moaned to Michelle.

On our way down to the city, I picked up a copy of New York Magazine, which conducted a fascinating taste-test of heirloom tomatoes. After reading the article, I couldn’t resist buying a Paul Robeson tomato (which placed #4) at Keith’s Farm Stand in Union Square Greenmarket.

I proudly show off my Paul Robeson tomato

Named after the famed black singer and social activist (who knew Paul Robeson had been honored with a tomato?), this beauty has a lovely purplish skin and deep red flesh.  Sadly, by the time we got our specimen home, the skin had split and we had to throw some of it away. Even in its battered condition, it had a robust, earthy flavor that would have been lovely with fresh basil and some good olive oil.

Speaking of good oil, just down the road from our Chinatown hotel, we found a great Chilean store, Puro Chile, that sells food, wine and handicrafts.  We picked up a bottle of avocado oil for only $4.25–delicious with all those heirloom tomatoes–and a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and a bottle of Carmenere for our room.

At our New York friend Dana’s suggestion, we had a lovely dinner at Jane Restaurant in Soho, including a garden fresh gazpacho and a yummy seared Ahi Tuna with caramelized cauliflower, shitake mushrooms, baby spinach, and lemon-chive butter. Jane serves nice food in a comfortable, relaxed setting that made me feel right at home.

After a lovely twilight boat tour around Manhattan, we hurried across town for a late dinner at Chinese Mirch, a Chinese-Indian restaurant in Murray “Curry” Hill suggested by my sister Louise. Chinese Mirch is a small restaurant and very popular, so we had to wait for a table, even at 10 pm.  Although neither Michelle nor I are big on okra, we ordered the fried okra that one reviewer raved about, and we were not disappointed.  Lightly battered and flash fried, the okra had a light crunch and a bright flavor that made us fight for the last piece. I wish they’d made our salt and pepper calamari the same way, because it was coated in a much heavier batter and was too greasy. Our other dishes also failed to hit the mark.

Michelle in Little Italy

On our last night, we wanted to stay in our neighborhood. Since Little Italy was only two blocks from our hotel, we strolled down to Mulberry Street, which is lined with dozens of traditional Italian restaurants and is only open to pedestrians at night. We sat at an outdoor table as twilight fell, watching hundreds of couples, friends and families passing by, taking equal enjoyment in the beautiful summer night. While my tri-colore—romaine, endive, and red lettuce—salad and eggplant penne were, shall I say, rather pedestrian, the setting, the evening, and the company were so romantic that I barely paid attention to the food.

New York is a great place for a pescovegetarian. I’m already looking forward to our next trip.

Wanna Buy 50,000 Pounds of Local Tomatoes?

A local tomato from City Growers

It sounds like a joke: How do you unload 50,000 pounds of ripe heirloom tomatoes?

Very carefully.

For City Growers, a start-up based in Roxbury, Mass. , this challenge is just another “growing pain.”

In 2010, its first year of operation, City Growers has taken over 2.5 acres of vacant land in Roxbury and Dorchester and is growing local food in raised beds of composed-enriched, clean soil. In addition to crops like lettuce, basil, eggplant, they’re growing 50,000 pounds of heirloom and hybrid tomatoes with alluring names like jet star, mountain fresh, cosmonaut volkov, mountain spring and polbig. I’ve tasted these tomatoes, and they’re luscious.

As problems go, a tomato surplus is a good one to have.  Fresh-picked heirloom tomatoes go for $4 a pound or more at most farmers’ markets in the Boston area, so if the company just wanted to sell them at cost, they’d sell like, well, hot tomatoes.

City Growers cofounder Margaret Connors

But City Growers, founded by veteran local food and community activists Glynn Lloyd, Margaret Connors, and Bruce Fulford, wants to sell as many tomatoes at the market rate as possible, so they can use the proceeds to help them increase local agricultural production capacity, make affordable, healthy foods more accessible, and create green,  living wage jobs.

“We’re wholesaling our tomatoes to restaurants and stores like City Feed,” co-founder Connors told me.  “We also have a CSA, so some of our tomatoes are going out in the boxes each week. But we need some other ways to sell them between now and the end of October.”

One of their “canny” strategies is to sell 20 lb. boxes of tomatoes for canning or freezing sauce.  For $50, you’ll get a box of just picked heirloom and hybrid varieties (enough to make 7 quarts of sauce), a canning “how to” and two tomato sauce recipes.

They’re looking for institutions like churches and temples to agree to serve as distribution points.  To encourage any wannabe canners out there, they’ll be running canning workshops at the JP Forum and City Fresh Foods next month.

But with 50,000 pounds of tomatoes to unload, City Growers is going to need help from a lot of institutions and individuals.  If you have any ideas or just want to buy some tomatoes, contact City Growers at 617-307-6400 or email them at info@citygrowers.net.

Baltimore’s 32nd Street Farmers Market: Hula Hoops, 7-Up Pound Cake, and Slurpy-Ripe Peaches

Hula hoops

Hula hoops come in many sizes and colors.

From hula hoops and honey to bison meat and baked goods, the year-round 32nd Street Farmer’s Market in Baltimore is the market I wish we had in Boston.

This barren parking lot behind a 7-11 is not a place I’d want to hang out at night, but every Saturday morning, it’s transformed into a locavore’s dream, a multicultural community gathering, and a playground for all ages.

The Hula Hooper

Andreas “Spilly” Spiliadis demonstrates how to hula hoop

In the grassy media strip across from the market, Andreas “Spilly” Spiliadis sells hula hoops that he makes out of rolls of PVC irrigation tube and brightly colored tape. As he stands on a Waverly neighborhood stone marker, he expertly swirls a hoop around his waist, knees, and neck, insisting that it’s fun and easy. As we chatted, a middle-aged woman drove by and was so excited by the hula-hoop display that she left her minivan running in the middle of the street, blocking traffic; Spilly gently encouraged her to park and come back. In addition to selling at the market, he takes his “People’s Hoop Party” to parks and parties to encourage people to take a trial swivel. For a taste of the action, check out this hip-shaking video of folks hula hooping to “Billie Jean” in the park.

While I strolled, shopped, and ate my way past the dozens of stalls, I was serenaded by flute, saxophone and guitar players; seduced by the smells of Ethiopian, Indian, West Indian, Thai and other ethnic cuisines; and sated by tastes of slurpy-ripe yellow peaches, fresh-roasted Fair Trade coffee from Zeke’s, and a delightfully moist raspberry bran muffin from Atwater’s Bakery.

The Crepe Maker

Travis from Chez G Crepes prepares my crepe.

The sight of crepes being made reminded me of the fabulous crepes at my favorite market in the world, Camden Lock in London, so I stopped at Chez G Crepes, where I chatted with Travis as he poured the batter for my Portobello, feta and spinach crepe onto the grill.

The Pound Cake baker

Leah Williams sells her pound cakes at the 32nd Street Farmers Market.

Not far from Chez G, I was charmed by Leah Williams’ display of carefully wrapped slices of plain, lemon, and 7-Up pound cake. Since I’d never heard of using 7-Up in a cake, I had to investigate. Apparently, the 7-Up acts as the leavening agent. Happily, the cake did not taste like a can of soda; the 7-Up imparted a lemony flavor, and the slice was dense, moist and delicious.

I purchased six different heirloom tomatoes for $3 a pound and a bouquet of local lettuce for another $3, along with some attractive white chard, which, confusingly, is actually green chard with white stalks. I also picked up 1/4 peck of those yellow peaches for $6 and 2 quarts of cherry and acid-free tomatoes for $5.

The Flute Player

Musician Esther Trueheart is also a teacher.

Hot and tired, I stopped to listen to Esther Trueheart play her flute. The notes wafted through the market like a stream of soap bubbles. In addition to performing at the markets, Esther is a substitute teacher and runs a music school she hopes to make into a full-time business. I told her the name of my blog is “The PescoVegetarian Times,” and she said she’s been exploring vegetarian foods. We agreed that you can’t get people to give up Kentucky Fried Chicken by lecturing; you have to provide convenient, affordable alternatives that taste good.

With markets like 32nd street, getting people to eat healthy local food is as easy as, well, hula hooping’s supposed to be.  If only I could shimmy like Spilly.

Is Local Food in a Pickle?

The Pickle Man

Travis Grilllo displays his pickles.

Interest in local foods is starting to spread faster than mint in a garden.  Despite the growing demand, the folks who make and sell local foods are often in a pickle: how can they produce and deliver fresh local foods AND pay themselves and their staff a living wage while keeping their prices affordable?

As I tasted a delicious local pickle and other wonderful products at the Sustainable Business Network’s Buy Local Workshop and Mini Trade Show for Restaurants and Chefs at the Seaport World Trade Center yesterday, I learned more about some of the challenges that the people who produce, cook and sell local foods are facing.

Grillo’s Pickles are the perfect marriage of sour and salty.  Travis Grillo started his company two years ago and produces his pickles at Katsiroubas Bros. in Newmarket Square. While he runs a delightful pickle cart on Boston Common and still delivers pickles to his small accounts personally, he also sells to Whole Foods.  While others would love to have this level of success, Grillo told me that he has unutilized production capacity. “People love the product,” he said, “but I need to expand my distribution.”

The Cheese Man

El Lawton of Foxboro Cheese Co with his Fromage Blanc

Despite the growing crowds at farmers markets, selling at the markets is not always profitable. Ed Lawton of the Foxbory Cheese Co. just started selling his fromage blanc and asiago at 15 local farmers markets this year. His fromage blanc is mild and pleasingly tangy.   Foxboro Cheese is part of Lawtons Family Farms, a dairy that sells raw milk and grass fed beef and veal as well as the cheese. So far, Lawton says, his experiences at the markets have been mixed.  “Some of the markets attract a lot of tourists who aren’t going to buy cheeses or meat they have to cook,” he said.  Learning which markets work for your business takes time and money that some farmers just don’t have.

The CISA Local Hero Member Services Coordinator

Devon Whitney-Deal of CISA displays their guide to local food

Fortunately, there’s also a loose network of non-profits, government agencies, and businesses helping local food businesses market their foods.  Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA), based in western Massachusetts, launched their “Be a Local Hero, Buy Locally Grown” campaign in 1999.  “It’s the longest running ‘buy local’ program in the country,” CISA Local Hero Member Services Coordinator Devon Whitney-Deal told me.   In a recent CISA survey, 69% of participating farms reported that their produce sales had increased.

In eastern Massachusetts, the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Boston (SBN) , the sponsor of yesterday’s event, has a Local Food Committee that’s doing a great job promoting local foods by organizing events and programs that connect local eaters, restaurants, producers and distributors.  On Saturday, October 2, 2010, 11am-5pm, they’re producing the first Boston Local Food Festival at the Boston Waterfront on Fort Port Channel. If the event attracts the hoped-for crowds, the increased support for local foods could help producers sell pickles rather than be in one.

Hot Day, Cool Market

Berries

Angelic berries from Heavens Harvest

It was another sizzling hot day in Boston, but opening day at the Community Servings Farmers Market in Jamaica Plain on Wednesday, July 7, was pretty cool in all senses of the word.

I volunteered for a few hours and was pleased to see a steady stream of excited customers arriving for fresh veggies, eggs, bread, and free lemonade. The 4-7pm time slot made it convenient for people to stop on their way home from work, and by then, the heat had dropped, a pleasant breeze was blowing, and there was plenty of shade.

With only four vendors—two farms, a bakery and a florist—the market is small, but the quality and range of products are good.

Blue Frog

Ethan Kiermaier purchases a giant cookie from Blue Frog baker/owner Brad Brown.

Brad Brown, pastry chef/owner of the Blue Frog Bakery on Green Street, was selling at a farmers market for the first time and didn’t know what to expect.  He’s there because Community Servings’ Social Enterprise Manager, Edith Murnane, is a friend and customer and asked him.

Blue Frog makes delicious pastries like strawberry shortcake, but such delights are too delicate for a hot day, so Brown brought an assortment of breads, cookies, and cakes.  “Next time,” he said, “I’ll bring more baguettes and fewer whole cakes. “

Millbrook Farm

Farmer Shaun Giurleo of Millbrook Farm with customer Brian Mazmanian.

Meanwhile, the folks from Millbrook Farm in Concord were busy selling a multitude of berries, including strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and gooseberries, as well as cucumbers, corn, and tomatoes for only $2 a pound, among other items.  “Business today has been more steady than last year,” farmer Shaun Giurleo told me.

Across the patio, Ashley Howard, co-owner of Heavens Harvest Farm in New Braintree with his wife, Ethel, presided over his giant scallions, fresh fennel, little bundles of lemon balm, and assorted other fruits, vegetables and herbs like the proud father of every stalk. He hands out free nasturtium flowers, telling timid tasters that every part of the flower is edible and has a different flavor.

Heavens Harvest

Ashley Howard's farm, Heavens Harvest, primarily sells through CSAs.

The primary focus of his organic farm is Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), but since Community Servings hosts their CSA, they agreed to sell at the market. Howard seemed to recognize the names of every CSA customer and thanked them for participating.

As I left, I heard Howard suggesting a recipe for cooking fennel: slice it thinly, grill it, and serve it on a burger with mustard and fresh chives. Can’t wait to pick up some fennel next week and try it!

The Community Servings Farmers Market is open from 4-7 pm each Wednesday at 18 Marbury Terrace, near the Stony Brook T station in JP. For a list of Massachusetts Farmers Markets, visit http://www.massfarmersmarkets.org/.