Al Dente Express: Some More Local Love (Side Hill Farmers + Fins & Tails)

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NOTE: Al Dente Express is my answer for what to do when I want to talk about a place or places I visited, but it doesn’t warrant a full-on, exhaustive review. Here is a wrap of two Central New York retailers that I recently visited.

Friday night’s story from The Tampa Tribune was affirmation for everyone that bemoans Big Agriculture and our nation’s broken food supply:

The family of four, two of them elementary school-age children, had dinner on Monday night, a nice meal of bottom round steak. 

Then they began hallucinating, so bad they called 911, then rushed to the hospital themselves.

On Friday, Tampa police announced why: The meat had been laced with LSD.

The family bought the meat from the Wal-Mart at 1501 N. North Dale Mabry Highway, just north of Interstate 275, but police said they don’t yet have any idea when or where the meat became tainted with the hallucinogen.

So, there are three possibilities here: 1) The meat was tainted at the processing plant, which is not good. 2) The meat was tainted at the store, which is really not good. 3) Someone at home tainted the meat, which is really, really not good.

This is an isolated case, but assuming that we are not dealing with option three, it’s another case to be made for local purveyors. Pink slime, GMOs, and poorly-sourced fish are just some of the phrases that haunt those of us concerned about the purity of our food. It costs a little bit more to guarantee the quality, but in the end it pays off.

***

Tucked behind Manlius’ venerable Sno-Top ice cream stand is a small plaza with a Subway, a national drug store chain, a European chocolatier and a cooperative owned by a handful of Madison County farmers. In July 2013, Side Hill Farmers opened its doors as a storefront for a handful of farmers to move their product. My visit a couple of weekends ago found a busy, rustic-looking meat market with a wide open area in the rear of the store where meat is butchered on an open-air stage. Beef, pork, chicken and homemade sausages pack the display cooler, while an open dairy chest is packed with cheeses and milks. A freezer carries homemade sauces and stocks.

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Kevin McCann, the butcher-on-duty, gave me the nickel tour after convincing me to visit the store on Facebook. My introduction pulled him away from breaking down a dry-aged hunk of beef that had just emerged from the refrigerator. It was pretty glorious looking. Kevin said that the response to the store has been explosive, so much so that they are looking to expand to the open space next door, where they would have more room for produce and charcuterie. They already produce their own salami, filetto (cured pork tenderloin) and speck, but he was looking to get a space where he could expand the in-house production of cured meats.

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McCann and the other staff butchers break down the meats that come in from the farms from Onondaga County’s eastern neighbor, using everything that comes in the door. Steaks, chops, roasts and offal go into the cooler or the CSA bundles available. Bones are cooked down for homemade stock. And what little else that is left gets flipped into dog treats. The cooler was slowly emptying on this particular Saturday afternoon, steak-by-steak. Kevin mentioned that their major issue surrounds supply. Unlike a grocer, Side Hill doesn’t have a warehouse or wholesaler that it can get more product from at the drop of a hat. “One cow in, one cow out,” he said.

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All steaks and roasts are tenderized on the spot before being wrapped. Most of the staff has culinary training, so cooking tips and recipes are not lacking. The three Denver steaks (below) I procured were well-marbled and Kevin even trimmed some exposed fat from the edges for me. I pan-seared the steaks and finished them in the oven to medium/medium-rare, finding them to have a rich, almost creamy flavor. The steaks were not wet- or dry-aged. They were carved and left standing in a refrigerator case, so none of the tendons had the chance to break down. For a cheaper cut of meat from the flap, they were amazing.

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While I’m pretty loyal to Bostrom Farms for pork, I think I’ve found a winner for local beef. And, to my knowledge it’s the only place in the area to buy Stoltzfus Family Dairy chocolate milk. It’s creamline milk, which means that it hasn’t been homogenized. Homogenous milk has gone through processing to break up the fat into dissolvable pieces. Creamline is like the old school milk with the cap of cream at the top. It’s amazing on its own, though The Wife reports that it is enhanced with a heavy-handed dose of Bailey’s Irish Cream.

***

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Fins & Tails has been around for about 200 years now (okay, so 27 this summer). It’s the type of fish market that you would expect in a larger city or closer to the shore, not on Erie Boulevard East near Thompson Road.

It is just about the only place in town where you can count on sustainably fished products, served by people who know the fish they are selling. Wanting to make a fish stew over the weekend, I knew that I could probably find the shellfish I wanted and probably a mild filet of something to toss in. I was right. The cooler had a bucket of mussels that had arrived that morning, as well as Gulf shrimp, littleneck clams, salmon, cod, and bluefin. A second cooler had a host of homemade seafood salads and soups that one of the co-owners works in a kitchen area behind the counter for takeaway. I grabbed clams, mussels and cod, as well as their best kept secret: fish stock.

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Kitchen Basics makes a decent fish stock, but homemade is always better. F&T uses fish bones and shrimp shells to make their stock, extracting the marrow and collagen to construct a rich broth. Parking isn’t the easiest and I’ve always thought the plaza was kind of dodgy, but there is no better place in town to buy fish. Its reputation precedes itself so much so that for a while, F&T provided and managed the seafood counter at local grocery Green Hills Farms.

Yes, they are more expensive than your average supermarket but if you want quality, you pay for it. When F&T says it has red snapper or sole, you don’t have to worry about DNA testing when you get home. That’s worth paying for.

Side Hill Farms is located at 315 Fayette St. (Rt. 92) in Manlius, just behind Sno-Top. It opens Monday through Saturday at 10 a.m. Fins & Tails is located at 3012 Erie Blvd. East in Syracuse, near the Thompson Road exit from I-690 in the former Liquor Square plaza. It is open Tuesday through Saturday.

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