Monday, July 18, 2011

A Forager's Report: Bell's Market

On a hot day, there is almost nothing I love more than retreating to an ethnic grocery to muse and mull. That's how I found myself in a borrowed Volvo, schlepping house guests into Northeast Philadelphia one beastly Saturday to explore Bell's Market. Later, there would blintzes with farmer's cheese and platters of smoked fish -- perfect hot weather fare -- but first, there was the pleasure of oogling a Russian dairy case and marveling at whole smoked mackerel.
Bell's Market is in Rhawnhurst, a never-you-mind strip mall community in the hinterlands of Philadelphia, a neo-burb of '60s era twin houses and brownie pan-sized lawns. Right on Bustleton Avenue, the area's main artery, Bell's Market rises from asphalt. Its facade resembles Staples Office Supplies, except for ads written in Cyrillic hanging in the front windows.
Inside, the first mission became came clear. Linger by the pickle bar.
The woman behind the counter was kind enough to let my friends and I sample her pickled salads. There must have been 50, including three kinds of pickled carrot salad, plus pickle-stuffed peppers and sliced watermelon floating in brine. My favorite discovery was whole pickled apple. It's very delicate and not too puckery, perfect for sharp cheese and smoked fish.
From there, I went straight to dairy. Some of the labels made me laugh.
And I couldn't get over how many shrink-wrapped, pre-sliced "cheese products" filled the cooler shelves. Certainly an American influence. I cowered.
My friend Matt and I were smitten by feta sold in metal canisters. Smitten, but also puzzled. Can metal canisters be good for brining cheese?
There was no end to the mystery.
There were cheeses of every shape, variety, and nationality.
We settled on a few spreadable curiosities and a probiotic cheese that looked especially Soviet. Many of the cheeses in the dairy case were made in Brooklyn, but some were imported direct from the motherland.
Really, it was the fish counter that took my breath away.
Again, we were allowed samples. How I love women in paper hats.
Bell's Market sells both cold-smoked and hot-smoked fish. We learned that cold-smoking conserves moisture and makes for a meatier mouthful. The texture of the hot-smoked fish was thready.
And so we went home and feasted. On poppyseed bread, pickles, mysterious beverages malt beverages, cheese, and smoked fish.
The bounty lasted for days. Every few hours, someone made a little Russian snack.
And the probiotic cheese sat well with us. Imagine cottage cheese with very fine curds. Russians call it "Tvorog."
Nestled into a crepe with honey and bananas, it was absolutely luxe.
Tvorog, I've learned, is a Russian staple, similar to cottage cheese but more closely related to quark. The blog Everyday Russian offers a recipe for making it at home. It's made with raw milk and sour cream, and unlike ricotta recipes, this one requires no curdling agent (usually lemon juice or vinegar). I can't wait to make some.

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