Mercado San Juan is Mexico City’s bustling central market. Small in real estate terms compared to more sprawling markets like Tsukiji in Tokyo and NYC’s Union Square Greenmarket, it’s nevertheless comprehensive, from the requisite fruits and vegetables and chilis and cheeses to displays of curious sea creatures and barrels of twitching maguey and chirping chapulines – that’s the larvae often found at the bottom of a mezcal bottle and grasshoppers, which when fried make for a tasty snack. A healthy section devoted to meat features all manner of slightly exotic animals, but what I found a little too close for comfort was the sight of goats freshly slaughtered, getting gutted, skinned and butchered before my eyes.
Ramps, the surest signs of spring’s reluctant arrival, finally made their debut this weekendÂ at the Union Square Greenmarket. I’ll leave it to others to wax rhapsodic on theÂ all too brief appearanceÂ of these tender wild leeks which herald the start of the growing season in the Northeast. Don’t get me wrong,Â I’m a fan; but the advent of ramps has a deeper, much more spiritual meaning to me: fiddleheads aren’t far behind.
Stop me if I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but I can’t get over how things have changed. Today it’s St. George’s in central Belfast, whereÂ a Friday market has stood in one guise or another since 1604.Â I last wandered the late 19th-century red-brick structure maybe seven or eight years ago and was underwhelmed. The farm-to-table movement had yet to take firm root in Northern Ireland, so while theÂ steel and glassÂ interiors stood out as a well-preserved reminder of the great Age of Empire, the handful of sorry vegetable stalls and assorted tat sellers inside seemed remarkably out of time and place. What aÂ differenceÂ a decade makes. Following a Â£4.5m refurbishment the market has become one of the most vibrant and colorful destinations this city has to offer.Â A raft of local producers trade inÂ everythingÂ from ArmaghÂ beef, award-winning farmhouse cheeses, free range eggs from Limavady, venison, pheasant in season and organic vegetables from Culdrum and Millbrook Farms.Â The fish section alone contains 23 stalls and holds the reputation for being the leading retail fish market in Ireland. Plus, there’s live jazz and dozens of lunch options from freshly filled baps – the Belfast Bap is a floury sandwich roll and a sourceÂ of local pride – and traditional French crepes to vegan Chana Masala and classic panini-style Cubans of roast pork, ham, and gherkins – dripping with swiss cheese. Dare I say this famouslyÂ hermeticÂ city seems to currentlyÂ enjoyÂ being just a bit worldly-wise?
I’m a bit late to Peck SlipÂ but New Amsterdam MarketÂ at the site of the former Fulton Fish Market is an exciting addition to the burgeoning convergence of small-scale purveyors, growers and foragers scattered about the tri-state region. It doesn’t compare to the sprawling,Â wholesale-orientedÂ GreenmarketÂ inÂ Union Square,Â but then it has no designs on filling a niche that’s already been filled. Instead it’s a reinvention of the Public Market, once a prevalent city institution: a lively assembly ofÂ bothÂ the raw and the cooked. Producers and (barely processed)Â products. Brought together under a single roof, a public square – or in this case an ignominious parking lot – it’s tantamount to the great English food halls. Or think of Madrid’s Mercado San Miguel and the Marche d’Aligre in Paris – the kind of market you visit with a list, as well as with the anticipation of bumping into friends and neighbors. It’s a convivial place where you can get your weekly stash of kimchi beef jerky, varietal cider and Brooklyn-made tempeh, watchÂ April BloomfieldÂ demonstrate how to filet a fish, then catch up over popcorn-topped ceviche and drinking vinegar. Writers and foodies will plugÂ New AmsterdamÂ as the city’s next great foodie destination but don’t believe the hype. It’s better than that. As soon as the tourist crowds disperse I suspect it will come into its own as the local we’ve been waiting for.
I went to the woods because I wished to eat deliberately – apologies, Thoreau – and see if I could not learn what it had to teach. Let it be known: Central Park is as instructive as Walden Pond. Instead of spending a week’sÂ wages at the Greenmarket, or worse, Whole Foods,Â I thought, it might be fun to see if I could make it home with a few bits ‘n’ pieces to compose an artful salad. After a few hours wandering the North Meadow, however, I came home with all the makings of dinner. Yes, there was salad involved: a pleasing mix of spinach-like Lamb’s Quarter, sweet Red Clover, peppery Garlic Mustard, and Chickweed, which tastes like corn of all things and costs a fortune when you can find it in Union Square. More substantial was the discovery of a Burdock patch, the roots of which are all the rage in certain circles. Similar to Lotus Root, Burdock Root has a sweet flavor and a meaty texture. Popular in Japanese cooking it’s added to soups, and stews (and pickled, too) but I think it really reveals itself when roasted, like a sweet potato. To go with my haul of roots, leafy Bitter Dock, which as the name implies is about as bitter as can be – until you cook it. Sauteed in olive oil with a pinch of red pepper it takes on a clean taste and texture that’s similar to chard. In the underbrushÂ I even found a patch of field garlic to complete my provisioning: salad, roots, side of veg, and spice. All I needed to add was a bit of brown rice from my local Chinese and I had the ultimate farm-to-table dinner for less than a dollar. After the next rain, the park should be bursting with mushrooms. Things could getÂ interesting.
A friend of mine and I somehow got on the subject of fresh eggs recently.Â If you’ve never had a farm fresh egg, you’ve no idea what you are missing:Â it cooks up as a creamy, slightly silky puddle of incredibly flavorful egg-y goodness.Â So while I was boasting about heading down to the Greenmarket this weekend for half a dozen of Knollcrest Farm’s finest hen eggs, he had to go and do me one better:Â “The chickens you see here were part of the set for a movie I was working on.Â Every morning before the crew arrived, I would get to the set early and collect their eggs and let them out of the coop. As I was cleaning up and resetting the house for the days filming I would sometimes cook myself an egg for breakfast. Now that was a fresh egg.”Â I’ve been humbled.
Visit the Union Square Greenmarket at this time of the year and you’ll discover that ramps, in certain circles, are a bit of an obsession.Â Also known as wild leek, ramson, or ail des bois, they are the first onions of the season and for me,Â the most immediate herald that spring has arrived. They look a little bit like scallions embellished with tulips leavesÂ – a thin white bulb grows up into a a broad, smooth leaf. with a touch of burgundy or scarlet along the wayÂ The flavor is a delicate combination of onion and garlic, and they’re fantastic eaten raw, quickly sauteed in a little olive oil, or added into scrambled eggs.Â Pretty much any placeÂ you use onion or garlic or shallot, you can substitute ramps to impart a bright, clean, “green” taste.
Another part of the appeal is how fleeting they are.Â The season for ramps evaporates in just a few short weeks.Â Psychologically, to take pleasure in the arrival of the ramps is to “gather ye rosebuds while ye may”:Â one day they’re here and the next day they’re gone.Â Unless, of course, you pickle them.
Now, I’ve never pickled anything before in my life – it always sounded like a rather daunting effort to undertake in a New York City kitchen.Â Yet this weekend the idea came upon me and stuck.Â The surprise was that it couldn’t have been simpler:Â bring equal parts water, white wine vinegar and half-part sugar to a boil.Â Â Add mustard seed, fennel seed, coriander seed, salt, and red and white peppercorns.Â Pour the hot liquid over cleaned and trimmed ramps in a mason jar and let cool.Â Store in the refrigerator.Â Voila, you have pickled ramps for the next month.Â Now, of course, the question is what am I going to do with all these pickled ramps? Last night I tried some in place of cornichon with a ripe piece of Reblochon and they were delicious – the perfect sweet and sour complement to the ripe stink of the cheese.Â Next idea:Â topping off a good burger.