Call it a food co-op without the hassle, a personalized shopping service, or, as one customer refers to it, Christmas every Tuesday. Its trade name is Cornucopia, its creator an Arlington entrepreneur, Pam Wright, and its object is to provide individuals with the best of what's usually available only to specialty grocers, hotels and top restaurants.
Subscribe to Cornucopia, and once a week you will have delivered to your front porch or office a calico-lined apple basket laden with a week's worth of world-class produce that Wright has personally sampled from the city's wholesale vendors, then assembled into a visual as well as a culinary feast.
Wright's venture grew out of 10 years in the food business that included catering, wholesaling, and retailing as a food coordinator at Giant's Someplace Special. When she moved to Washington from California in 1975, Wright began by creating a series of children's cooking classes for neighboring preschoolers. The exceptional quality of the children's cacciatore caused parents to ask Wright to cater their parties, and before long she was in business.
In 1982, Wright noticed that local gourmet delis needed something other than "salads made last week in New Jersey." Subsequently, she closed the catering company and went into production developing a line of salads that she sold to such stores as Bloomingdale's and Someplace Special.
"In the middle of all this," says Wright, "I realized there was a level of quality in food that was not accessible to most individuals. I knew the sources, and I knew there were people who were willing to pay good money for raspberries in October, white corn in December and apricots in January."
Both catering and wholesaling had already taught her, Wright says, that there is always a market at the top of the economic scale. She confesses that originally she thought the Cornucopia venture might be a kind of "food co-op for rich folks."
"But I couldn't have been more wrong," she says. "Secretaries are subscribing and telling me I'm the only thing between them and McDonald's."
Wright believes, however, that most people don't hate to cook. What they do hate, she says, is having to go to a half-dozen places to find acceptable endive. They also want to know what to serve with the endive and how to prepare it.
Consequently, this past fall, after a year of selling what she terms her "Traditional" fruit-and-vegetable basket, Wright expanded and now offers an Instant Epicure basket (actually a white paper shopping bag) as well. Weekly or monthly subscribers to Instant Epicure pay the same amount ($35 per delivery) as purchasers of the Traditional basket and receive a bag that contains ingredients, timetable, menu and recipes for a dinner for four. January's menu featured fresh duck, fresh green pasta, sherried tomatoes, salad, a loaf of ficelle and lemon tarts from the wholesaler that supplies desserts to such restaurants as the New Orleans Cafe and the Ritz.
Attorney Pat Davis alternates her subscription between the Traditional and the Instant Epicure baskets.
"It's like coming home to Christmas every Tuesday," says Davis, who has been a subscriber since last fall. "My husband, my son and I make a family project of unpacking all the surprises. There are always things I don't recognize, like the lettuce that looked like red cabbage (radicchio) and the greens that looked like elm leaves (arugula). But if I don't know what it is, I chop it up and put it into a salad. There is an occasional vegetable or fruit I'm not crazy about -- you'll never convert me to kumquats -- but I am more than rewarded with Mayan melon and snap peas in January."
The kumquats received a cautious reception from a few other customers who also admitted ignorance of the rapini and white chard. But, on the whole, the clients say they enjoy the adventure and the education that comes along with the service.
Cornucopia's creator sees educating consumers as central to her operation. With her passion for freshness only exceeded by her exuberance over variety, she's always on the lookout for the unusual. "Do you know," she says, "that there are more than 3,000 varieties of vegetables in the world and that Americans are familiar with fewer than 1,000 of them?"
Wright says she's always pleased when customers like Pat Davis say, "We use everything we get." She enjoys having clients call with questions. "How shall I use the fennel?" (Line the barbecue grate with it and grill a fish over the coals.) "Can I substitute chicken for duck next week?" (Of course.)
"And even more," Wright says, "I relish the intimate contact with the food itself. Slicing a wedge from a melon to check for ripeness, tearing open a crate of spinach and picking through it -- it's satisfying to do what you can't do in the supermarkets."
"I have two ironclad rules," Wright says of her shopping. "First, you will never find a head of iceberg lettuce in one of these baskets. No matter how you pack it, display it, or serve it, iceberg lettuce is nothing but dull. Second, I never buy anything in a cello bag. All my carrots have floppy green tops and the vendors know it. 'We've got your carrots, Pam, and we set them aside for you,' they say when I walk in."
Market day begins at 7:30 a.m. for Wright when she stacks the empty baskets into her Datsun wagon and heads for the Capital City Market. The restaurant chefs have already had first crack by the time she gets there. But no matter, she gauges her timing so that baskets will be ready for delivery in the afternoon, shortly before her customers return from work.
"Good morning, Stanley. Hi, Dave. Hello, Joe." She begins her banter with the wholesale moguls while adjusting the ties of the apron she's put on over her green parka. "What's good today, Dave? What about eggplant? How are the artichokes? Any apricots? Raspberries? And I do want cherry tomatoes."
Dave begins his litany. "The eggplants are ugly. Apricots you can't afford. Oasis honeydews are cheap and sweet. Clementine tangerines were due in here an hour ago. The raspberries are from Chile and we've been having problems."
Wright pulls on her worn red gloves, as much for protection from crate wire and filament as for warmth in the unheated warehouse. Into the apron pocket goes her yellow-handled knife so she can sample the produce. "I never eat breakfast before I come," she says.
"You're going to stab yourself with that kitchen knife, Pam," Dave chides. "I keep telling you what you need is a switchblade."
Wright begins her breakfast with a slice of an anjou pear. Sweet but uninteresting. Next to the anjous are boscs. Too firm, but the flavor's right.
Then it's on to the "gourmet" refrigerators. She walks through the vertical plastic ribbons, passes up the raspberries. She pries open six crates of endive before finding one with tight, small heads without a speck of brown. The radicchio is round, firm, marbled maroon. The dandelion greens and the arugula are crisp and taste pleasantly bitter. Possibilities both.
She moves to the next refrigerator. The apricots are perfect. The oranges disappoint, as do the Indian River grapefruit. She slices a wedge from a yellow Orchid grapefruit that she prefers. The apples are mealy; one stayman stands out.
The vegetable supply is low today. "My two fears," she explains, "are getting to the market and finding nothing I can put into the baskets and, of course, the nightmare of all one-man operations, getting sick." So far neither has happened.
However, today will be a "light" basket. She inspects and rejects several potatoes, then pulls from over her head a 50-pound box of a Washington State variety that satisfies her.
"Oddly enough, one of the things I enjoy most about this business," she says, "is that there's so much physical work involved. Hauling, lifting, climbing -- it all has to happen in the transformation from all this raw material in the warehouses to the finished baskets, and I love it."
In the next room she wades through a thin film of slime to find the broccoli. It's dark green and crunchy. The boston lettuce is a possibility, but the romaine, she decides after checking every head in the crate, is better. The spinach leaves look too large. The cilantro is feathery and tempting, but "you can't be too exotic every week."
She climbs the cement stairs to the second floor of the warehouse. "Some people say this is where vegetables go to die, but it's just not true," she says. "I often find a perfect case of something put here just because the lid was misplaced." She eyes 12 hefty garlic bulbs she can purchase individually, an open crate of fresh dill from which she can buy the exact quantity she needs, and a broken case of crookneck squash.
An hour later, with the freshest breakfast in town under her belt and a tentative list in hand, she heads back downstairs to the office.
"What about cherry tomatoes, Dave?" she asks. "I need them for my Instant Epicure baskets."
"So if you want tomatoes at this time of year, buy hydroponic ones," he answers. The cherry tomatoes for her tomatoes bordelaise look as though they've been bordelaised all the way en route from California. She substitutes a full-size variety and winces at the price. She's suggested to Dave that he pursue a Spanish source she discovered that supplies to Harrods in London.
"I'll believe those Spanish tomatoes when I see them," Dave says. He tries to talk her into the artichokes. She says they were frosted. He says the frosting improves the flavor. She turns them down.
"My baskets have to look beautiful as well as taste good," she explains. "When the basket arrives you are stunned by Mother Nature's bounty and you want to jump right into it."
Customer Sue Hodzic, who says she subscribed to the service after her doctor told her to eat more fresh vegetables, agrees. "I had never thought about vegetables looking attractive," she says. "I'm not really much of a cook, but just the sight of that basket inspires me. The fresh herb itself is enough to send me to the cookbooks."
Today's herb will be dill. Wright arranges a dozen baskets in a circle around her in an unused corner of the warehouse. She separates the dill and the bunch carrots, placing the carrots so their floppy green tops overhang the basket. She pyramids the grapefruits, the bosc pears, the potatoes up the sides, then inserts the broccoli bouquet and the romaine upright in the middle. Keeping color contrasts in mind, she fills the remainder of the space with the tiny crooknecks, the apricots, the garlic, the tomatoes and the endive. Into the leftover crevices go the sugar snap peas -- loose, green and lovely.
"Look at that," she says, obviously pleased with today's creations. "We have built a visual feast."
Leaving the baskets, she makes a quick trip to the meat vendor nearby where the ducks are waiting, then makes a short stop at the bakery to pick up the lemon tarts and to check her office for messages. Ordinarily she would need to tap her computer at this time for a replacement recipe for the cherry tomatoes bordelaise. But she had anticipated a possible problem and brought with her an alternative recipe for sherried tomatoes.
The computer is a lifesaver, she explains, because if she gets to market and there are no brussels sprouts, she can substitute cauliflower, quickly call up a cauliflower recipe from her computerized repertoire, and make the adjustment to the Instant Epicure menu on the spot.
Not only the recipes, but the accounting, pricing and delivery information are all computerized. The computer gives Wright almost instant access to such information as the price and availability of raspberries this time last year, and she can quickly determine the cost of recipes and menus.
The computer also facilitates deliveries, which can be complicated by the fact that not every customer (she has about two dozen in all) orders every week, and because drivers (a friend and, as needed, delivery-service messengers) may differ from week to week. Her printouts for the drivers are sorted according to ZIP codes and special instructions for each customer have already been programmed in and automatically appear on each sheet.
Back at the market, the second driver has arrived with the ficelle. The ducks go into the bottom of the Instant Epicure bag, the endive is carefully wrapped in florist paper and tucked in along with the remaining ingredients and the printouts containing menu, timetable and recipes. A final check with the drivers about the route and which baskets go in which station wagon, and they're off to deliver (and pick up last week's empty basket). But first, Wright presents Joe, Dave and Stanley each with a loaf of the ficelle.
The rusty thermometer inside the warehouse says 23 degrees. "It was 16 this morning at 2:30 when I came in," says Stanley, who sits by the entrance waiting to meet the delivery trucks. "But it always seems a little warmer when Pam is here. Yes, indeed, she brightens up our day."
Following are several of Wright's recipes that she supplies to her customers: RECIPE SEASONAL EXOTIC SALAD: BLUEBERRIES WITH ARUGULA OR WATERCRESS WITH KUMQUATS
* 1/2 cup walnuts or pecans
2 large bunches fresh watercress or arugula (about 8 cups)
FOR THE DRESSING;
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 teaspoons dijon mustard
1/4 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup olive oil
4 small or 2 large belgian endive
1/2 cup blueberries or 12 or 16 fresh kumquats
1 teaspoon fresh tarragon
* Prepare the salad ingredients in advance: Shell and clean enough nuts to measure 1/2 cup. Chop coarsely and place in a bag in the freezer. Wash watercress or arugula. Trim the large stems from the leaves and discard the stems. Place on damp paper towel and refrigerate in vegetable crisper or plastic bag.
To make the salad dressing: in blender or food processor measure the vinegar, mustard, salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. With machine running, add the oil very slowly, a few drops at a time. (If the oil is added too rapidly the mixture will not become thick like heavy cream.)
Just before serving, rinse the endive and arrange the separated leaves evenly on a bed of watercress or arugula on four individual salad plates. Dice the green tops of scallions and sprinkle over the watercress and endive. Reserve the white parts for another use. If using arugula, sprinkle 1/2 cup of fresh blueberries, rinsed, over the salad. If using kumquats, slice each one into four slices, creating rings, removing the small seed in the process. Top each salad with 1/4 of the chopped frozen nuts. Drizzle with salad dressing and sprinkle with a small amount of the tarragon, finely diced. Serve immediately. BLOW DRYER DUCKLING HUXLEY (4 servings)
* This recipe, with its use of the hair dryer in degreasing the duck in place of more ancient and primitive Chinese methods, is adapted from author Judith Huxley.
* 1 large or two small fresh ducklings
* To prepare the duck: remove the neck, giblets, and liver from the duck. Remove excess fat from the cavity and openings of the duck. Fill a large kettle with enough water to cover one duck and bring it to a boil. After the water has boiled, plunge in the duck and return the water to a second boil. Boil 5 minutes. Remove the duck and drain. Pat the duck dry. With a hand-held blow dryer, direct hot air all over the duck for 8 minutes, paying particular attention to the joints of the leg. As the fat escapes from under the skin, wipe off with a paper towel. Place the duckling breast side up on rack in a roasting pan large enough to hold the duck comfortably.
Place the roasting pan on the lowest level of a 450-degree oven. Set timer for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, carefully pour off accumulated fat and turn duck so that its breast rests on the rack and the back is exposed. Turn temperature down to 350. Set time for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, turn the duck onto its breast again. Return to the oven and set timer for 15 minutes. Remove duck from oven and set on a board or other carving surface. Cover with a tent of foil and let rest for 5 minutes before carving. Total roasting time is 1 1/2 hours. BROILED SHERRIED TOMATOES (4 servings)
* 4 fresh, whole ripe tomatoes
1/4 cup sherry
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Fresh dill, or other seasonal garden herb
1/4 cup parmesan cheese, grated
1/4 cup bread crumbs
* Remove stem and core from the tomatoes and cut in half crosswise. Pierce halves with a fork and sprinkle with sherry. Season with salt, freshly ground pepper and dill. May be prepared up to this point several hours in advance and covered with plastic wrap.
To cook the tomatoes, broil about 6 inches from the heat for 5 minutes, checking to see if they are warm enough without beginning to shrivel or scorch. Combine cheese and bread crumbs. When tomatoes are very warm, remove them and spread the bread crumb-cheese mixture and return to the oven until lightly browned. MINESTRONE (6 servings) 1 pound sweet Italian sausage
2 cloves garlic
1/2 pound zucchini
1/2 pound carrots
2 stalks celery, with tops
1/2 pound green beans
2-pound can kidney beans
1 to 2 teaspoons oil or butter
46-ounce can tomato-vegetable juice
1 tablespoon fresh basil or 1 teaspoon dried basil
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup dried noodles, suitable shapes for soup
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
* To prepare the vegetables and sausages: Slice the sausage into 1-inch slices; dice the onion finely; press the garlic or dice finely; chop zucchini, carrots and celery into uniform cubes, about 1/4 inch each; trim green beans and cut into 1/2 inch lengths; pure'e 1/2 of the canned kidney beans.
Into a 4-quart saucepan or dutch oven, heat one or two teaspoons of oil. Do not heat to the point of smoking. Add sausage to the oil and saute', stirring frequently, until the pieces have lightly browned, about 7 minutes. Remove sausage and add onions and garlic to the fat in the pan, and saute', stirring frequently, for about 8 minutes, until golden brown. There should be enough fat in the pan to keep the mixture from burning. Add more oil only if necessary.
Add the vegetable juice, the whole and pure'ed kidney beans, zucchini, carrots, celery, and green beans, basil, salt and pepper. Simmer, partially covered for 1 hour, stirring occasionally.
Any time before that hour has expired, cook 1/2 cup of soup pasta (small shells or elbows preferably) in 1 1/2 quarts of boiling water for about 7 minutes. Drain thoroughly.
Add pasta to minestrone and cook for 10 to 15 minutes longer. Serve the soup with grated parmesan cheese sprinkled on top and plenty of crusty bread or corn muffins. INSTANT EPICURE'S ORIENTAL PORK (4 servings)
* 1 tablespoon grated tangerine rind and the juice of 1 tangerine
1/4 cup high-quality oil, preferably olive oil
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup sherry or bourbon
1/2 tablespoon freshly grated ginger
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2 pounds pork tenderloin
* About 4 hours ahead, prepare the marinade: Grate the rind of the tangerine, then squeeze out the juice. Whisk together the oil, soy sauce, sherry or bourbon, tangerine rind and juice, ginger and pepper. Pour over the tenderloin in a nonmetallic container and marinate, covered, for about 4 hours, turning the meat at intervals to ensure even marination.
About 2 hours before serving time, remove the pork from the refrigerator and allow it to come to room temperature. About 45 minutes before serving, heat oven to 500 degrees. Remove marinade from roasting pan for basting during cooking. Half an hour before cooking, turn oven down to 450 degrees and put in pork to bake for 10 minutes. Brush with marinade and turn the oven down to 350 degrees and bake 10 more minutes. Brush with marinade, rotate the meat, and bake for 10 minutes more. Meat thermometer should read no less than 137 degrees.
Remove pork from oven and let rest for 5 minutes before carving. CUCUMBERS ROSEMARY (4 servings)
* If the cucumbers will be without refrigeration for some period of time, such as on a picnic, use the cre me frai che in place of the mayonnaise. The cre me frai che must be made several days in advance of serving.
* 1 pound cucumbers, approximately 2 large
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup mayonnaise or cre me frai che
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1/2 tablespoon robust, grainy prepared mustard
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 red bell pepper
1/4 bermuda onion
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh rosemary or 1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary
* To prepare the cucumbers, rinse and peel. If skins are not bitter, you can leave strips of the peel intact to contrast with peeled sections. Slice the cucumbers in half lengthwise. Using a spoon, remove the seeds from each half. Slice each cucumber half into slices 1/4 inch thick, resembling crescents. Toss the sliced cucumbers with 1/2 teaspoon salt and let rest for 1 hour in colander to drain.
To prepare the dressing, mix together in a jar with a tight-fitting lid the mayonnaise or cre me frai che, red wine vinegar, mustard, and sugar.
Combine salad ingredients: finely dice the red pepper and bermuda onion. Remove the cucumbers from the colander and pat dry. Mix together the pepper, onion, cucumber with fresh rosemary, stems removed, finely diced. Pour dressing over and stir gently to mix. Cover and refrigerate for several hours or overnight before serving.
For mock cre me frai che, mix together in a tight-fitting lidded jar 1 cup heavy cream (not ultra pasteurized), 1/2 cup buttermilk or sour cream. Leave in a warm place 8 to 12 hours, or in cold weather as long as 2 days. After the mixture congeals it should be refrigerated 8 hours to develop its characteristic nutty flavor.