Whole Foods and whole food
I've been watching Whole Foods' long journey as it tries to open its first store in Brooklyn. For anyone who doesn't live in New York or who doesn't follow the often confounding ebbs and flows of real estate development and community activism, here's the gist of the story: Whole Foods has been trying for seven-plus years to build its first Brooklyn store, at a site adjacent to the blighted Gowanus Canal, at Third Avenue and Third Street near the Carroll Gardens and Park Slope neighborhoods.
The location is a federal Superfund site that is still in the process of cleaning up more than a century of noxious pollutants. When an industrial site needs to be scrubbed of toxins so that it can continue to be used -- and in this case, given a new, non-industrial use -- and the circumstances are so bad that the EPA has to step in and help, getting a federal Superfund designation adds time to the clean-up as well as a stigma. I'll demonstrate: what's the first thing you think of when I say "Superfund"? Love Canal, right? My point, exactly.
Anyway, Whole Foods has stuck with their plan and has spent lots of time and lots of money to help clean up the site, with a still optimistic timetable to build and open the store in 2013. The planning, approval and clean-up journey has been long, with many zigs and zags. The most recent being a denial by the NYC Board of Standards and Appeals to grant a variance that would let Whole Foods build their 56,000 square foot store (plus a rooftop greenhouse for growing organic produce and a parking lot) in an area zoned for buildings no bigger than 10,000 square feet. The BSA's argument was that construction might interfere with the ongoing Gowanus Canal clean-up, plus there are worries about the traffic the store might attract. And it will. Attract traffic, that is.
Adding to the 11th hour fury is a group of local artists and businesses that believe Whole Foods will substantially change the neighborhood from what it has become, and up-end its fragile economic diversity. The arguments are as expected: low rent versus new jobs, weekend traffic harming quality of life, big box retail squashing small businesses, etc. Big change brings big fears, which sometimes are warranted but most of the time, things are in fact more complicated.
The outcome still isn't known. The BSA was to have met yesterday to decide whether or not to grant the variance and I will post an item at The City Cook once the decision is known. But there are a few things we can know for sure.
One, change will happen. Change is a fact of life in most places but it's religion in New York. Nothing is static and if Whole Foods doesn't end up at the corner of Third and Third, another large retailer will. To my thinking, a big and resourceful food store that sells lots of locally-grown and produced food is a better choice than one that sells cheap stuff made in China. So I'd encourage the local artists and businesses to make friends with Whole Foods, and visa versa, so that everyone wins. After all, you're going to share the 'hood so why can't we all just get along.
Two, good food matters in Brooklyn. This borough is home to more curated wine shops, cookie bakeries, stinky cheese stores, pickle makers, artisanal ingredient vendors, and wild-eyed butchers than any other part of this city. For many, especially those who try to make dinner every night, Whole Foods will be like a big new church coming to town and its 248-car parking lot will certainly be full every weekend. Using the axiom that a rising tide lifts all boats, the more people cook using ingredients from Whole Foods or anywhere for that matter, the more likely they will also buy from the neighborhood pickle makers and butchers and cheese stores.
Finally, Brooklyn is a big and diverse place and there's room for everyone. In some ways Brooklyn is the Berkeley, at the least the Berkeley of a couple of decades ago, of New York where articulate individualism is a badge of honor and a political and commercial right. For those times when we tire of waiting for the rare consensus, we can always just get on the F train for a few stops and find another corner of the borough, where Brooklyn is still old school and old New York.
Shopping In Bensonhurst
Which takes us to Bensonhurst. A few miles from the Gowanus Canal, this neighborhood on the southwestern side of Brooklyn is still home to thousands of Italian-Americans who live in neatly kept two-family houses that surround both sides of 18th Avenue, Bensonhurst's main commercial artery.
This busy street is lined with small businesses and stores, many of which sell groceries: butcher shops, salumerias, pasta makers, cheese stores and dairies, bakeries that specialize in sweets and others in breads, fruit and vegetable stands, and the occasional Italian kitchenware shop. In terms of scale, pace, and clientele, 18th Avenue is a world away from the Whole Foods site and the artists working in old industrial spaces near Gowanus. But it is just as authentic.
A couple of weeks ago I spent a day wandering the Italian food stores on 18th Avenue, plus a few others on adjacent blocks. It was a sunny and brisk Friday and by the time I had ended my walk from the Bari Pork Store at 64th Street to my last stop at Frank & Sal's at 80th Street, I had filled my shopping bag and developed a very serious craving for anything with a red sauce.
At the Bari Pork Store I purchased a pound and a half of their house pork sausage, the kind that comes in a long piece that can be curled into a spiraled disc. "Just salt, pepper and a little parsley to season the pork," the owner George had told me when I asked how the sausage was made. The next night I cooked it using a simple southern Italian method, placing the sausage over thin slices of potatoes and roasting it in the oven. A side of braised broccoli rabe and we could have been eating in Calabria.
See our links for the recipe as well as an article with all the details on the Italian grocery stores on and near 18th Avenue.
Lou DiPalo and Parmigiano-Reggiano
Staying Italian for just a little bit longer, I recently had the wonderful experience of interviewing Lou DiPalo of DiPalo's Fine Foods. Lou and his family have been running this Italian grocer in Manhattan's Little Italy for a century and still, the lines form and often go out the door as customers wait for the one-on-one special attention given to every piece of prosciutto or wedge of cheese that's sold, cut by hand from the huge wheels that sit on top of the refrigerated cases.
I doubt there's anyone who knows more about Parmigiano-Reggiano than Lou DiPalo and that's what we talked about. If, like me, you didn't know that Parmigiano-Reggiano is produced in seasons -- just as wine has vintages -- you should take a listen. See our link to our podcast.
CSA Season Is Coming
Early March is not too soon to be thinking about your upcoming CSA share. If you already have the habit of participating in Community Supported Agriculture by buying a share in a farm's harvest, or if it's just something you've wanted to explore, farmers are already sending out their sign-up notices for the 2012 growing season.
If you live in the New York City area and need more information, visit JustFood.org for a list of available programs and more information about CSA. If you live elsewhere and don't know where to start, visit Local Harvest.org for information and a zip code searchable database to find a CSA near you.
What I've Been Cooking
Since changing this newsletter from weekly to monthly, I've had far more flexibility in my schedule and among the things I've done is cook more new things. While he's not one to complain, my husband must be happy for a little dinner diversity, especially this time of year when we have fewer choices for fresh produce and braised meats can somehow all start tasting the same.
But here are two new recipes that I'm adding to my keeper list. Sometimes I make something and while I like it fine, it's not one I expect to make again. I'm not totally sure why that happens, why one dish becomes part of our own regular repertoire and another is merely a tasty novelty. But both of these new dishes were flavorful, easy to make with supermarket ingredients, but also satisfying enough to be recalled a day or so later (that's one of my hurdles for getting on my "do again" list -- a continuing appetite for something).
The first is a winter salad from the March issue of House Beautiful magazine. It's by Gabrielle Hamilton, owner of Prune, and a chef who has, to my thinking, a pitch perfect palate. This is a salad made with celery, fennel, scallions and radishes -- all sliced very thin (I used my mandolin for the fennel and radish, cutting the celery and scallions by hand) -- and dressed with a robust garlic and lemon vinaigrette. I audaciously tinkered a little with chef Hamilton's version, leaving out the sliced sugar snap peas (I just don't particularly love their watery taste) and substituting red wine vinegar for two tablespoons of the lemon juice in the dressing to temper the lemon's sharp acidity (the vinegar is, to my taste, a little softer). I served it, as she suggests, with baguette toasts and a salty soft blue cheese; I chose Coulet Roquefort. The result was crunchy, fresh, salty, pungent, peppery, and fabulously satisfying. See our link for the recipe.
The other new dish I made was Malaysian chicken and rice in which pieces of chicken, still on the bone, are cooked in a covered heavy pot over a base of rice that becomes golden brown and crispy. It's served with two toppings: thin slices of jalapeño chiles that are combined with salty Thai fish sauce and sliced scallions that are briefly marinated in rice wine vinegar.
The combination of crispy rice, tender chicken and the salty and pungent toppings is spectacular. You can make it with either white or dark chicken, or both. The entire dish is cooked on top of the stove in a large Dutch oven or other heavy pot and takes about an hour to cook and about a half hour to prep. See our recipe.