Farmers Markets and the Health Department

Consider the Watermelon

A small dark seed rests in fertile soil. Warm sun and a bit of water and the seed sprouts. A vine creeps along the ground. A blossom gradually becomes a melon. The melon lies in the soil – the dirt.

Bugs crawl through the dirt and over the melon. Birds land on the melon, using it as high ground to hunt bugs. Sometimes the birds poop on the melon.

Consider the Tomato

A lush green vine climbs up a trellis or a stake. Tiny yellow blossoms develop into tomatoes. As these tomatoes grow, bugs crawl around on them looking for a nibble. Birds fly around snacking on the bugs, and yes, sometimes pooping on the tomatoes.

Consider the Kitchen Sink

I’ll admit that I never think to wash a watermelon. If I were going to make pickles from the rind, I would, but usually I just cut one open and scoop out the nummy flesh. The chickens get the rind.

I do wash my tomatoes. I’ll admit I do want to eliminate any residual traces of buggy footprints and bird poop. Yes, I might be able to avoid bug footprints if the farmer sprayed the tomatoes, but I would much rather deal with bugs than with chemicals.

Consider the Roof

A roof is a lovely thing. I am very glad to have been under a roof when six inches of snow fell.

On a rainy weekend, I will admit that I am glad to have a roof over the Memphis Farmers Market. What is frustrating is that the market has to be under a roof. I am at the market to buy things that grew from the dirt, that grew in the rain and sunshine, that were crawled on by bugs and pooped on by birds.

No, I misspoke. The market doesn’t have to be under a roof. The produce has to be under a roof. Keeping the sun out of my eyes and the rain off of my head is not the concern. No, the concern is that, if produce that grew in the dirt and the open air were to see a ray of sunshine or feel a drop of rain now, it would kill me.

Consider the Cutlery

Chain of custody is a crucial factor in avoiding death by farmers market. Only after I have taken possession of the produce is it safe for that produce to be taken from under its protective roof. I can eat the produce in the perhaps unsanitary conditions of my own kitchen and be just fine.

If, however, a farmer or cheesemaker or other such reprobate menace to the public health were to offer me a bite of cheese on a cracker or a slice of tomato, I would most assuredly suffer a sudden and painful death.

I am protected from this risk by the requirement that any samples offered at the market be prepared in a health department approved kitchen and be individually packaged. I trust someone enough to not spray my tomatoes with poison or to spoil milk just enough to make cheese, but I can’t trust them enough to have a clean knife to slice a tomato or a clean spoon to provide me a taste of cheese? Absurd.

Consider History

Memphis survived the Civil War virtually unscathed only to be nearly wiped out by yellow fever just over a decade later. The city eventually recovered, and the epidemic led to improvements, including a revolutionary new sewage system and the discovery of artesian water. Ensuring that waste was safely removed and that safe drinking water was available to the citizens of Memphis was a huge step forward for public health.

Consider the Future

Today, though, some regulations that exist for the sake of public health do more to impede business than to protect health. Honestly, a roof is a nice draw. Customers like staying dry; farmers like staying dry. But forcing a market under cover limits the locations where a market can be held. To have a spontaneous market means that farmers and artisans much invest in a tent. Having overflow at a market with a roof means the same thing.

If a businessperson wants to keep his or her merchandise out of the weather, then investing in a tent is a matter of choice. Requiring a farmer to keep produce that grew from, on, or even in dirt diverts capital from a small business.

I love heirloom vegetables. Funky, lumpy tomatoes, delicate greens, gnarly potatoes all delight me. What would be nice, though, is to be able to taste a leaf of those greens or a slice of those tomatoes. I guarantee that I am going to buy. I just want to have an idea of what dinner will be like. I think other people will be more likely to try new things given the benefit of a sample. Whether a businessperson provides samples should be based on a business decision, not limitations imposed by onerous regulations.

Given today’s tough economic climate, it’s time for our local government to look at ways to reduce costs by eliminating or revising regulations that interfere with business and add needless bureaucracy. I hate to sound like I am applying common sense to government, but it is time to build the tax base by getting out of the way of small businesses.

Consider Doing Something About It

It’s time for me to get off my duff and start writing some letters.

The Great Southern Food Festival Cookbook: Our Taste of the South Review

Now is a very good time to head out to your favorite bookstore and pick up a copy of the February / March 2010 issue of Taste of the South magazine.

Having acquired your copy, promptly turn to page 66. There you will find our review of Mindy Henderson’s The Great Southern Food Festival Cookbook: Celebrating Everything from Peaches to Peanuts, Onions to Okra. This is our first piece in a national magazine, and we are quite proud of it.

The piece was fun to write, and the book was a lot of fun to read. In addition to our article, the magazine features several recipes from the book along with some gorgeous photography. There are additional recipes online.

This might also be a good time to subscribe to Taste of the South. I hear that there just might be an article about Memphis in the April / May issue.

Tomatillo Consommé


Tomatillo consommé
I’ve read Michael Ruhlman in his book The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America talking about learning to make consommé at the CIA, how he struggled to achieve that elusive level of clarity that would let him read the date on a dime at the bottom of his pot. Yeah. About that.

When I first came up with the idea for tomatillo consommé, I started doing some research. There are no recipes for it. None. Does that mean it’s impossible or does that mean it’s just a challenge? I opted to go the challenge route and adapted a tomato consommé recipe from Epicurious to make a slightly spicy, very tangy consommé.

Tomatillo Consommé

Cook Time: 2 hours

Yield: 12 servings

So technically, it wasn't consommé. I still don't think it would be impossible to produce, but making a perfectly clear, flavorful tomatillo version did prove beyond us this time. But it was, after all, the first consommé either Paul or I had ever made. And yes, we were crazy/stupid/daring enough to make it our first time for a fancy meal to be served to guests.

We served this with a scoop of Dominican-style mofongo to contrast the crisp, starchy texture of plantains and pork cracklings with the smoothness of the soup. It worked well. Well enough that I would go through the effort of the complete process again just to create that amazingly smooth soup.

Ingredients

  • 5 pounds tomatillos
  • 2 medium onions, coarsely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
  • 6 jalapeno peppers, seeded and coarsely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 8 large egg whites, chilled
  • 1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1/2 cup ice, lightly crushed if cubes are large

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Spread the tomatillos on baking sheets and roast for 30 minutes.
  3. Quarter the tomatillos and grind in a food processor until pureed.
  4. Cook onions, garlic, and chopped jalapeno in oil in a large heavy pot over moderate heat, stirring frequently, until softened, 10 to 12 minutes. Stir in puréed tomatillo, 1 teaspoon sea salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, 20 minutes.
  5. Pour the tomatillo mixture through a fine-mesh sieve into a clean pot, pressing hard on solids and then discarding them, and bring the tomatillo broth to a full boil.(I began wondering about the clarity I would achieve at this point. After straining out the solids through a chinois, the broth wasn't a liquid with suspended particles; instead, it was almost creamy. But the flavor was really nice.)
  6. Whisk together egg whites, cilantro, ice, remaining 1/2 teaspoon sea salt, and remaining 1/2 teaspoon pepper in a bowl until frothy, then quickly pour into boiling broth, whisking vigorously 2 or 3 times. (The egg mixture will rise to surface and form a "raft." If you've ever made egg drop soup, it looks like what happens if you don't stir constantly.)
  7. When the broth returns to a simmer, find a place where bubbles break through raft and gently enlarge hole to the size of a ladle. I will say here that our raft didn't firm up as much as I had hoped. It made keeping a hole open difficult.
  8. Cook broth at a bare simmer, uncovered, without stirring (keep raft opening clear by gently spooning out any froth - there wasn't much), until broth is clear, 15 to 20 minutes, or until you decide that it's just not meant to be clear, about 30 minutes. (The raft formed just the way it should, even if it wasn't quite as firm as we had hoped it would be, and you could definitely tell that it pulled out remaining particulates, but the consommé produced wasn't clear. It was a slightly disturbing shade of pale green (think puréed Elphaba), but the flavor was amazingly concentrated, and the texture was like sipping silk.)
  9. Remove saucepan from heat and, disturbing raft as little as possible, carefully ladle out consommé through opening in raft, tilting saucepan as necessary, and transfer to cleaned fine-mesh sieve lined with a double layer of dampened paper towels set over a bowl or large glass measure.
  10. Discard raft. (It may sound wrong, but we actually gave the raft to the chickens.)
  11. If you're not serving it right away, the consommé will keep in the refrigerator for up to three days. To store it longer, chill consommé, uncovered, until cold, about 1 1/2 hours then freeze. Thaw completely before reheating.
  12. Just before serving, reheat the consommé and season to taste with salt.

Notes

2011-11-17 21:49:21

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Bring street food to Beale Street Landing

I originally started this as tweets, but I realized that once you are on your fourth tweet, it’s time to write a blog post instead.

A letter to the editor in the January 2 Commercial Appeal caught my eye. The author suggested ways to restore the Beale Street Landing area.

One of the author’s suggestions involves food. He says, “Riverfront Development Corp. supporters have long complained that you can’t buy a Coke and hot dog on the riverfront. Let’s fix that problem by adding a snack bar.”

I am all in favor of being able to get a bite to eat while downtown, but I suggest a different approach because I see problems with the snack bar idea. Problem, really. Money. The snack bar idea requires that money be spent to build a building. And far worse than building the building will be maintaining the building. I may be too cynical, but I have little to no faith that the city will properly maintain such a building. I fear that in ten years time, we will have nothing more than an eyesore.

I would propose instead that Memphis and Shelby County Health Department rules be changed to allow more street food in the city. Instead of spending taxpayer money on a snack bar, allow entrepreneurs like Christopher McRae of Main St. Hound Dogs to foot the bill for equipment and upkeep. Doing so will allow for a wider range of food options and will bring more personality to the area.

I don’t want to seem as if I disagree with the letter writer. In fact, I strongly support his ideas. I just happen to have my own “hey, wouldn’t it be cool?” idea to contribute.

The letter was written by Michael Cromer, from the Memphis Cobblestones website. He and the fine folks at Friends for Our Riverfront are doing an excellent job putting out information on what is going on with the Riverfront Development Corp. and what should be our public spaces.

If you aren’t already, I encourage you to visit their websites and learn what is happening downtown. Our riverfront is the city’s most iconic and historic area. It should be protected.

And dammit, I should be able to buy a hot dog or a taco down there.

Happy New Year!

It’s a new year, a new decade, and big events are on the horizon.

Hopefully all of you have had a great day or, at the very least, you’ve mostly recovered from giving the old year a great send off.

We’ve got some big news that we will be sharing when the time is right. No hints now, but it’s really cool and very exciting.

While the thing to do now would be to share a great recipe with you to start the new year off right, instead of cooking today, we’ve been doing extensive house cleaning. We ventured into our hallowed junk room and made a serious dent. It’s amazing the things you find when you go through things like that. Case in point, we found our wedding pie topper, my report card from my senior year of high school, a trove of restaurant dinner menus that we have saved for years now, and very tiny t-shirts that I saved from when my little boy was actually little.

I think finding memories like that while getting the house ready for more was a great way to get the year going. How did you spend your day?

Street food conference in San Francisco

The street food scene in San Francisco is so vibrant and so important to the community that the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association is holding a meeting, From Tamales to Creme Brulee: The economics of streetfood, to discuss how to promote and support street food. The Department of Public Health is one of the key participants.

It’s definitely time for a letter-writing campaign.

Thanks to Serious Eats for the link.

Is the health department hurting business?

On a cold but sunny winter day, Christopher McRae, owner of Main Street Hound Dogs is still open for business, pursuing his passion for selling hot dogs. Soon, the winter weather will drive McRae indoors for the rest of the season, and his business will be shut down.

The question is whether the shutdown will be permanent. McRae is looking for another job, one that will provide not only more income, but stable income.

Still, McRae hasn’t given up on hot dogs. Given the chance, he would be a hot dog mogul. He has looked into expanding his business in Memphis and in other towns in Shelby county. The main obstacle he faces is not a slow economy or a miserly banker denying loans. Instead, his plans are limited by local government.

In order to protect the public, the Memphis and Shelby County Health Department limits street vendors to a single area. The only place in the entire county where one can sell food from a cart or stand is on the mall in downtown Memphis.

People have expressed interest in having McRae bring his hot dog business to other parts of the county, but because the health department is unable to enforce a portion of its health codes beyond a very small part of the county, McRae cannot expand his business.

A hot dog may seem like a trivial concern, but it isn’t. A hot dog is an amenity. A hot dog is an attraction. Hot dog carts, pretzel carts, and taco trucks are all opportunities for growth. For Memphis to position itself as a vibrant city, every advantage possible should be used.

Memphis has an excellent high-end dining scene. And, though it pales in comparison to New Orleans’ Bourbon Street, Memphis has Beale Street and other thriving night life. What Memphis needs is a thriving street food scene.

It may seem like a small thing, but ask any visitor to New Orleans if they weren’t charmed, and often well fed, by Lucky Dog carts in the French Quarter and central business district. A little extra charm and interest couldn’t hurt Memphis tourism. Or Millington tourism. Or Collierville tourism. And things that tourists like can be things that citizens like. Give people even more dining options, and they have one more reason to stay here. And businesses have one more reason to come here.

A hot dog stand may not be as urgent a civic improvement as reducing crime or improving education, but like those two things, it is about quality of life. There is no reason for our local government to stand in the way of that.

I have a feeling that one of my new year’s resolutions for 2010 will involve letter writing. And definitely more rants — I haven’t even gotten started on the whole health department and the farmers market insanity.

Christmas 2009

Another Christmas has come and gone. The meal was prepared, served, devoured, and even the dishes have been put away. But we can still talk a bit about what we served this year, along with some critical evaluations on where we went right and on what could have been a little better.

We always like to go all-out for Christmas dinner, and this year was no exception. My detailed schedule of preparation steps meant that dinner came out right despite a stomach virus, general exhaustion, and other assorted slow downs, even if it did get me the side eye from Paul and Patric. Yes, I made a list. It was actually scary just how organized we were.

Anyway, I know you’re only here for the food, so here it goes.

Amuse

Warm Pork Rillettes

Sourdough Toast Point, Assorted Pickles


Amuse Bouche

These were rillettes we had made almost a year ago and had frozen in pint jars. The sourdough toast paired well with the creaminess of the meat, and the pickled radish slice, banana pepper, and cornichon provided palate-cleansing tartness. There was general approval and plans for rillette on toast sandwiches were made for later this week.

Salad

Mole Pork Belly Croutons

Mixed Greens, Ancho Vinaigrette, Cotija


Pork Belly Salad

We got the idea for this salad from the excellent pork belly salad at Restaurant Iris. The pork belly was rubbed with homemade mole negro before being braised in Mexican beer. After it had cooked, we cut it into small strips and fried them in lard. People who didn’t think they would eat pork belly cleaned their plates, so I think we can count that as a success.

Soup

Tomatillo Consommé

Dominican Mofongo


Tomatillo Consomme and Mofongo

This dish could be a lesson in seasonality. Be warned that when you need 5 pounds of tomatillos, they aren’t in season at the end of December, so you may have to get them from multiple sources. We did, and it turned out to be worth the effort. The tangy, ultra-smooth soup paired perfectly with the crispy. starchy mofongo. Once again, there were happy plates all around.

Intermezzo

Bacon-Wrapped Dates

Roast Garlic Mascarpone


Intermezzo

These were the biggest hit of the whole meal. Patric thinks we should eat these every night for the rest of our lives. The dates were pitted and filled with mascarpone mixed with roasted garlic. The bacon wrapping them was Newman Farm pepper bacon that was parcooked so that the dates just needed a minute under to broiler to crisp. The result was a delicious blend of creamy, garlicy, sweetness wrapped in smoky, meaty goodness. Okay, the boy may be winning me over on having this one more often.

Entrée

Frenched Newman Farms Pork Loin

Bacon, Rosemary, and Roast Garlic

Corn Pudding

Hot Pepper Glazed Carrots and Baby Squash

Caramelized Onion Grit Cake

Sauteed Collard Greens

Whole Wheat Rolls


Main Course

Yes, there were oohs and ahs from around the table when this one came out. The pork was delicious, flavored simply with rosemary, roast garlic, and bacon. The corn pudding was creamy and rich. The squash and carrots added a note of crispness with their glazing of Jones Orchard pepper jelly giving sweetness. The grit cakes and collard greens were absolutely sinful, and they provided Patric with a lesson in caramelizing onions. The rolls were from Shoaf’s Loaf, and they were a perfect complement to the meal. The only changes we have decided we would make are to trim a little more fat off of the pork loin and to use less pepper jelly on the carrots (we got a little carried away there). Thanks again to Kelly at Restaurant Iris for the idea for the carrots.

Cheese

Amadeus

Black Olive Spread

Boucheron

Raisin Toast

Cranberry Wensleydale

Tomato Jam

Stilton

Head Cheese

Grafton Cheddar


Cheese Plate

Was the cheese plate a little extravagant? Probably, but I really like cheese, and it was Christmas after all. The best pairings were the tomato jam from Dodson Farms with the Stilton and the raisin toast from Shoaf’s Loaf with the Boucheron. The worst disappointment was the head cheese. I know what you’re thinking, but I have had very good head cheese. This was mediocre at best. I’m feeling a quest coming on.

Dessert

Brown Butter Pound Cake

Rumtopf Syrup

Chilled Cherry Soup


Dessert

And finally, dessert. Brown butter pound cake is a sinfully delicious thing, especially when it’s whipped up with love by an angst-filled fifteen-year-old who is having to cream the butter and sugar by hand because he’s the one who put the dishes away and now you can’t find the paddle attachment for the Kitchen-Aid because it’s not where it’s supposed to be and at this point said fifteen-year-old doesn’t think he has ever seen a paddle attachment in his life and…. I think the angst added a special layer of flavor to the cake. Either way, it was lovely. The caramel syrup you see in the photo is actually a very reduced version of the liquid from the rumtopf we started back when strawberries were nice and fresh. We still have a lot of rumtopf to “enjoy”. The cherry soup got mixed reactions. It was sour. It was supposed to be. Half of the table emptied their glasses, the other half took a polite sip and were happy that other people liked it and were superciliously snotty about it. Oh well. (Yes, I was one of the people who liked it; Paul knows I’m talking about him when I say “superciliously snotty”.)

So that was Christmas dinner, punctuated by the opening of presents all around and the well-behaved sighs of a dog who stayed surprisingly well away from the table. The cats, on the other hand, begged freely, especially when there was pork around.

There were surprisingly few leftovers. We will be having grits and bacon later this week, and I am actually considering making brown butter pound cake French toast, but beyond that, we fed our family of 6 well without going too far overboard.

Here’s hoping that you’ve all had a happy holiday and are resting up for New Year’s Eve!

The Work of Paul and Angela Knipple