Roast chicken. Credit: Copyright 2016 iStock

I eased my shopping cart along the meat counter in a national chain grocery store to buy a whole chicken. Roast poultry for dinner seemed like a simple enough proposition. But like so many of us making food-purchasing decisions these days, I was stopped in my tracks by the range of choices.

Should I buy free-range or pasture-raised? Is organic better? Or is the best choice a brand like Foster Farms’ Simply Raised (whatever that means, exactly)?

Confused by all of the labels and marketing claims, I gave up. My family ate a meatless stir-fry for dinner that night.

Later, I learned about a new online resource called designed to help consumers navigate the supermarket. Could the site guide conscious consumers like me to more sustainable chicken?

Chicken production in a nutshell

Anyone hoping to buy a chicken that truly free-ranged on pastoral farmlands at a grocery store is generally out of luck.

The fact is that 99 percent of all chickens raised for meat (called broilers) in the U.S. come from factory farms. Through consolidation and high-tech breeding practices, the poultry industry has made chicken the most efficient and cheapest animal protein available.

Since 2010, broiler production has increased by more than 10 percent, according to statistics from the USDA. This graph looks surprisingly like the steep climb section on a Stairmaster program. Chicken production, which reached almost 9 billion birds in 2015, is still on the rise. Meanwhile, nationwide demand for barbecued-chicken pizza, chicken Caesar salad and General Tso’s chicken keeps in step.

Trouble is, while making chicken America’s favorite meat, the industrialized production system has incurred an untold debt to human health, the environment and the conditions of its own workers, not to forget the chickens themselves.

Consumers demand healthier chicken

Amid a stream of salmonella-superbug outbreaks and public-health concerns over the routine use of human antibiotics, the USDA announced its plan for stricter regulations and testing in 2015. Two of the largest chicken producers, Tyson and Purdue, pledged to stop using human antibiotics to prevent disease in hatcheries and as growth promoters during maturation. Major food corporations, including McDonald’s, Walmart and Subway, then vowed to shift toward purchasing chicken produced without human antibiotics.

Still, such improvements in the poultry market do not guarantee better animal welfare. According to whistleblower reports about the chicken industry and data from the ASPCA, cage-free chickens are still crammed into windowless barns for their short, dung-filled lives. These Cornish Cross birds, the main hybrid strain for the industry, grow three times as big in two-thirds the time as heritage breeds. Such fast fattening causes bone disorders, cardiovascular issues and other health issues over their roughly 45 days of life.

A sustainable buying guide

This chart can help you navigate the supermarket poultry case. Credit: Copyright 2016

This chart can help you navigate the supermarket poultry case. Credit: Copyright 2016

After returning from my shopping fail, I Googled Created by the Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit Farm Forward, it is the country’s largest online database of poultry brands, products and retailers (including eggs and turkeys).

In the search field I typed in “Open Nature” and then “Foster Farms,” two of the brands I’d considered. “Avoid,” read the bold red graphic on my screen, and below that, “Birds likely suffer from the lowest levels of animal welfare.” The fine print detailed how both brands received an F grade because they did not have any regulated animal-welfare claims or third-party certifications.

“ lets you go to the store with experts,” said Andrew deCoriolis, the website’s architect, when I reached him by phone.

Helpfully, the search results page offered links to the highest-welfare poultry products available as well as to a glossary of labels that clearly illustrates just how obfuscating and, in some cases, downright misleading the claims “free-range,” “pasture-raised” and “humanely raised” actually are.

“Like Seafood Watch, can be a standard of sustainability and create more transparency,” deCoriolis said.

Buying better poultry

One of the most upsetting experiences for the site’s 5,000 to 10,000 monthly users, according to deCoriolis, is discovering how USDA-certified organic products rank. Browsing, they’re shocked to see organic products with a D grade. DeCoriolis explained, “Organic is better but not necessarily for the animals.” For one thing, the USDA’s definition of “outdoor access” is ill-defined and does not stipulate indoor enrichments, including perches, or space for natural behaviors such as dust bathing.

At a different grocery store on another day, I opened on my phone’s browser to check on a regional brand, Draper Valley, for sale. All products in this brand rated “Better Choices,” and the organic line earned a C+. Since this was the best I could get in my area without visiting a small-scale farm, I nabbed this passing-grade chicken for our supper.

So what does it take to rate as a “Best Choices” chicken? According to’s criteria, these are heritage-breed chickens raised by producers abiding by the highest standards of animal welfare, with their claims certified by third-party groups such as Animal Welfare Approved. 

There’s only a limited supply from retailers in certain markets, including Natural Grocers in Denver, Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco and some Whole Foods stores — but none at all at Trader Joe’s or other national chains.

Persistent consumer advocacy is putting pressure on the poultry industry, however. “The big companies are paying attention,” said deCoriolis. In March 2016, Whole Foods committed to stop selling fast-growing breeds by 2024. Starbucks and Nestlé soon followed, joining the animal-welfare initiative toward slower-growing chicken breeds raised in conditions where they can behave and interact like, well, actual all-natural chickens.

Main photo: Buying chicken can be more complicated than roasting it. Credit: Copyright 2016 iStock

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A vineyard at Plageoles estate. The wines of Gaillac are extraordinarily diverse, with a wealth of grape varieties peculiar to that region. Credit: Copyright 2016 Myriam Plageoles

It is not often that I visit a wine region that has grape varieties I have never heard of. But that happened in Gaillac, a small appellation in southwest France, near the city of Albi, that is best known for its associations with the artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and its dramatic red brick cathedral that looks more like a fortified castle. The wines of Gaillac are extraordinarily diverse, with a wealth of grape varieties peculiar to that region.

A range of styles

Clos Rocailleux, a 17-acre property, is planted with Mauzac and Len de l'El for whites and Duras, Syrah and Braucol for reds. Credit: Copyright 2016 Margaret Reckitt

Clos Rocailleux, a 17-acre property, is planted with Mauzac and Len de l’El for whites and Duras, Syrah and Braucol for reds. Credit: Copyright 2016 Margaret Reckitt

The wine styles range from the firmly dry, as well as sparkling, to the intensely rich and sweet, with rosé and lighter or richer reds, according to the blend of grapes. Most red Gaillac is based on Braucol, a grape variety not found elsewhere in the southwest, where it can also be called Fer Servadou or Mansois. It has some wonderfully fragrant fruit, with perfume as well as tannin. Duras is another important variety and is rich and sturdy, and has absolutely nothing to do with the nearby Côtes de Duras. You might also encounter Syrah, Gamay and Cabernet, but completely new to me was Prunelart.

For white wines, Gaillac Mauzac is the most important variety, but there is not just one Mauzac. The Plageoles family have seven different variations in their vineyards. In addition, they have Ondenc, another old traditional variety of the appellation, as well as Len de l’El and Muscadelle. There also is Verdanel, another original variety, which they are working hard to revive.

The charms of Gaillac, for the countryside is stunningly beautifully with gentle undulating hills and little villages, has attracted outsiders. An English couple, Margaret and Jack Reckitt, were looking for a vineyard — they had tried the Languedoc and were en route to Bergerac — when they stopped in Gaillac and found Clos Rocailleux, a 17-acre property planted with Mauzac and Len de l’El for whites and Duras, Syrah and Braucol for reds. Their first vintage was 2012 and they have quickly established a convincing range of wines. Their Mauzac Vieilles Vignes from 65-year-old vines grown on a rocky limestone plateau portrays all the character of Mauzac, with intense saline flavors and a firm sappy note. As Margaret explained, white Gaillac may be a pure varietal, but red Gaillac must always be a blend, so their reserve red comes from Syrah, Braucol and Duras, with firm peppery flavours.

Four generations of Plageoles

Four generations of the Plageoles have worked the vineyards in Gaillac. From left, Florent, Myriam, Bernard and Romain. Credit : Copyright 2016 Isabelle Rosembaum

Four generations of the Plageoles have worked the vineyards in Gaillac. From left, Florent, Myriam, Bernard and Romain. Credit : Copyright 2016 Isabelle Rosembaum

In contrast, the Plageoles have been in Gaillac for at least four generations. We met Florent; his father, Bernard, is approaching retirement and his grandfather, Robert, is generally considered to be the great pioneer of Gaillac, reviving many lost grape varieties and wine styles. The range of the Plageoles’ wines amply illustrates that. Altogether, they have 86 acres of vines in 50 different plots. Our tasting began with the wine that accounts for a quarter of their production, Mauzac Nature, which is lightly sparkling and gently sweet. The initial fermentation is stopped, leaving some residual sugar, and the wine is filtered à manches, an ancient technique. It is almost impossible to describe; Florent demonstrated it, showing us a piece of material that looked like heavy cotton baggy sleeves through which the wine is wrung. The wine is then bottled, but the fermentation starts again in the spring. The wine is not disgorged, so there is always a light sediment. And the taste is soft and honeyed.

Verdanel is an old variety, for which their first vintage was 2001, initially from half an acre, but they will have 2 ½ more acres coming into production this year. The flavors are crisp and fresh, with some herbal notes and firm minerality, wonderfully original and intriguing, and amply justifying a revival. There was also a sappy Mauzac Vert and a sweet late harvest Len de l’El made from passerillé, dried grapes; Muscadelle too was rich and honeyed. They have seven acres of Ondenc, from which they make three different wines, a dry wine, from grapes picked in mid-September; a sweet wine, from grapes that are dried on the vine until the beginning of October and a liquoreux, picked in mid-October

As for red wines, they prefer to label them by variety, despite the requirements of the appellation. We tried a Mauzac Noir, which was fresh and peppery; a perfumed Braucol , a sturdier Duras, which was firm and tannic, and Prunelart, a member of the Malbec family. Robert Plageoles saved it, taking cuttings from a vineyard that was going to be pulled up.

The Plageoles family have also maintained the tradition for Vin de Voile, from Mauzac, mainly Vert and Roux. They make a dry white wine that is put into barrels for seven years. The result is not dissimilar to an intense amontillado sherry, with dry nutty fruit and a long finish. It was a wonderful example of the vinous originality that you might encounter when you go off the beaten track in La France profonde.

Main photo: A vineyard at Plageoles estate. The wines of Gaillac are extraordinarily diverse, with a wealth of grape varieties peculiar to that region. Credit: Copyright 2016 Myriam Plageoles

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Fennel granola. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

Granola is a marvelous vehicle for foraged seeds. When I harvested more than a quart of fennel seeds last fall, I never could have imagined that I’d have used them all by spring.

Thanks to the delicate anise cookie-like taste of fennel granola, I believe my demand for fennel seeds will always outreach my supply. Fennel granola is so delightful that even those who don’t have access to wild-harvested seeds will want to make it. Store-bought fennel seeds are slightly less flavorful, but work well in this recipe.

As a forager, I find wild seeds to be fascinating, particularly in fall, when the number of other crops to pick diminishes. Every year, I work hard to collect all manner of wild seeds. Some of these, such as seeds from the mustard family, are very flavorful and can be used as spices. Others, such as lamb’s-quarter (Chenopodium spp.) and its cousin kochia (Kochia spp.), need to be processed to remove bitter components before they can be utilized as food. Other seeds, for example evening primrose, a high source of gamma-linolenic acid, are relatively flavorless but powerfully nutritious.

Seeds such as amaranth (Amaranthus spp.), nettle (Urtica spp.) or evening primrose (Oenothera spp.) are easy to bring into the kitchen, requiring little more to process than simply shaking them off the plant and some minor winnowing. These seeds are a dream to harvest, but because they have little flavor, I often forget about using them over the course of the winter. In theory, they can be ground to better access their nutrition, then used atop or mixed into pretty much anything you could cook, from salad to breadcrumb toppings to dessert. In practice, these flavorless wild seeds sit unused in my kitchen. A foraging friend, Erica Marciniec, mentioned using her seeds in granola. I followed her advice and it worked brilliantly. Finally, with granola, I’ve found a way to use these wild seeds in a way that is convenient for me to cook, and that the whole family will enjoy.

While I really enjoyed eating my wild seeds in a typical cinnamon-flavored granola, I knew I could somehow boost the flavor.

That’s when I rediscovered my quart of fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) seeds. Initially, I added only a teaspoon of fennel seeds. I discovered that I loved the taste so much that I omitted cinnamon entirely and increased the fennel to further enhance the flavor of the granola.

I ran nine test batches of fennel granola, tweaking every detail you could imagine. In the end, leaving it in the oven produced the most consistently brown and crunchy granola. The addition of the egg white helps to form clusters. Of course, it could easily be omitted if you are making granola for someone with an egg allergy.

I tried making this granola with honey, but found the flavor competed too much with the fennel. Using brown sugar as a sweetener makes this recipe budget friendly, too. If you’d prefer to use honey, substitute 2/3 cup honey, and omit the brown sugar and water.

Fennel Granola

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 10 to 12 minutes

Total time: 6 to 8 hours (including cooling time in the oven)

Yield: 5 cups


½ cup butter

¾ cup packed brown sugar

3 tablespoons water

1 teaspoon vanilla

3 cups quick oats

2 cups old-fashioned oatmeal

¼ cup fennel seeds, lightly ground in a spice mill

2 tablespoons other wild seeds such as evening primrose (optional)

¼ teaspoon salt

¾ cup slivered almonds

1 egg white


1. Preheat the oven to 325 F.

2. In a small pot, melt the butter over low heat. Add the brown sugar and water, raise the heat to medium, and let it bubble for 2 minutes. Remove it from the heat, and stir in the vanilla.

3. In a large bowl, mix together the two kinds of oatmeal, seeds, salt and almonds.

4. Pour the warm liquid ingredients over the dry ones, and make certain that they are mixed very thoroughly, so that all of the oatmeal appears wet.

5. In a small bowl, whisk the egg white with a fork until it is frothy. Add it to the oatmeal mixture, and again, stir very well.

6. Pour the granola mix onto a greased 12×17-inch baking sheet. Use a spatula to press it down and make it evenly thick. This will help to ensure that you will have big chunks once it is cooked.

7. Place the granola in the oven and bake it for 10 to 12 minutes. When that time is up, turn off the oven, and leave the granola inside until it is cool. From the time the granola goes into the oven until the oven is cool, do not open the oven door.

Main photo: Fennel granola. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

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New garlic. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

New garlic (not to be confused with green garlic, the kind that looks a bit like scallions or spring onions, with the greenery attached) has plump bulbs that are fully formed. The cloves are easy to peel and deliciously damp — in some parts it’s known as “wet garlic.”

Because this kind hasn’t been hung out to dry with a view to storage, it will not keep for long, so you need to use it up pronto. It works especially well in recipes that call for raw garlic cloves: New garlic is less pungent and peppery and more digestible than its aged cousin.

At the market in Saint Cézaire-sur-Siagne in Provence, France, in early May, the first of the season’s new garlic was on sale. I snapped up several heads and bore them home delightedly.

If you can get your hands on new garlic, here are three recipes to showcase its flavor.

Fava Bean Dip With New Garlic and Cream Cheese

Fava Bean Dip with New Garlic and Cream Cheese. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Fava Bean Dip With New Garlic and Cream Cheese. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

This pale green hummus-inspired dip is great in early summer, when fresh fava or broad beans and new garlic are in season. The beans replace the chickpeas of regular hummus and there’s cream cheese instead of tahini, plus a topping of toasted seeds at the end for texture. You need to buy about 2 pounds (1 kilogram) of beans in the pod to arrive at about 8 ounces (250 grams) of shelled beans. Spread this dip on crusty bread or toasted pita or serve with chicken, veal, fish or crunchy-cooked spring vegetables (zucchini, radishes, baby carrots, sugar snaps and small turnips).

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 2 minutes

Total time: 12 minutes

Yield: Makes 4 servings


8 ounces (250 grams) shelled fava beans (fresh or frozen)

A pinch of salt

3 tablespoons chopped cilantro

Juice of 1 lime or 1/2 a lemon

1 clove new garlic, crushed

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 ounces (50 grams) cream cheese

1 teaspoon za’atar spice mixture

A pinch of crushed chilies or piment d’Espelette

1 tablespoon mixed seeds (sesame, poppy, linseed, sunflower)


1. Bring a pan of lightly salted water to a boil, drop in the shelled beans and cook for 4 to 5 minutes or until just tender.

2. Drain the beans, then pop them out of their leathery skins.

3. Place prepared beans in a food processor or blender, add the salt, cilantro, lime or lemon juice and garlic and process till smooth.

4. With the motor still running, drizzle in the olive oil; scrape down the sides and reblend.

5. Add the cream cheese, za’atar spice mixture and crushed chilies or piment d’Espelette and blend again.

6. Tip the mixture into a small dish or bowl and refrigerate.

7. Put the seeds in a small frying pan without any extra oil (they have enough of their own) and heat steadily, shaking the pan from time to time, till the seeds are golden brown and fragrant.

8. Sprinkle the seeds over the dip just before serving.

Salsa of Roasted Tomatoes, New Garlic and Chilli

Salsa of Roasted Tomatoes, New Garlic and Chilli. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Salsa of Roasted Tomatoes, New Garlic and Chili. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

A Mexican-inspired spicy salsa — the tomatoes, garlic, onion and chilies get a toasting on a griddle or in a dry frying pan (no oil) before they go into the blender, which intensifies the flavor and gives them a smack of smoke. Don’t peel the tomatoes, but blend them with their toasty skins. Serve with barbecued meats, tacos or quesadillas.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 0 minutes

Total time: About 15 minutes

Yield: Makes 4 servings


4 ripe medium tomatoes

2 cloves new garlic, unpeeled

1 to 2 fresh chilies (serranos, jalapeños or bird’s eye)

2 scallions, halved lengthwise

1 teaspoon salt


1. Rinse the tomatoes and place them on a griddle or in a dry, ungreased frying pan with the unpeeled garlic, chillies and spring onions.

2. Heat until the chilies, tomatoes and onions are lightly toasted and the garlic soft. The chilies will be ready first — remove them so they don’t burn. Keep turning the tomatoes and prop them up against one another, so they toast evenly. They’re done when little brownish-black flecks appear all over the skin and they are a little softened.

3. Remove all ingredients from the griddle or pan. Remove stems from the chilies, split them open, scrape out the seeds and chop roughly (use rubber gloves if you are sensitive to chili heat.)

4. Slip the garlic out of its skins. Do not peel the tomatoes.

5. Place chillies, garlic, tomatoes and scallions in the blender with 1 teaspoon of salt and blend till smooth.

Refrigerate the sauce till needed.

Creamy Sauce of New Garlic, Chili and Cilantro

Creamy Sauce of New Garlic, Chilli and Cilantro. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Creamy Sauce of New Garlic, Chili and Cilantro. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

A pale green sauce that’s done in a flash. For a quick supper, serve with linguine, adding a few lightly steamed vegetables. You can also pour it around chicken breasts or roasted quail or serve under white fish filets or salmon for a great color contrast.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: Makes 1 cup


6 cloves new garlic

1 cup (250 milliliters) whipping cream

A pinch of salt

1 fresh chilli, red or green, seeds removed, finely chopped (optional)

A small bunch (about 1 ounce, 25 grams) cilantro, leaves and stalks

1 teaspoon cornstarch

1/2 cup (125 milliliters) water


1. Slip the garlic cloves out of their jackets and place in a small saucepan.

2. Add the cream, salt and chili (if using) and bring to a gentle simmer.

3. Simmer for 20 minutes or until the garlic is quite soft.

4. Mix the cornstarch with the water.

5. Tip the sauce into a blender, add the cilantro leaves and stalks and cornstarch and blend till smooth.

6. Return sauce to the pan and bring to a boil again. Simmer for about 5 minutes, whisking with a small wire whisk, until thickened — no longer, or the sauce will lose its fresh green color. If too thick, add a little more water to give a lightly coating consistency.

Main image: New garlic. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

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Pickler & Co in Midtown East celebrates the deli bacon, egg and cheese with cage-free eggs, Applegate bacon and cheddar all pressed on a buttered pretzel roll. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicole Litvack

I had my first of many New York City breakfast sandwiches nine months ago. I had just left my job in Los Angeles and was subletting an apartment in Chelsea. Still unemployed, I got up around 11 a.m. and faced the city’s oppressive summer heat to search for sustenance. The breakfast cart at the end of the block with images of blue-cup coffee and an illuminated croissant, lo and behold, served a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich.

It’s a New York thing

Chef Tom DeSimone of Rabbits Cafe packs extra bacon, egg and cheese into his toasted brioche bun for satisfying version that’s available all day long. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicole Litvack

Chef Tom DeSimone of Rabbits Cafe packs extra bacon, egg and cheese into his toasted brioche bun for a satisfying version that’s available all day long. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicole Litvack

After paying $3.50, I unwrapped and took my first bite as I kept walking. It was perfect: warm egg, soft bread, gooey melted cheese. And, of course, bacon. From that moment on, I knew I would have a stake in something all New Yorkers share but rarely talk about: the bacon, egg and cheese sandwich.

A classic bacon, egg and cheese is made on the skillets of the city’s bodegas and coffee carts. Precooked bacon is reheated, eggs are stirred vigorously in a bowl with salt and pepper, and then dumped onto the skillet. They are shaped into a perfect rectangle and folded into a square with the bacon and the cheese inside, then popped on the roll and handed to you with a deadpan look.

Going upscale

High-quality Fontina envelops the classic egg sandwich at Murray’s Cheese in the West Village. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicole Litvack

High-quality fontina envelops the classic egg sandwich at Murray’s Cheese in the West Village. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicole Litvack

While the deli-style bacon, egg and cheese is a favorite among New Yorkers, you can also find highbrow versions of the sandwich with special cheese, avocado or artisanal bread. At BEC in Chelsea, an entire restaurant devoted to elevating the classic breakfast sandwich, the options are endless. Their Farmhouse sandwich boasts two eggs, pancetta, ricotta cheese, fig jam and honey topped with fresh spinach on a Pugliese roll. Or try the Bistec with eggs, Angus steak, bacon, blue cheese, onion, baby spinach and sun-dried tomato vinaigrette on a ciabatta roll.

Down in the West Village at Murray’s Cheese, they put the cheese in bacon, egg and cheese. A skillet-fried egg is topped, generously, with fontina and thick-cut bacon, and then sandwiched between a buttery skillet-toasted English muffin. The silky, melted fontina saturates the entire thing, creating a sandwich that spills out from its borders without falling apart.

If you can get to Eataly before 10 a.m. you can sample their colazione all’ Americana, or American breakfast menu, which consists of six thoughtful renditions of New York’s favorite breakfast sandwich. Try the Trento with Recla Speck Alto-Adige (fancy Italian smoked ham) and grated Trentingrana cheese (also fancy and from Italy). Wild arugula, housemade aioli, pancetta and locally produced breakfast sausage are just a few more options from the Italian-American-inspired menu.

A few blocks away at Pickler & Co in Midtown East, the bacon, egg and cheese is made on a pretzel roll with cage-free eggs and hormone-free meat and cheese. If you sleep in and miss the breakfast menu, head down to Rabbits Cafe in Soho, where breakfast is served all day and the brioche BEC is stuffed with perfectly scrambled eggs and crispy bacon. Add avocado? No problem.

The perfect quick breakfast

An industrial skillet in New York City shows the sandwich in formation. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicole Litvack

An industrial skillet in New York City shows the sandwich in formation. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicole Litvack

A breakfast sandwich in any other city would not be the same. Whether you opt for the basic deli version or pursue an upmarket take on the classic, there is something about having a bacon, egg and cheese in Manhattan that you truly can’t find beyond the perimeter of the city.

The heat, speed and convenience of this handheld breakfast item all speak to something that is uniquely New York. People want their breakfast. They want it to taste good. And they want to get on with their day. The bacon, egg and cheese provides just that — something you can grab on the go that will nourish and satisfy until lunchtime.

If you can’t get to the city, but still have a hankering for this special breakfast item, try making one at home. Whether you like your eggs scrambled or fried, let the cheese melt on top, be sure to use plenty of butter and don’t skimp on the bacon. Most importantly, create it on a well-seasoned skillet.

Main photo: Pickler & Co in Midtown East celebrates the deli bacon, egg and cheese with cage-free eggs, Applegate bacon and cheddar all pressed on a buttered pretzel roll. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicole Litvack

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The Test Kitchen's blinissoise, with chilled blini creme, barbecued langoustine

If you’re a globetrotter into fine dining, consider making your next destination Cape Town and its outlying Winelands, where an innovative eight-course tasting menu paired with wines will cost you about $60 to $80 for lunch, and $85 to $105 for dinner. Thanks to the dollar’s strength in South Africa, Americans are in for a feast of value in this scenic foodie haven, ripe with culinary talent and internationally acclaimed restaurants.

As for the tasting menus, you can expect the unexpected. You might find poached oysters with lemon, seaweed and apple at La Colombe; Cape Wagyu tongue with gnocchi, celery, carrots and celeriac at Overture; or light curry glazed kingklip (a local fish) at The Test Kitchen, cooked slowly at the table over curry leaves in concrete charcoal-filled bowls, and served with carrot cashew purée and carrot beurre noisette.

Joining the gastronomic scene

La Colombe, ranked in the World's 50 Best Restaurants, uses local ingredients. Credit: Copyright 2016 Micky Hoyle

La Colombe, ranked in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, uses local ingredients. Credit: Copyright 2016 Micky Hoyle

During the apartheid years, South Africa was shunned and largely cut off from the world, even in a culinary sense. But since Mandela’s presidency, it’s seen an influx of foreign chefs and cuisines. Many South African chefs have also worked in Europe and Asia, and returned all the better for it.

Today, Cape Town is a known pit stop on the gastronomic world map. The Test Kitchen, La Colombe and The Tasting Room have ranked in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, in various categories. Cape Town’s status as a world-class design city has also helped — it was World Design Capital in 2014 — with local talent behind great-looking dining spaces.

Fueling the scene is a flush of small growers and producers, offering chefs great produce, ethically raised meats, wild game, seafood and indigenous ingredients like sour figs, baobab, buchu and honeybush tea, along with a flurry of artisanal products.

“Overall, our fine dining feel is quite natural and organic when compared to other countries, with less rigid styling and a trend towards local ingredients and preparations, giving it a sense of place,” says Scot Kirton, head chef at La Colombe.

Local ingredients paired with wine

The Test Kitchen's pan-seared linefish with potato and snoek medley, black forest ham and fish jus roasted potato skin. Credit: Copyright 2016 Justin Patrick

The Test Kitchen’s pan-seared linefish with potato and snoek medley, black forest ham and fish jus-roasted potato skin. Credit: Copyright 2016 Justin Patrick

“South Africa doesn’t have a strong food heritage like the French, which means that our cuisine can be eclectic, with lots of people doing different things,” adds Luke Dale-Roberts, the British-born chef/owner of The Test Kitchen, located in the city’s revitalized Old Biscuit Mill warehouse complex. Foreigners also appreciate what Kirton calls “the South African knack for hospitality, in which even in the top tiers of fine dining, guests feel greatly cared for on a personal level.”

While the feeling is relaxed, with lunchtime guests sometimes even wearing shorts, few of these high-end restaurants are taking walk-ins. The Test Kitchen, ranked 28th in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2015, is currently taking dinner reservations six months in advance, although in August it will switch over to an online 30-day-in-advance booking system.

Wine is intrinsically part of local dining, with the closest vineyards 20 minutes from central Cape Town. While South Africa has a 350-year-old wine heritage, quality has improved dramatically in recent years, and there is a new posse of young and adventurous winemakers. This means great synergy and camaraderie between winemakers and chefs, who are sometimes even on the same property. Many of the Cape’s best restaurants are on wine estates, which doesn’t necessarily mean they only serve that estate’s wine; most have extensive wine lists, with excellent wines for as little as $15 a bottle.

Simple, seasonal and South African

The Tasting Room's Joostenberg vlakte duck, with boerenkinders puree. Credit: Courtesy of Le Quartier Francais

The Tasting Room’s Joostenberg vlakte duck, with boerenkinders purée. Credit: Courtesy of Le Quartier Francais

Despite global influences, many of the best chefs are expressing their personal experience of South Africa. Bertus Basson of Overture Restaurant, on a Stellenbosch wine estate, describes his food as “simple, fresh, seasonal and South African,” and creates dishes like West Coast Memories, with salmon, octopus, sout-vis (salted fish) and snoek.

In the idyllic Winelands village of Franschhoek, Dutch-born Margot Janse has been the chef at The Tasting Room at boutique hotel Le Quartier Francais for 20 years, and has set the local bar for ultra-creative tasting menus. Her food “celebrates South and Southern Africa through their ingredients and stories.”

Take her Joostenberg vlakte duck dish, for example, which she says “carries many stories.” The duck is farmed in an area where many Dutch settlers grew grapes and produced brandy. Janse steeps mixed fruit in brandy, like it’s done in Holland, but adds buchu — “one of our magical indigenous herbs.” After six weeks, it’s mixed with celeriac in a purée. The duck is baked in a salt crust made of hand-harvested Baleni salt mixed with kapokbos, another indigenous herb. The breast is served with the purée and crispy bits of neck and leg, and a grape jus. “It’s about the duck and its heritage,” she says. One dish of many in a new dynamic dining region.

Note: Prices are based on current exchange rates as of May 2016, of 15 South African rand to 1 U.S. dollar. Fluctuations may occur.

Main photo: The Test Kitchen’s blinissoise, with chilled blini creme, barbecued langoustine “en gele,” and a langoustine tataki with liquorice powder. Credit: Copyright 2016 Justin Patrick

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A spinach salad with strawberries, avocado and pine nuts is beautiful and delicious. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dreamstime

A large plate bursting with colorful plants and topped with a zingy vinaigrette — a big salad — has been part of my regular dinner repertoire for years. Happily, this concept is finally getting the love it deserves as a result of today’s increased focus on plant-based diets. Forget the naked salads of the 1980s, cruelly deprived of dressing. Follow these five tips and get creative to make salad the star of tonight’s supper.

Build your base: Salad greens, your way

Begin building your salad base. Lettuces are low in calories, so you can pile them on; their fiber and water content will help you to feel full. Greens are also loaded with vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients (health-promoting plant chemicals). Ditch iceberg, which lacks the bright flavors and myriad nutrients of other greens. There are so many fabulous lettuces out there — why not give some new ones a shot?

Romaine is a good starter, but there’s also spinach, arugula, mesclun, red leaf and beyond. Include cancer-fighting crucifers, too, like cabbage or kale, or fresh herbs. What’s in season? What works for you? Make it your own.

Top with veggies: Go for variety, color

Select whatever vegetables you like and make it your own: the more color and variety, the better. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dreamstime

Select whatever vegetables you like and make it your own: The more color and variety, the better. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dreamstime

You’ve got your salad base; now paint your palette with whatever veggies your heart desires. My salads feature whatever I have on hand: carrots, radishes, peppers, avocado, tomatoes, beets, sprouts, olives, artichokes, Brussels sprouts, onions — whatever. If you can find local veggies in season, your taste buds will thank you.

Personally, I’m obsessed with watermelon radishes and romanescu broccoli (aka, Roman cauliflower) — and don’t even get me started on sugar-sweet gold cherry tomatoes, which, come August, I pop into my mouth like candy. Variety and color are key: The more varied and brilliantly hued your veggies, the more nutrients you’re getting. (And, just for the record, while low-sugar veggies should appear most often on your salads, many big salads are wonderful with fresh fruits like citrus, pears, pomegranate and berries.)

Add protein power: Beans, pulses, legumes

It’s time to turn to the satiating power of protein. After all, you don’t want to finish your big salad still hungry and order a pizza. Most people jump to chicken, shrimp and steak to liven up their salads. As long as the meat doesn’t become the leading player, perhaps that’s what you’ll first choose to get a big salad into your dinner repertoire.

Yet soybeans (and their products, like tofu), lentils, chickpeas, pinto beans and the like are small packages with big nutrition. They include protein, as well as fiber, B vitamins, iron, calcium and potassium. They’re also low in calories and sodium — if you use canned, make sure to choose a no-salt brand — and are less pricey than animal protein.

Moreover, producing these plant foods is less taxing on our planet’s precious natural resources, and many enhance soil quality through nitrogen fixation. There’s a good reason it’s the International Year of Pulses, and most of us don’t eat the amount we should for optimal health.

Mix it up: Toss in whole grains

Mixed lettuces with quinoa, orange, walnuts, and chia seeds makes for a salad packed with vitamins and minerals. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dreamstime

Mixed lettuces with quinoa, orange, walnuts and chia seeds makes for a salad packed with vitamins and minerals. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dreamstime

Like pulses, whole grains are a nutritional powerhouse of vitamins, minerals and fiber — and even some protein — and create a pleasing texture and toothsome bite to your salad. Brown rice is a favorite of mine, especially when included with black beans for a big salad with a Tex-Mex twist. There are many different grains — think barley, quinoa, farro, oats and amaranth — to add intrigue to your salad; experiment to learn what you prefer.

Tossing whole grains into a big dinner salad is also a terrific way to use up last night’s leftover rice or pasta, too. While whole grains aren’t a regular addition to my salads, which tend be loaded up with veggies, beans and greens, a handful can make a tasty difference — especially if I’m having a craving for toasty homemade rye croutons.

Bring on the fat: Salad dressing and toppings

It takes only a few minutes to whisk up your own healthy salad dressing to top your big salad -- use whatever vegetable oil and vinegar you prefer. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dreamstime

It takes only a few minutes to whisk up your own healthy salad dressing to top your big salad — use whatever vegetable oil and vinegar you prefer. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dreamstime

It makes me sad when I think about everyone out there still shunning salad dressing, or opting for low-fat varieties, often packed with sugar. Yes, full-fat salad dressing is energy-dense: The main ingredient is oil, which has more than double the calories compared with carbs or protein (about 9 calories per gram versus 4).

So if you need to lose weight, you’ll want to keep the calorie content of dressings in mind — and save sumptuous dressings like blue cheese  and green goddess for special occasions.

Even so, science has shown clearly that certain types of fats are particularly beneficial to health. Diets rich in monounsaturated fats, like olives and olive oil, and polyunsaturated fats, like nuts, seeds and their oils, are both associated with decreased risk heart disease, especially when these foods supplant refined carbohydrates (like white bread, rice or pasta).

Moreover, the fat molecules in salad dressing help your body absorb the valuable (fat-soluble) nutrients in your meal. A drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar is my go-to dressing, but whipping up a simple vinaigrette at home is a cinch — try my maple-Dijon recipe — and can feature any combination of oil and vinegar that pleases. And, if your salad calls for crunch, scattering on a few nuts or seeds can take your big salad over the top.

Dinner’s ready. Season with sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste, and enjoy. With the first luscious vegetables of the season popping up in local farmers markets, now is the perfect time to celebrate the power of plant-based diets, your way.

Main photo: A spinach salad with strawberries, avocado and pine nuts is beautiful and delicious. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dreamstime

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Chef Francis Mallmann. Credit: Copyright 2016 Peter Buchanan-Smith

“Fire is a language all its own. It’s magical. Mysterious.” No, these are not the words of a committed arsonist, but rather Francis Mallmann, one of South America’s greatest chefs, a man famous for his deftness with this most elemental of cooking tools.

Raised in Patagonia by an Argentinian father and Uruguayan mother, the 60-year-old Mallmann waxed poetic on the subject of fire when we sat down to talk at his Restaurante Garzón in the tiny Uruguayan town for which it is named.

Garzón is a curious place for a world-renowned chef to put down roots, but then Mallmann is a curious figure — part master craftsman, part culinary shaman. He opened his first restaurant in the Argentinian Andes at the age of 19 before moving northeast to set up shop in the Uruguayan beach resort of José Ignacio, a summer destination for the Argentinian upper crust. During the off-season, he staged in some of France’s most legendary kitchens, under the likes of Roger Vergé and Alain Senderens.

By the age of 40, he’d reached the top of his field, winning Le Grand Prix de l’Art de la Cuisine from the International Academy of Gastronomy, but instead of viewing the award as validation, he saw it as a wake-up call. “It made me sad. I’d forged a path through European cuisines, but I didn’t have my own culinary language.” In an effort to find it, he turned back to his childhood and began investigating the native cuisines of the Andes and other parts of South America.

A small town draws big names

The restaurant deck at Bodega Garzón. Credit: Copyright 2016 courtesy of Bodega Garzón

The restaurant deck at Bodega Garzón. Credit: Copyright 2016 courtesy of Bodega Garzón

His search led him to Garzón, a place he describes as having a wonderful aura. “It’s got great bones — the streets, the trees, the beautiful old houses. There’s a peaceful quality here.” He wasn’t the only one who saw the potential; I’d gone there in March as the guest of Bodega Garzón, a winery established by Alejandro Bulgheroni, an Argentinian oil tycoon who’s one of the world’s richest men.

To describe it as Uruguay’s most ambitious new winery isn’t saying much in a country smaller than Missouri that’s home to more cattle than people, but Bulgheroni’s $85 million project is not what you’d call a shoestring operation. Covering more than 520 acres, the complex includes a restaurant, a private wine club and an olive oil production facility that resembles a modern Tuscan villa, and there are plans to build a boutique hotel amid the vines. Mallmann was brought in to help design the kitchens and create the menus.

As you’d expect from a project this ambitious, Bodega Garzón’s wines are anything but shabby. Indeed, they’re likely to gain this small but progressive country a closer look by international connoisseurs. In particular, the Albariño and Tannat bottlings are worth seeking out.

Although the winery is opulent, its restaurant menu is of a piece with the gaucho-inspired dishes Mallmann serves at his own place down the road. His food highlights the earthy flavor combinations, techniques and ingredients (particularly the excellent meat) of Argentina and Uruguay, whose populations are a blend of indigenous and immigrant, the latter category hailing primarily from Italy and Spain. And running throughout Mallmann’s cuisine, always, there is fire.

No translation necessary

Chef Francis Mallmann tending to the hearth at Restaurante Garzon. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sofia Perez

Chef Francis Mallmann tending to the hearth at Restaurante Garzon. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sofia Perez

His favored medium notwithstanding, however, Mallmann brings to his food an undeniable delicacy — fire as perfume, not punishment. “People think that cooking with fire is a masculine thing, something brutal, but it’s actually quite fragile.”

He made his case at the dinner he hosted for the winery’s official opening. In the square outside his own restaurant, Mallmann and his team spent the day tending to a split-leveled fire that was surrounded by a circle of crucified lambs, which were themselves ringed by flames. By the time guests arrived that evening, the darkness of rural night had been deferred, revealing a tableau that suggested an offering to the gods — or a scene from “Lord of the Flies,” take your pick. But despite the fierce manner in which the meat had been cooked, it remained remarkably tender, and its subtle flavor was surprising.

“The ‘simple’ approaches are the most difficult,” Mallmann said, “because there’s nowhere to hide. Things can go wrong with the tiniest shift.” He pointed to the strong winds that had buffeted Garzón that day, constantly altering the fire’s temperature and, therefore, the way the meat cooked. Mastery of such a technique can only be achieved through repetition and attentiveness. “The language of cooking is one of silences — it’s of the hands and all the senses.”

Throughout our conversation, Mallmann returned repeatedly to the metaphor of language, which seems fitting for someone who has used cooking to communicate with people all over the world. “If you bring a president and a farmer together around a fire, you don’t need words,” he said. “Fire is part of our collective memory — it’s what unites us.”

Tomato, Goat Cheese and Anchovy Bruschetta

Tomato, Goat Cheese, and Anchovy Bruschetta. Credit: Copyright 2016 Santiago Solo Monllor

Tomato, Goat Cheese and Anchovy Bruschetta. Credit: Copyright 2016 Santiago Solo Monllor

Excerpted from “Seven Fires” by Francis Mallmann (Artisan Books, 2009).

According to Mallmann, the key to this recipe is to burn the tomatoes to achieve a “toasty bitterness” that contrasts with the sweetness of the liquid they contain.


36 cherry tomatoes (about 1 pound)

1/2 cup fresh oregano leaves

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 day-old baguette (10 ounces) sliced into 24 half-inch-thick rounds, toasted until crisp

8 ounces Bûcheron or similar goat cheese

24 anchovy fillets (about 3 1/2 ounces), drained and halved lengthwise

Parsley, Olive Oil and Garlic Sauce (see recipe below)


Cut the tomatoes in half and put them in a bowl. Add the oregano, olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Toss to combine.

Heat a chapa or large cast-iron griddle over very high heat. When it is very hot, place the cherry tomato halves cut side down about 1 inch apart on the hot surface; work in batches if necessary. It is very important not to move the tomatoes while they cook, or they will release their juices and lose their shape and texture. Keep in mind that it is hard to char a tomato too much: best to err on the side of charring; and if you do move one, you are committed and you should remove it immediately. When you see that the tomatoes are well charred on the bottom, almost black (about 4 minutes), remove them using tongs or a spatula and place burnt side up on a large tray, about an inch apart so they don’t steam.

Arrange the toasted bread rounds on a platter. Spread some of the goat cheese on each round, and place 3 tomato halves on top of the cheese. Garnish with the anchovies and drizzle a teaspoonful of the sauce on top. Serve immediately.

Parsley, Olive Oil, and Garlic Sauce

Excerpted from “Seven Fires” by Francis Mallmann (Artisan Books, 2009).


1/2 cup packed minced fresh flat-leaf parsley

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste


Combine the parsley and garlic in a small bowl. Slowly add the olive oil, whisking to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper. The sauce can be kept refrigerated for three to four days.

Main image: Chef Francis Mallmann. Credit: Copyright 2016 Peter Buchanan-Smith

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