In the movies, the South Bronx is typically equipped with guns and knives. Now its image is changing to knives and forks. For within 50 feet of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, in an area that looks as if it had been hacked out of an urban jungle, more than 30 different kinds of herbs are being grown in greenhouses and delivered fresh to 500 restaurants and 10 supermarket chains. Glie Farms, within six years, has become the basil center of the East. And the Bronx is becoming known less for street fighting than for rosemary and dill.
In Manhattan, Lavin's restaurant boasts on its menu "Herbs de Bronx." The kitchens of Le Cirque, La Grenouille, the Four Seasons and Chanterelle turn Glie herbs into expense-account lunches. An American Place, which lists the pedigrees of its lamb and its goat cheeses, offers Bronx endive (a misnomer, since Glie is bringing in the endive from Long Island, but all the restaurant's fresh herbs are from the Bronx).
All this and more comes from about a half-acre of greenhouse in a high-crime inner-city neighborhood, "a glasshouse in a neighborhood that is very improbable for glasshouses," as Glie President Gary Waldron puts it. "I describe it sometimes as an 'I dare you' kind of building."
This highly intense high-tech growing operation started when IBM offered Waldron, a financial planner for international operations, a one-year leave of absence under its executive loan program to work on a charitable project. Waldron took a good look at the burnt-out buildings and vacant land of the South Bronx, where he had grown up, and thought, "Somebody ought to be using this in some more positive way." He went to work with Glie -- Group Live-In Experience, pronounced "glee" -- a nonprofit shelter network for runaways, and began with a gardening project, clearing the rubble in vacant lots and bringing in soil to grow cooking herbs.
Next he looked beyond the Bronx, at Manhattan's 20,000 restaurants a mere 15 minutes away. They were indeed welcoming; when Glie showed up at restaurants with the herbs, armloads of basil were snatched up in a moment. "The French chefs more than anybody else went crazy. They got very emotional -- but the French are very emotional anyway," muses Waldron.
Even so, for years Glie was a complicated mix of success and failure. On the success side was "a market that kept enlarging in front of us," says Waldron. Still, he almost went broke three or four times in the first two years. In order to develop a year-round crop he built the greenhouse, but kept running out of space. So he expanded to two more, then another five. A solar greenhouse was a failure. Mushroom growing didn't work out.
By 1982 Glie was routinely supplying herbs to restaurants and the Bronx unemployment rolls were reduced by 53 people. Two things had become clear: First, Waldron's future was with Glie Farms rather than IBM, so he left for good within a week of his returning from leave. Second, he would have to find more space-efficient methods of growing herbs. That meant hydroponics -- using water rather than soil to deliver nutrients to the plants -- and growing plants vertically in pyramids up to 11 tiers high. With that, production leaped from 25,000 pounds of herbs annually to 250,000. Gross sales, which have tripled every year, zoomed to nearly $1.5 million. And now Glie is selling its fresh herbs to 20 restaurants in Philadelphia, 50 restaurants in Chicago and starting in to Boston, while considering developing similar projects in other cities. Even more ambitious, Glie is opening a research and growing facility on 200 acres in Puerto Rico.
Waldron, crew cut with jeans and a sweater, probably looks more like a farmer than he did when he worked at IBM, and his office there probably did not display Food and Wine magazine or "The Silver Palate Cookbook." But he still talks like a corporate financial planner: a mile a minute and backed up by a steady stream of figures.
Long before he became a city farmer he'd had experience working soil. As a kid in the Bronx he had been sent by the Fresh Air Fund to a Mennonite farm in Pennsylvania. Now he has hired the Mennonite farmer he worked for to set up the Puerto Rico branch of Glie Farms.
"Once you establish a marketplace it has to be an everyday marketplace," he learned. His market has grown so fast that he also buys from Florida and California to resell in some cases.There isn't much competition in the fresh herb business, says Waldron. Even food photographers need Glie's fresh herbs. One ad agency rented a hundred pots of mint to depict a field of it for a chewing gum ad.
The hard way to sell is to individual restaurants, Waldron discovered. A single truck with two men has to make 40 stops in Manhattan, not to mention the deliveries by subway and bicycle. Sometimes a restaurant has an emergency that requires sending a messenger to pick up herbs.
The advantage to selling directly to restaurants is that you get a lot of feedback. You can tailor your growing to the market when you get early warning signs if, for instance, the interest in arugola begins to wane.
So far the greatest demand is for basil -- 20 percent of Glie's output -- and the purple basil (for purple pesto) is becoming especially popular. Tarragon and arugola are also strong sellers. Waldron decided not to grow radicchio (it would take two years to recoup its value), and found snow peas, haricots verts and saffron too labor-intensive. Tomatoes he gave up on when he found they not only took too long to bear fruit but were not consistent year-round. He expects to grow sand-free spinach and cilantro, which is a field crop and therefore more suitable to the Puerto Rico facility. And he will expand more into edible flowers; the demand is growing for nasturtiums, violets and squash flowers. Next on his experimental agenda: miniature fruits.
A walk through Glie's greenhouses puts the Bronx far behind. The smell of herbs is heady, and the profusion of eye-level plants casts a sweet green glow over everything. Against the soft hum of the fans a group of women chatter in Spanish in a cloud of basil perfume as they pack baby carrots, with their bushy green stems, and lush bright herbs in plastic bags. Employes are all owners of the business, explains Waldron, and get formal job-related academic training in fields such as biology. Glie is a family-oriented business, he adds; employes bring their children and grandchildren to work. Absenteeism is about 2 1/2 percent, turnover about 2 percent, while at IBM it was 6 percent when he worked there; in New York it is 15 percent, says Waldron.
Nearby a small room displays the growing charts and the computer that controls the acidity of the growing medium, the carbon dioxide, the light, the temperature and the humidity. This is one of the most advanced greenhouses in the country, claims Waldron. Michael Dowgert, a PhD from Cornell and one of the few employes to come from outside the neighborhood, is repairing some electrical glitch. Waldron introduces him as "our plant physiologist/electrician." Dowgert amends that: "I'm chief of frustration."
With the sophisticated computer system Glie can experiment with light levels -- discovering, for instance, that squash plants grow very fast on the shady side of the greenhouse -- and with variable zoned feeding. In this hydroponic system basil grows in 7 1/2 weeks versus 14 outdoors. Lettuce grows in five to six weeks and requires less energy -- lower light and lower temperatures -- than most herbs. Almost anything can be grown hydroponically, but Waldron prefers the rosemary soil-grown, and finds that growing some things too fast doesn't allow them to develop full flavor.
Not much is known about how the flavor of herbs develops; Waldron is experimenting with oil content analysis, since oil content is largely responsible for that flavor. He is trying to document the difference between oil content of hydroponic versus soil-grown herbs or even fresh versus dried herbs. The most that can be said so far is that hydroponic herbs are more lush, yield a higher volume and are more uniform in color, therefore more esthetically pleasing.
There are myths to be dispelled. Dried sage usually comes from Albania; asks Waldron, why is that reputed to be better than American-grown? Spice companies, he says, "would ordain that the best basil in the world was Egyptian basil, and nobody even questioned it."
The Puerto Rican facility can experiment with fresh and dried herbs to answer such questions. It will also grow the seed for the Bronx herbs, allowing Glie to select its own varieties, and will be a warm-weather backup for herb growing. The drip irrigation system -- which Waldron calls "outdoor hydroponics" -- will also be used to grow miniature vegetables and perhaps someday miniature fruits. In that climate, says Waldron, a crop that would take 75 days to grow in New York would take only 50 days.
Waldron envisons the Puerto Rico farm supplying dried herbs to large companies such as McCormick; with homegrown herbs, says Waldron, they wouldn't have to worry about political and social instability or inconsistent quality of herbs grown in other countries. He expects 90 percent of that farm's production to be dehydrated.
Waldron doesn't consider himself a trend-setter; rather, he says, "We were the people who executed on something that was happening anyway. We just arrived on the scene to do this when it was ready to be done." Vacant lots were there to be cleared, unemployed workers were there to be given jobs, chefs were there hungry for fresh herbs. And the supermarkets were changing. Says Waldron, "Refrigerator sections and produce sections are the most dynamic sections of the supermarket now." He's getting ready to fill them. Tabletalk
Blackened redfish, move over. Florida International University School of Hospitality Management in Miami is showing off this week with the results of its advanced meat science classes. The emphasis will be on organ meats -- perhaps beef heart veronique, veal tails ragout, brains bernaise and similarly luxurious renditions of sweetbreads, fries and tongue.
Is your produce market up-to-date? If it is first with the fashions you'll be finding Italian-style chicory, cinnamon basil, red and yellow currant tomatoes, antique apple varieties and up to 40 varieties of figs.
I've known of chocolate weekends and wine-tasting weekends, but May 9 to 11 is the first pasta weekend to cross my desk. Sponsored by the Woodstock Inn & Resort in Vermont, cosponsored by Better Homes and Gardens magazine, the program features pasta making, pasta dinners, pasta lunch, pasta desserts and pasta snacks, but pulls its punches: no pasta for breakfast. DILLED BLANQUETTE DE VEAU (6 servings)
From the bookshelves of Glie Farms, here is a recipe that makes delicious use of fresh dill.
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) sweet butter
3 pounds veal, cut into 1-inch cubes
1/2 cup unbleached, all-purpose flour
1 scant teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
3 cups peeled carrots, sliced diagonally (slices 1/8-inch thick)
3 cups coarsely chopped yellow onions
5 tablespoons finely chopped fresh dill
3 to 4 cups chicken stock
3/4 cup whipping cream
Melt 8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter in a heavy flameproof casserole. Add the veal and cook, turning frequently, without browning.
Stir 3 tablespoons flour, nutmeg, salt and pepper together in a small bowl, and sprinkle over the veal. Continue to cook over low heat, stirring, for 5 minutes. Flour and veal should not brown.
Add carrots, onions, 3 tablespoons dill and enough stock just to cover meat and vegetables. Raise heat to medium, bring to boil, cover, and bake in 350-degree oven for 1 1/2 hours.
Remove stew from oven and pour it through a strainer placed over a bowl. Reserve solids and liquid separately.
Return casserole to medium heat and melt remaining butter in it. Sprinkle in remaining flour and cook over low heat, whisking constantly, for 5 minutes.
Whisk reserved cooking liquid slowly into the butter and flour mixture and bring to a simmer. Cook slowly, stirring constantly, for 5 minutes.
Whisk in cream, remaining dill and additional salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste. Return veal and vegetables to the casserole and simmer together to heat through, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a deep serving dish and serve at once.
agcrdt3 From "The Silver Palate Cookbook," by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins (Workman Publishing, 1982) GRILLED SALMON WITH GARLIC AND ROSEMARY (6 servings)
2 to 2 1/2 pounds salmon fillets
3 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary or 1/2 teaspoon dried
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
1/2 cup oil
Small handful of rosemary twigs, or 2 to 3 tablespoons dried
1/4 cup butter
Dry salmon thoroughly. Make paste of garlic, rosemary and salt. Rub all fish surfaces thoroughly. Combine orange juice and oil. Place salmon in glass baking dish big enough to hold it, and pour liquid over. Cover; marinate in refrigerator for at least 2 hours, basting from time to time.
Prepare charcoal fire. When coals are white, toss rosemary twigs (or dried leaves) onto them. Oil grill carefully so fish won't stick. Grill first side of fish from 5 to 10 minutes, dabbing top with butter. Turn only once. Grill second side, basting with butter, until meat barely flakes, usually no more than 5 minutes. Watch so it doesn't overcook. Dress fish with remaining butter; serve.
agcrdt3 Adapted from "The New West Coast Cuisine" by Linda West Eckhardt (St. Martin's Press, 1985) FRIED TROUT WITH MINT AND GARLIC STUFFING AND BROWN BUTTER (4 servings)
4 brook trout (each about 8 ounces), boned
4 cloves garlic
4 finely chopped tablespoons fresh mint
Salt to taste
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
8 tablespoons clarified butter
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 lemon, cut into quarters
Cut heads, tails and fins from boned trout with kitchen scissors.
Boil garlic cloves in water until they are tender, about 20 minutes, depending on how fresh they are. This removes the raw taste of the garlic and consequent breath odor, but it still retains flavor.
Mash garlic cloves on a chopping board with the flat of a heavy knife; add the mint and a pinch of salt. With fish spread open flat, spread this mixture on the flesh. Fold each fish back into its original shape.
Mix flour, paprika, salt and pepper together in a shallow dish or pan. Heat butter in large frying pan over medium high heat. Coat both sides of fish with flour and shake off excess. Lay them in the hot butter and fry for 4 to 6 minutes each side until crusty. Remove fish carefully with large spatula to warm serving platter. Cook the butter remaining in the pan until it turns a light brown color. Remove from heat, add lemon juice and pinch of salt, and pour over fish. Garnish with lemon quarters.
agcrdt3 From "Saucing The Fish," by Shirley King (Simon and Schuster, 1986) GEORGEANNE BRENNAN'S PAN-FRIED CARROTS WITH PARSLEY SAUCE (4 servings)
8 long carrots
2 tablespoons butter
FOR THE PARSLEY SAUCE:
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup parsley leaves
1/4 cup white wine
1/3 cup cream
1/8 teaspoon salt
White pepper to taste
Scrub carrots. Steam over boiling water until tender. Cut into 3-inch-long pieces. Melt the butter in a frying pan and saute' the carrots, browning them on both sides.
While the carrots cook, make the sauce. Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan. Mince the parsley leaves and saute' for 2 minutes. Add the wine and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the cream, salt and white pepper and heat for 3 minutes. Pour the sauce into a small pitcher and serve hot.