Cheddar cheese from Lancaster County, PA
Turkey from Mercer County, NJ
HOT BREAD KITCHEN IS NOW AT GREEN MARKET YEAR-ROUND.
By Joan Jubela
It is lunchtime on a Wednesday in late May and Dag Hammarskjold Plaza is bustling with activity as people browse the farm stands, a cornucopia of culinary possibility. At Hot Bread Kitchen Jessica Dragonetti is helping customers navigate their many offerings. A well- dressed man, who looks to be of Middle Eastern descent with a lanyard bearing a UN ID card across his chest, steps up. “I’m looking for bread,” he says.
“You’ve come to the right place. What kind of bread?” she asks.
“Regular white bread,” he responds. By the time Dragonetti is finished, he has selected two very crusty chapati; two healthy slices of focaccia wafting with the buttery fragrance of olive oil, and a French baguette.
“Would you like a bag with a handle?” she asks. With bag in hand, he walks toward First Avenue, another satisfied customer.
From Indian nan to Iranian nan-e-barbari; Polish bialys to challah; and New York rye to sour dough with olives, the women bakers of Hot Bread Kitchen produce a wide variety of international multi-grain breads to intrigue and entice any dough-loving palette. Their baked goods are a mini-United Nations of authentic traditional and ethnic breads. Depending on availability, ingredients for all bakery products are grown locally and are organic whenever possible.
Hot Bread Kitchen has rolls galore. Mexican conchas come with either chocolate or vanilla icing. Armenian crackers, called lavash, are available by the box. A paper thin Moroccan m’smen might serve as a wrap for any creative filling, or can be eaten in the traditional way, heated in a dry skillet, then drizzled with honey and enjoyed with a cup of Moroccan mint tea. A New York version of the m’smen, with kale, onion and New York cheddar, is also available.
The nixtamal has been a landmark staple of Hot Bread Kitchen since the bakery first opened in 2008. There are three varieties, yellow, white and blue. All corn is organic and non-gmo. The yellow corn is grown in New York State, while the white and blue corns are from the mid-west. To make the nixtamal, the corn sits for hours in a bath of water and lime mineral called calcium oxide until it breaks down into masa, then it is formed by hand before being smashed into its flat tortilla state.
The mission of Hot Bread Kitchen is about more than selling bread; it is a social enterprise that helps low-income immigrant and minority women learn to be professional bakers. In 2008, CEO, Jesamyn Rodriguez, a former United Nations policy expert, began the organization to address workforce inequity and create jobs. At their bakery in East Harlem, they train approximately 30 women each year. After the completion of a nine-month course, Hot Bread Kitchen helps their graduates find employment. Recent graduates are working in restaurants like Danielle’s and bakeries like Bien Cuit and Amy’s Bread. The women selected to be trainees have a passion for cooking and baking and are ready to take their talents to a new level. Often trainees bring their recipes with them, hence one reason for the wide variety of breads at Hot Bread Kitchen.
For more than thirteen years, Dan and Nate King of Rexcroft Farms have been a staple of the park’s Wednesday greenmarket. Seventh generation farmers, their ancestors named the farm Rexcroft, meaning “King farm” in Dutch. In spring, pansies and other bedding plants signal the start of the growing season; followed by a cornucopia of fresh vegetables that continues until autumn’s gourds and pumpkins. Then in December, holiday garlands and wreaths end the year with a glorious finale.
Whatever is in season, Rexcroft Farms is likely to have it, hand-picked and farm-fresh: a summer fest of vegetables, lettuces and greens – from bok choi to arugula–peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, cauliflowers, zucchini and zucchini flowers in abundance. If they don’t offer it, just ask—it might be added to next year’s crops.
“We consider requests from people, and if I’m going to grow it, I’ll grow a lot,” says Dan. Each item is grown based on market demand. If their stand at Hammarskjold Plaza is a measure, the demands of multi-cultural consumers run the gambit from kale to callaloo, “A wonderful summer spinach” says Dan, available from July to early September, and then again in late fall. Popular in the Caribbean, callaloo refers to the dish and its main ingredient, a leafy green vegetable, in this case, amaranth
Herbs also abound: the scent of basil, Tuscan, sweet, Thai, cinnamon and lemon varieties, wafts through the market, suggesting both traditional and exotic versions of pesto. More than 20 others herbs, including sage, dill, thyme and mint are available. Epazote, an herb popular in Mexican and Spanish dishes, possesses a minty lemon flavor. Papalo, also prevalent in Central and South American cooking, has a piquant flavor that hints of cilantro and citrus. It often accompanies fresh papaya and is included in fish dishes, salsas and guacamole, but with a stronger bouquet than true cilantro, chefs add only about a one-third as much.
As summer ripens, so do the tomatoes, harvested from Rexcroft’s 8,000 plants. Bushels of freshly picked corn make the plaza feel like country.
I peer at the purslane, a semi-succulent green used in salads. With small leaves and tender stems, purslane can also be sautéed, just don’t overcook it. One shopper, picking up a bunch, says she gently parboils it in salt water.
“It’s a weed to some people,” says Dan. “Purslane was growing in our cornfields, and it would get tangled in the equipment, but I noticed that some of the workers helping me pick, were eating it. They convinced me to try some; it was delicious.” These days, Rexcroft Farm cultivates purslane and routinely brings it to market.
The King family is committed to sustainable farming. “We follow organic pest control practices as much as possible. We use beneficial insects and OMRI (organic materials research institute) approved products,” Dan says.
The Kings’ ancestors began as small produce farmers on fertile land along the Hudson River in Greene County near Athens, New York. Their grandfather started the dairy operation back when New York State was a major dairy producer. Dan and Nate turned to vegetable farming after a doctor advised their father to take better care of his heart. “Dairy is the roughest agri-business there is… and I grew up milking cows so I knew I didn’t want to do that,” says Dan. He started growing hydroponic tomatoes after attending an informational session at SUNY-Delhi about NYC farmers’ markets. Today, the family farm consists of 300 acres with fields of vegetables, greenhouses, beef pastures, hay fields and woodlots.
CAPTION: Alfredo Martinez has worked at Rexcroft Farms for more than a decade. He, and his two sons, Mike and Joseph, set out from Greene County in upstate New York at 3 am to arrive at Dag Hammarskjold by 6 to set-up for the market on this Wednesday in late July.