A finicky guy's exploits in finding gustatory (and other) satisfaction in his kitchen, his neighborhood, and beyond.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Where I get my ingredients

The ironic truth is that here, in the heart of New York City, we have easy access to as much fresh, wholesome foods as we would if we lived on a farm in the heartland.   Our situation might be even better than that of rural inhabitants — I've been to small-town grocery stores and noted that the produce on offer has rarely come from the local farms, but was mostly shipped in from large-scale corporate farms, just like the produce in our local Gristede's markets.

Thank goodness we aren't limited to Gristede's.  Or even to grocery stores.

During the growing season, we get our produce — fruit and organic vegetables — from our CSA (community supported agriculture), which sponsors a farm a little bit upstate from here and shares in its bountiful harvest.  On Tuesday afternoons from about late May through Thanksgiving week, we walk two blocks west to a little community center where the CSA has set up a distribution center.  Every week, it feels like Christmas, as we fill up our bags with whatever has just been picked the previous day and driven to our neighborhood.  The food is of course, magnificently fresh and often still smells  of the earth from which it was plucked.  The variety of offerings evolves over the course of the season, with lots of salad-y greens in the early weeks and lots of root veggies towards the end.

We normally end up with 2 big bags full of delicacies, which lasts the 2 of us pretty much all week.  (Actually, we STILL have some potatoes, carrots, and beets from the last delivery of the season, which was in November!)  If we want more of a particular item (tomatillos!), we can go to a local elementary school on the following day, where a farm booth staffed by students offers items from the CSA shares they have purchased to sell as a weekly learning project.

Weekly deliveries of delicious, farm-fresh produce — what more could a city boy with a country heart crave?  And it comes to only about $30 per week, plus the requirement to do a couple of EASY volunteer shifts, either setting up or breaking down the distribution station and refilling the emptying bins as members fill their bags.  The camaraderie at these distributions, with everyone inhaling the earthy fragrances and comparing notes as to how they used the take from last week, is like a big party every week.

The past few Novembers, we have experienced a post-season let-down as we contemplated the prospect of returning to the stores for our produce, so this year we took steps to find a more pleasing alternative.  We may have found this in Urban Organic, through which we receive a weekly box of organic (but sadly, not local, at least not during this time of year when nothing grows in our region) produce.  I say MAY have found, because, although the quality of the produce has been astoundingly high, the quality of the service has been astoundingly awful.  I am torn between my desire for continued deliveries of exquisite citrus, greens, and other yummy things and my growing irritation that not one delivery has come free of errors and discrepancies.  Every single week, I have had to call the office to report a late delivery time, a box mis-delivered to someone on another floor of my building, a doubled delivery fee, a missing item.  I feel as though I need to hire a personal assistant to monitor the boxes for completeness and to keep track of the charges and reimbursements.  So far, I'm leaning towards continuing: the produce is excellent and the staff are all very pleasant, if not so competent.  And it's pretty cheap, only $35 per week, delivered right to our door.  (Or occasionally, to our neighbors' doors.)  So I will probably keep up the service until the start of the next CSA season.

Every two weeks, we walk a few blocks east to a gourmet cooking school, where a different assortment of farm-fresh products are delivered from Amish farms in nearby Pennsylvania.  From these farmers we order raw milk and dairy products, grass-fed meats, and occasional other items like sweet potato pie, sauerkraut, and fresh vegetables.  The raw milk is rich and unbelievably delicious. . .and seems not to invoke the kind of allergic reactions (yuck—mucus!) we often get from pasteurized milk products.  The yogurt has spoiled us for commercial brands and the butter — very flavorful, almost gamey, depending on the time of year — was for us an acquired taste we now crave.  The steaks and chicken parts we order are hearty and much tastier than the store-bought options.  Even our dogs eat a special ground beef mixture the Amish prepare for pets using all the organs.  (We've tasted it ourselves and have to admit it's delicious!)  The prices for these exceptional goods are comparable to the prices at, say, Whole Foods, even with the delivery surcharge collected by the "club" we belong to which somehow makes legal the procurement of raw milk products in a state in which they are not legal to be sold.  (Don't ask me how this works.)

What we can't get through the Amish, the CSA, and Urban Organic, we buy mostly at Whole Foods.  We are lucky to have a branch one block away.  (I tell you, we are spoiled here in Chelsea.)  Their produce is very good, although not so tasty as what we get from our "alternative" sources.  We actually prefer the Whole Foods organic eggs to those we've gotten from the Amish.  I love the wide selection of beers, the dessert bar, the 365 brand pasta products, the breads (frozen and fresh), and the overall emphasis on high quality and healthiness.  (Not to say you can't buy a lot of junk food there too.  Read the labels, people, read the labels.)  But my absolute favorite feature of our local Whole Foods is one most shoppers probably have never even noticed.  They have this crappy little basket tucked away in the cheese department between the fancy imported butters and the fresh pasta.  This basket contains a greater treasure than the one in which baby Moses was floated in to the Pharaoh's daughter — they wrap up and label little "sample-sized" ends of cheeses from their collection.  You can buy a Matchbox-car-sized hunklet of a cheese retailing for over $30 per pound, since the small portion size keeps the price down.  We love it because the small piece of cheese is just enough to garnish a salad or omelet for the 2 of us without bogging us down with large amounts, which might go bad before we could use them.   We never tire of any particular cheese, and get to sample a wide variety of cheeses that we couldn't afford in larger packages.

Soon I'll let you in on my sources for coffee, tea, and chocolate......stay tuned!


  1. Hey now, you aren't supposed to tell people about that cheese basket! How are we ensure we get some if you tell everyone? It's my secret too...tiny pieces of heaven those things are...

  2. Hi Aunt Fluffy! I am telling people the good news in order to PRESERVE the cheese basket bonanza. I had a huge scare a few weeks ago when the basket disappeared with no explanation for many days. I am embarrassed to admit how depressed I got...until the happy, enchanted day when I noticed that it had returned! Maybe if WF is aware how this off-hand feature draws certain of us shoppers into the store, they will never again eliminate it.