Spiders and Snakes: Urban farm is crawling with miniature wildlife

I went to Mill Creek Farm for the snakes, but I stayed for the bugs. As an urban herper (reptile and amphibian enthusiast), I like to walk around green places looking under objects for critters. I had a great time with the small brown snakes I found at the Farm, located at 49th and Brown in West Philly, but I couldn’t help but be distracted by all the other wildlife.
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On the Shelf: Grid contributors produce some worthy additions to your summer reading list

Each month, Grid boasts the work of some of the Philadelphia area’s most talented writers. In this issue, we’re proud to shine a light on some of their endeavors outside the magazine, as a handful of writers affiliated with Grid have new books out, or due to be released in coming weeks.

Lauren Mandel

EAT UP | The Inside Scoop on Rooftop Agriculture

New Society, 288 pp., $29.95, May 2013

The first full-length book about rooftop food production is finally here, thanks to Philadelphia native and Grid contributor Lauren Mandel. The book looks at three scales of rooftop gardening: home gardening, commercial farming and the rooftop agriculture industry. The practices and practicality of rooftop agriculture are thoroughly explored in a book meant for curious individuals, business owners and policymakers alike. With a growing urban population, Mandel’s book is an important and innovative perspective in addressing the world’s current and future food needs. You can purchase her book and browse through some of the pieces that she’s written for Grid on the same subject at gridphilly.com.

Tenaya Darlington

Di Bruno Bros. House of Cheese: A Guide to Wedges, Recipes and Pairings

Running Press, 256 pp., $25, May 2013

Grid’s regular contributor from the world of cheese is the resident blogger for Di Bruno Bros. The pairing of an extensive cheese house with a passionate and articulate spokeswoman has been an exciting project for both parties, and has led to a guide book for the masses. With fun and colorful language, the book provides a thorough map through the cheese counter with directions on how to buy and pair nearly any cheese in the shop. All that’s left for you to do is eat and enjoy! You can read some of Darlington’s cheese reviews at gridphilly.com or read her blog, madamefromageblog.com, but the book puts it all in one place.

Jon McGoran

Drift

Forge Books, 384 pp., $24.99, July 9 2013

Grid’s editor in chief is also the author of Drift, a thriller about genetically modified foods coming out in July. Cops, drugs, violence and classic thriller tension take an environmental twist when a narcotics detective is thrown into the drama of Pennsylvania farmland.

“McGoran impressively integrates concerns about genetically modified produce with an action-filled storyline and fleshed-out characters…” says Publishers Weekly, in a starred review. “The disturbing, but scientifically plausible, secret at the heart of the bad guys’ schemes is an original one, and McGoran makes the most of it.”

The book launches July 9 at the Academy of Natural Sciences. Read more at jonmcgoran.com.

Sarah E. Adams is the editorial intern at Grid and can be found working for Bennett Compost at a farmers market near you. 

The Life of Png: A day in the life of the city’s newest cheesemaker

This spring, Reading Terminal Market welcomed its first city creamery, Valley Shepherd, located just past Iovine Brothers, across from Molly Malloy’s. Market shoppers can stop by the window and watch cheese being made while they wait for their sandwich order from MeltKraft, a sandwich stand connected to the creamery that uses all local cheeses. Six days a week, you’ll see Jamie Png (pronounced ping) behind the glass, making mozzarella and sometimes cheddar. Here’s what her typical day looks like.
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No Kids Allowed: Our region's local cheese scene is not without controversy

Alongside Pete Demchur’s driveway in suburban West Chester, Pa. is a paddock of big-eared Nubian goats. They chew alfalfa hay, browse for plants, and walk their front legs up the fence to investigate visitors. Beyond the paddock is a stand of lush bamboo. Just beyond that is a group of townhomes.

Demchur owns and operates Shellbark Hollow Farm, producing small-batch goat cheeses. He never planned for his home on a 3.5-acre lot in West Chester to become a farm; the slow transition into farming began when his family gave him a pair of goats as a Father’s Day gift. A framed photo of those original goats sits on top of the living room television, alongside photos of the children who gave them to him. Demchur bred the pair, then started milking and making cheese. “Over the years,” he says, “the goats just took over the whole place.”

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Eggplant: Deep Purple

story and photos by Grace DickinsonLove it or hate it, call it a fruit or a vegetable, few foods inspire as much culinary controversy as the deep purple nightshade known as the eggplant. Or as the aubergine. Like its cousin the tomato, the eggplant is the seed–containing, flowering ovary of a plant, so it is technically a fruit—a berry, to be more precise. While the most familiar eggplant-based dishes are from Italy—most notably the sliced, fried and topped-with-cheese classic, Eggplant Parmigiana—it is also popular in many traditional Asian cuisines, cut into thin strips, sautéed and seasoned with something like a sweet and spicy garlic sauce. The eggplant was first domesticated in India, but it quickly spread across Southeast Asia, the region that is still the primary source for eggplants. It also spread to Arabia, and in the Middle Ages, it was introduced to Spain and Greece, and then Italy and the rest of Europe.

If you are thinking about growing your own eggplant, your first consideration should be warm soil, according to farmer Ryan Witmer. This month Witmer and gardener Molly Devinney share their tips on how to produce a healthy yield, followed by a recipe from Le Virtu head chef Joe Cicala that will help you put that harvest to use.

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Local Girl: Dealing direct with regional producers expands notions of local

Not long ago, people would react with surprise when I told them that what brought me to Philadelphia was my desire to work in the local, sustainable agriculture movement. But Philadelphia has long been at the forefront of the local food movement, and as you can see from the ever-expanding Local Food Guide, more and more people—more and more Philadelphians—are learning what it means to be connected to their food.

I became aware of the importance of that connection at a young age, but it had nothing to do with bucolic ideals or insight into the plight of the modern farmer. Growing up outside Cleveland, Ohio, the connection was as simple as the Midwestern ideal of home-cooked meals, made-from-scratch. Early on, I was obsessed with the queen of all things homemade—Martha Stewart—and I grew up most interested in learning how to make the perfect piecrust. But despite my suburban roots, the memories from my childhood that stand out the most are of pick-your-own berry farms, bonfires, and hands stained from cracking piles of black walnuts from our neighbor’s tree.

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Flour Power: Local Bread On the Rise

story by April White | photos by Emily Wren

Pete Merzbacher’s voice is muffled as he talks about his months-old West Philly-based baking company, Philly Bread. “It’s the flour,” he explains. “It’s everywhere. It’s in my phone now.” 

As Philly Bread’s owner and chief baker, Merzbacher, 23, transforms 250 pounds of GMO- and chemical-free flour each week into baguettes and boules for wholesale customers and a small but dedicated group of “bread CSA” members. Many discovered Merzbacher’s loaves through word of mouth or Facebook, where he announces his weekly specials—rosemary focaccia, olive and herb with orange zest, sunflower rye—and connects with Philly’s urban farmers and foragers to source ingredients.

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Pros and Kahns

20th Century Chestnut Hill, a six-month exhibition at the Chestnut Hill Historical Society (8708 Germantown Ave.), gives proper due to the mid-century homes tucked under that neighborhood’s famous green canopy. Featuring drawings, plans and models, the exhibition profiles the likes of Robert Venturi, Romaldo Giurgola, Oskar Stonorov, and Louis Kahn. The Esherick House, pictured here, was designed by Kahn in 1959 and is one of only nine homes designed by him and built in his lifetime. Located at 204 Sunrise Lane, on a spacious property abutting Pastorius Park, the home is noted for T-shapes that Kahn later applied to other, larger structures, as well as a custom kitchen by Wharton Esherick, whose niece Margaret was the first owner of the house. For more on this story, visit Hidden City Daily, hiddencityphila.org.

Whole Lotta Ricotta

Homemade ricotta is wholly different from the store-bought alternative, but for the richest, most flavorful ricotta, use raw, grass-fed whole milk. I purchased some from Wholesome Dairy Farms at the Fair Food Farmstand, and it yielded much tastier results than a batch I made from pasteurized milk. This ricotta is pillowy and fluffy—great for breakfast with berries and a drizzle of honey.

Homemade Ricottastory and photo by Tenaya Darlington

Note: you’ll need cheesecloth and a candy thermometer

  • 1 g. fresh whole milk (ideally raw, and not ultra-pasteurized or homogenized)
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • 1/3 c. fresh squeezed lemon juice

Rinse a large stock pot with cold water to help prevent milk from sticking to the sides as it cooks. Pour milk into the pot and add salt. Heat gradually on medium-low heat, stirring occasionally for 30 to 40 minutes. Be patient—the slower you heat the milk, the softer the curd.

When the milk begins to simmer, at around 180°F, remove the pot from the heat and gently stir in lemon juice. Stir just until combined, then let sit for 20 minutes.

Line a colander with cheese cloth—you may want to fold it in two and use a double thickness—then use a ladle to scoop the curds from the pot into the cloth. You can reserve the whey (it’s good for making pizza dough) or let it drain into the sink.

Let the ricotta drain until it has reached your desired consistency, anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour. Then refrigerate and use within three to five days.