Visitors can tour Julia Child’s kitchen at the National Museum of American History. Credit: Courtesy of the National Museum of American History

When you visit the Smithsonian, you see Julia Child’s kitchen literally enshrined. It is surrounded by plexiglass, but you can see all of it and even “step inside” at places, while the kitchen itself is surrounded by videos of Julia. You get a sense of the real Julia, while you are also awed to be in the actual space inhabited by the First Lady of Food Television. Her seminal series “The French Chef” has just been re-released on the online TV site Twitch — bringing Julia once again into the public spotlight.

I was reminded of the cultural status of chefs at the Smithsonian’s Food History Gala. It was a public event to present the first ever Julia Child Award to Jacques Pépin. Taking place in the grand hall of the Smithsonian’s American History Museum, the location made it clear where chefs stand today in the pantheon of American greats. They stand right next to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Literally.

Todd Schulkin, executive director of the Julia Child Foundation, felt the space was appropriate. “It was very meaningful to be in the flag hall,” he said “under the image of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ ”

An ‘anonymous labor’

The first ever Julia Child Award was given to Jacques Pépin, who worked closely with Child. Credit: Photo courtesy of Jacques Pépin

The first ever Julia Child Award was given to Jacques Pépin, who worked closely with Child. Credit: Photo courtesy of Jacques Pépin

Marcus Samuelsson, author of “Yes, Chef,” reminded the distinguished guests that “being a chef was an anonymous labor for a long time.” Their high-flying cultural status is newfound. Even the evening’s celebrant, Jacques Pépin, spent the early part of his career as the corporate chef for Howard Johnson’s.

And it’s not just food stars, but food itself that has become a cultural touchstone. The Smithsonian’s Food History Weekend, kicked off by the gala, was followed by two more days of events and workshops that showcased innovation in American food culture. And the conversation didn’t stop with the weekend. The Smithsonian has embraced food history with the American Food History Project. It features monthly events that place food culture on the same level with such celebrated icons as Abraham Lincoln’s stovepipe hat and Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers.

But there was a wistfulness underpinning the gala dinner. Many of the speakers of the evening — including the celebrated Chef Pépin — remarked on the strangeness of being cultural superstars. They all seemed to feel a sense of concern: being “enshrined” can also mean losing touch. A classic artifact like Julia’s Kitchen must be preserved by plexiglass. But a chef shouldn’t be. Superstars can find themselves living in a bubble, and it takes work to avoid this fate.

A sense of fun

Marcus Samuelsson; Eric Spivey, chairman of The Julia Child Foundation; Jacques Pépin; and Sara Moulton at the Food History Gala. Credit: Photo courtesy of the National Museum of American History

Marcus Samuelsson; Eric Spivey, chairman of The Julia Child Foundation; Jacques Pépin; and Sara Moulton at the Food History Gala. Credit: Photo courtesy of the National Museum of American History

Most of the pantheon at the gala seemed to be deeply aware of this. Sara Moulton pointed out that Julia’s real métier was television — the great leveler. In Moulton’s first job in television, Julia Child told her: “smile for the camera.” Now on her own television series, Moulton keeps that smile and counsels her guests to “smile constantly and for no particular reason.” It’s not an act — it’s an acknowledgment of the reality of the joy of food. While setting up a food demo on a set, Julia said to Sara: “Aren’t we having fun?” Moulton had to think about it, then the truth dawned: “Yes, she said, “Yes, we are!”

It’s the sense of fun, the sheer joy of preparing food, which made Julia Child an icon — the first food superstar of our culture. The joyous face of Jacques Pépin as he accepted the Julia Child Award made it clear that he is a fitting inheritor. Perhaps there’s no better recipient than the man who has been creating food television since 1997. As Marcus Samuelson put it: “Julia started it. Jacques caught the baton.”

I got a sudden shock of the humanity of our great chefs on the last day of the Smithsonian’s Food History Weekend. I was leaving the American History museum when I ran into Anne Willan and Todd Schulkin coming in the doors. Willan, of course, is the founder of the iconic cooking school École de Cuisine La Varenne and author of “La Varenne Practique.” I was delighted to see them, and Willan explained she was coming to the Smithsonian to experience Julia’s Kitchen. “I’ve never seen it,” she said. Then she stopped with a frown, “Well, I have, of course, when I cooked in it with Julia. But I’ve never seen it…” She stopped again. “I’ve never seen it behind glass,” she finished.

The Smithsonian and the Julia Child Foundation are well aware of the danger of putting something behind glass. “Enshrining” both preserves — and distances. So on the same floor as Julia’s Kitchen, children can now interact with a miniature version of Julia’s Kitchen at the “Wegmans Wonderplace” exhibition, allowing them to grab pans from the famous pegboard wall and whip up a hollandaise sauce on the pretend stove. Events like Food History Weekends, and awards for populists like Jacques Pépin, can keep food culture personal, intimate and connected.

Main photo: Visitors can tour Julia Child’s kitchen at the National Museum of American History. Credit: Courtesy of the National Museum of American History

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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 Buyingpoultry.com 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 Buyingpoultry.com

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

After returning from my shopping fail, I Googled Buyingpoultry.com. 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.

“Buyingpoultry.com 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, Buyingpoultry.com 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 Buyingpoultry.com, 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 Buyingpoultry.com 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 Buyingpoultry.com’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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Bengali Yogurt Fish Curry (Doi Maach). Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

Indian cooking gets a bad reputation for being daunting and almost too difficult to fit into your everyday repertoire. This misconception may be gradually changing, but not quite fast enough. But on the contrary, everyday Indian cooking is flavorful, practical and filled with all the health benefits from spices that we all want to incorporate into our lives.

A core component of the essential taste of Indian food is ensuring the flavors are fresh and bright and not bogged down by unnecessary reheating and refreshing, something often the trademark of the average restaurant fare. In addition to emphasizing the simplicity of preparation, I also am a big proponent of cooking with practical and readily found ingredients, minimizing the need for multiple visits to grocery store.

The key to Indian food is in the spices

If you are intimidated by Indian spices, a fair number of the typical seasonings are available in a well-stocked grocery store, and the rest can be kept stocked by an annual or every-six-months trip to an Indian specialty store. Shortcuts and practical cooking are not uncommon in the Indian home kitchen; after all, the Indian home cook is as time-strapped as anyone else.

Stocking a basic spice pantry can go a long way toward cooking your favorite Indian meals on short notice. The basics for me would be the essential Indian spice kit from my “Spices & Seasons: Simple, Sustainable Indian Flavors” cookbook: turmeric (sold in powdered form), red cayenne pepper, whole cumin seeds, whole coriander seeds, fresh cilantro, ginger and garlic.

To add to the basics, you can include dried fenugreek leaves, green cardamoms, cinnamon, cloves, whole black peppercorns, whole mustard seeds and fresh curry leaves. It’s nothing terribly daunting if you give the list a fighting chance and open your horizons to a world of Indian flavors.

A note of advice and caution: While we can simplify the list of ingredients, it is important to use fresh spices.They are the soul of a flavor-based cuisine and cannot be substituted using a jar of ready-made curry, something that really is a misfit in most Indian kitchens.

The next step beyond stocking the spices is learning to use them. I personally use spices to create the foods of my childhood: simple, nourishing flavors that have sustained me every day. However, through teaching people how to cook Indian food, I have learned most people rush to the kitchen to replicate the flavors that have tantalized their taste buds in the last festive meal they savored. This is sometimes their first blush with the cuisine and often what captivates their imagination and what they want to re-create in their own kitchen.

Keeping this in mind, I offer you practical versions of three classic Indian dishes and suggestions for a few others. In these dishes, I have simplified the cooking techniques and used everyday ingredients to conjure up practical variations of dishes that will take you to three diverse parts of India.

Creamy, Well-Seasoned Black Beans

Creamy Well-seasoned Black Beans. Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

Creamy, Well-Seasoned Black Beans. Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

This recipe for black beans is inspired by the classic Indian black lentil recipe, found in restaurants called Dal Makhani. Other than using everyday black beans, I have lightened the recipe significantly and developed it for a slow cooker, where it happily cooks into perfection. If you do not have a slow cooker, you can do this on the stove top in a heavy-bottomed pot with a tight-fitting lid.

Prep time: 2 to 3 hours (to soak the beans)

Cook time: 4 hours in a slow cooker

Total time: About 7 hours, mostly unattended.

Yield: Makes 8servings

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups dried black beans

2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon minced garlic (about 4 cloves)

1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger

2 red onions, finely diced

1 tablespoon freshly ground cumin

1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground coriander

1 1/2 teaspoons salt, or to taste

1 teaspoon red cayenne powder, or to taste

4 tomatoes, diced, or 1 cup canned chopped tomatoes

1 tablespoon dried fenugreek leaves (optional)

3 tablespoons sour cream

2 to 3 tablespoons chopped cilantro

Diced or sliced red onions for serving

Directions

1. Place the black beans in plenty of water and soak for 2 to 3 hours or overnight. Drain and set aside.

2. If your slow cooker has a saute function, turn it on and add the olive oil. Otherwise, you can do this in a skillet on the stove.

3. Add in the onions and cook for about 5 minutes, add in the ginger and the garlic and saute until the onions are soft and golden.

4. Add in the cumin, coriander, salt and red cayenne pepper and cook for a minute.

5. Add in the tomatoes and cook for 2 more minutes. If using a skillet, move the mixture to the slow cooker. Once the tomatoes are soft and pulpy, add this mixture to the slow cooker, add in the black beans with 3 cups of water and cook on low for 4 hours.

6. Remove the cover and stir in the fenugreek leaves, sour cream and cilantro before serving.

Note: You do want a fairly thick gravy for this dish. If your sauce is too thin, remove to the stove top and thicken for about a half hour before adding in the sour cream.

Bengali Yogurt Fish Curry (Doi Maach)

This signature fish curry is often a wedding dish, a beautiful meal reminiscent of a korma. The traditional version uses fish steaks deep-fried and immersed in a delicate yogurt sauce that is slow-cooked to perfection. My version uses salmon fillet, which offers a rich, dense flesh without the need for deep-frying. I use Greek yogurt to ensure a thick gravy without the precision and care of low and slow simmering in a heavy-bottomed copper pot, which is traditional for cooking Bengali food.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Total time: 35 minutes

Yield: Makes 6 servings

Ingredients

1 1/2 pounds salmon fillet (or any other firm-fleshed fish)

1 1/2 teaspoons salt, divided

1 teaspoon red cayenne pepper

3 green cardamoms

1-inch piece of cinnamon

6 to 8 cloves of garlic

3 tablespoons canola oil

1 large red onion, thinly sliced

1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon sugar

3/4 cup Greek yogurt, beaten

1 tablespoon raisins

Whole red chilies and slivered almonds for garnish

Directions

1. Cut the salmon into 2-inch pieces and set aside.

2. Combine 1 teaspoon of the salt and the red cayenne pepper and sprinkle over the fish.

3. Combine the cardamoms, cinnamon and garlic cloves in a bowl and break a few times using a mortar.

4. Heat the oil and add in the broken spices and the onion. Cook the seasoned onion low and slow until wilted, soft and crispy. This should take about 10 minutes.

5. Add in the grated ginger, cumin and coriander and mix well. Stir in the remaining salt and sugar and mix in the yogurt with 1/2 cup of water.

6. Cook until the yogurt is well mixed and gets a pale ivory color.

7. Add in the fish pieces in a single layer and mix in the raisins.

8. Cook the mixture until the fish is cooked through (about 15 to 20 minutes).

9. Garnish with the chilies and slivered almonds and serve.

Kerala Chicken Stew

Kerala Chicken Stew. Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

Kerala Chicken Stew. Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

This delicate and subtly spiced stew is a signature dish on Sunday mornings, usually served with lacy and flavorful appams. The stew is usually cooked with layers of freshly made coconut milk and develops its flavor from local produce such as green plantains and taro root. In this recipe, I have used practical stewing vegetables such as fresh carrots, baby potatoes and corn to create a dish that is just as good for your cool Sunday table.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 45 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: Makes 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

2 to 3 tablespoons oil (You can use coconut oil)

1 teaspoon mustard seeds

10 to 15 curry leaves

1 red onion, diced

2 to 3 cloves of garlic

1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger

1 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 large cinnamon stick

2 to 3 pods green cardamom

2 pounds of chicken, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces

1 teaspoon salt

2 medium-sized tomatoes, diced

3 to 4 carrots, peeled and cut into small pieces

2 to 3 medium-sized potatoes, peeled and quartered

1 cup coconut milk

1/2 cup frozen green peas

1 to 2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro

Directions

1. Heat the oil and add in the mustard seeds, then wait until the seeds begin to crackle. Add in the curry leaves and red onion and cook for about 6 to 7 minutes, until the onions are soft and beginning to turn pale golden.

2. Add in the garlic and ginger and stir well, cooking for about 1 minute.

3. Stir in the black pepper, cumin, coriander, cinnamon stick and cardamom and mix in the chicken with the salt. Stir and cook the chicken for about 10 minutes, until the liquid has evaporated and the chicken is well seared.

4. Add in the tomatoes and mix well.

5. Stir in the carrots and potatoes and the coconut milk and simmer the mixture for 25 minutes, until the chicken and vegetables are tender.

6. Add in the green peas and simmer for 2 minutes.

7. Garnish with cilantro before serving.

Main image: Bengali Yogurt Fish Curry (Doi Maach). Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

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Lilac has been open since 2012 on historic Montana Avenue in downtown Billings, Montana. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

Montana is called “the last best place,” a long-cherished refrain that applies now more than ever to its increasingly innovative restaurants. Here, diners can taste not just local Montana ingredients, but the spirit of the state itself.

One restaurant that embodies that spirit is Lilac in downtown Billings, the largest city in Montana. The restaurant has earned local adoration and national accolades. The year after it opened, Lilac was the only restaurant in the state to be included in OpenTable’s Diners’ Choice Awards for the Top 100 American Fare Restaurants in the United States.

Crafting good food, good staff

Jeremy Engebretson, proprietor and chef of Lilac in Billings, Montana. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

Jeremy Engebretson, proprietor and chef of Lilac in Billings, Montana. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

At Lilac, glossy black and pearly white subway tiles frame a short row of bar seating that anchors the restaurant space and provides an unobstructed view directly into the kitchen. There is no haughty mystery, overwrought culinary performance or exclusivity here.

Rather, proprietor and chef Jeremy Engebretson describes Lilac’s food with prose so succinct and assertive it would cause Ernest Hemingway to sit up and take notice: “Local from scratch, responsible cooking. Modern American food with a fistful of approachability.”

Even given the area’s short growing season and challenging kinks in local distribution chains, Montana has ranked among the top 10 states nationally for commitment to locally produced food by Strolling of the Heifers Locavore Index. For Lilac, Engebretson, who grew up in Montana and neighboring Wyoming, describes local as “a regional idea here,” one that is more “Montana-centric than Montana-only.”

It’s a food worldview that brings ingredients like Montana-grown grains, produce, beef, cheese and honey together with, for example, wild boar from Denver or Texas and seafood from around the world.

Cooking as ‘a soulful experience’

A pear gazpacho with pickled pear, Meyer lemon and parsley gremolata. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

A pear gazpacho with pickled pear, Meyer lemon and parsley gremolata. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

Expanding upon these ingredients and flavors, Lilac’s menu builds from the ground up. “The sense of accomplishment you get from seeing a project from beginning to end is a soulful experience,” Engebretson says. “I believe that to be true in those who do things like make pasta, as well as those who make things such as tables.”

And Lilac’s staff makes pasta. Lots of it. Every day. They also butcher whole animals, grind beef, concoct salad dressings, craft ice creams and bake bread — all this (and more) in a kitchen so tiny no casual observer could imagine such an enthusiastically artisan stream of activity pouring from it.

These close quarters are part of what crafts a deeply committed team, comfortable in the back of the house and the front. Ask any server or chef at Lilac where an ingredient comes from, how a dish is prepared or what they’d recommend, and they can tell you, because they know. They’ve done it. Chefs and cooks share their intimate knowledge as they serve from a seasonal menu.

Dishes range from duck fat fingerling potatoes to octopus fritti, wild boar chop with cornbread dressing, roasted parsnip and a maple mustard glaze to a vegetarian option: grilled zucchini naan with gruyere, ancho aioli and micro salad. At the same time, servers make gnocchi, manage the pantry and prep desserts, like the sticky toffee pudding, which has been on the menu since Lilac opened with every component made in-house.

Innovative but approachable

A smoked brisket with cheddar dumpling, roasted carrot and horseradish. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

A smoked brisket with cheddar dumpling, roasted carrot and horseradish. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

Describing the restaurant’s style as modern American cooking, Engebretson asserts, “Modern and approachability go hand in hand.” The cheeseburger with bacon jam and house-made fries is a constant on the menu, and Engebretson insists it always will be. Concurrently, he says that modern American cooking means embracing all “the ingredients, technologies and ideas that speak to us today.”

It can mean hydrocolloids, sous vide cooking and variations on flavor profiles, as well as interpretations of classic dishes, traditional techniques and a heritage focus.

Serving up dishes with a uniquely Montana sensibility, Lilac aspires to a dualistic set of goals that unite innovation, frankness and a strong sense of purpose. In one vein, the restaurant endeavors to “blend a myriad of philosophies” at a democratic price point. “At the same time,” Engebretson pragmatically states, “one can say we’re just trying to serve people dinner. The variance of those two elements encapsulates the challenge of the restaurant, on every level. I’m OK with that.”

Main Photo: Lilac has been open since 2012 on historic Montana Avenue in downtown Billings, Montana. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

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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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Yotam Ottolenghi's yogurt-drizzled butternut squash. Credit: Reprinted with permission from NOPI: The Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Ramael Scully, copyright 2015. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Food photography: Copyright 2015 Jonathan Lovekin Location photography: Copyright 2015 Adam Hinton

Yogurt is not for just breakfast or smoothies anymore. While the dairy cases in supermarkets across the nation populate with more brands, tubs and tubes of yogurt — including novel flavors like sriricha-mango and carrot — a parallel trend is making it a star ingredient in cooking. Beyond its compatibility with granola or fruit blends, yogurt is becoming a foundational ingredient in dips, soups and sauces for roasted vegetables and meats in American restaurants and home kitchens.

The recent adoration for cooking with yogurt is not the result of some new flavor or formulation. This is plain (old) yogurt, an ancient staple food in many cultures of the world. Yogurt’s natural creaminess and acidity, coupled with its versatility, are feeding 21st-century culinary inspiration.

Why, over 70 years since yogurt’s introduction to the United States, has its moment arrived now?

Groundbreaking yogurt

There’s no doubt that Americans have claimed the world’s favorite cultured dairy product as our own. In  fact, it’s one of the fastest-growing food groups of all time. Although nearly all of the yogurt sold in the United States is sweetened, the natural tang no longer puts people off as it did when the Dannon company introduced its brand in 1942.

The sea change came with Greek yogurt. Since 2005, domestic sales have doubled each year, and today over half of all yogurt sold here is Greek-style. With more liquid whey strained, this thicker, creamier product won consumers over, despite costing nearly twice as much. Yogurt’s alluring halo as a low-fat, high-protein, calcium-rich health product with the benefit of probiotics has made it the go-to breakfast choice and snack alternative.

At the same time, the DIY culture has inspired a renaissance in age-old cooking traditions, including food preservation and fermentation. Since yogurt is the product of fermenting milk with bacteria cultures that preserve and thicken, it has helped inspire the pickle-, sauerkraut- and jam-making crowd and has kicked off an online wave of homemade yogurt machines, how-to recipes and Pinterest posts.

Yogurt infatuation

Long before yogurt became the one of hottest-selling foods ever, I encountered the concept of cooking with yogurt in two landmark vegetarian cookbooks, “The Moosewood Cookbook” and Deborah Madison’s “Greens.” Drawing on world cuisines, both featured soups with yogurt, yogurt sauce and raita, the Indian side dish often made with cucumber or other vegetables.

“Yogurt isn’t new. Not even a little,” writes Cheryl Sternman Rule in her 2015 cookbook “Yogurt Culture.” In many cultures throughout the world, yogurt is more than a healthful substitute for mayonnaise and sour cream but “is enjoyed globally in countless incarnations and preparations, both savory and sweet, across every meal.”

While it is common in Turkey to eat cucumbers and tomatoes with yogurt, for example, it’s only recently that such savory notions have enjoyed broad appeal here. It took a slow shift toward vegetarianism (even among meat eaters); world cuisines, especially those of India and the Middle East; and wholesome cooking to win this ancient staple newfound status. It is also due, in no small part, to the singular influence of an Israeli-born, London-based chef named Yotam Ottolenghi.

The Ottolenghi effect

With five cookbooks published in the past four years, Ottolenghi is wildly popular among professional and home cooks alike. His influence on American cooking is so widespread it is impossible not to encounter his mark in food magazines and popular blogs. Several of his recipes, including roasted butternut squash drizzled with yogurt, have become iconic.

Pairing yogurt with meats and fish, grains and legumes, herbs and spices, vegetables from eggplant to zucchini and even eggs, Ottolenghi has helped to transform our basic conception of the ingredient. In “NOPI: The Cookbook,” his most recent release based on his London restaurant, Ottolenghi again translates the idiom with another dozen yogurt-centric recipes using beets, chickpeas, lamb meatballs and more.

In falling so hard for its nutritional values, we’ve finally come to recognize yogurt’s vast culinary assets.

Yogurt’s bounty

Grilled hanger steak with grilled red-onion raita. Credit: Reprinted with permission from "Yogurt," by Janet Fletcher, copyright 2015, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

Grilled hanger steak with grilled red-onion raita. Credit: Reprinted with permission from “Yogurt,” by Janet Fletcher, copyright 2015, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

“Yogurt Culture” is one of two cookbooks devoted to the subject of cooking with yogurt released last year. Amid recipes for smoothies and fro-yo, the bulk of the book explores yogurt’s savory side. Poring over appetizer, lunch and dinner recipes, I discovered yogurt in marinara sauce for pasta, tangy mashed potatoes and a more stable whipped cream. Under the book’s spell, I served Rule’s yogurt dip of blood orange, Kalamata olive and red onion with pita breads when a friend came over for a glass of wine. A first.

“Yogurt: Sweet and Savory Recipes for Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner,” by Janet Fletcher (Ten Speed Press) is akin, presenting a globally inspired collection of yogurt-centered recipes. Salted yogurt creates a bed for a farro and vegetable salad; it is a marinade for chicken and a topping on pizza. No fan of fusion, Fletcher nonetheless blends boundaries via an irresistible cumin-spiced raita with red onion to accompany grilled steak or lamb burgers. That’s a new one for cookout season.

Together, these cookbooks expand our understanding of plain yogurt in all its current forms, from organic and grass-fed to Australian (whole milk, unstrained) and Icelandic (even thicker than Greek) to homemade. Grounded in its history, they inspire some serious and fun exploration through cooking.

“As a cook, I love where yogurt has taken me,” writes Fletcher. I heartily agree. From here on out, yogurt — spiced, herbed, smoked and, yes, even sweetened (lightly, with fresh fruits and preserves) — promises to be anything but plain.

Cheryl Sternman Rule’s Blood Orange, Kalamata and Red Onion Dip

Note: Excerpted from “Yogurt Culture” copyright 2015 by Cheryl Sternman Rule. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

Prep time: Approximately 10 minutes

Cooking time: None

Total time: Approximately 10 minutes

Yield: Serves 2

Ingredients

3/4 cup plain whole-milk Greek yogurt or labneh, homemade or store-bought

Kosher salt

1 blood orange (or Valencia, Cara Car, or navel orange if blood oranges are unavailable)

1/4 cup pitted kalamata olives, drained and minced

1 tablespoon minced red onion

2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil

Freshly ground pepper

1/8 teaspoon sumac (optional)

Toasted whole-wheat pita triangles, for serving

Directions

1. If using yogurt, season it with a good pinch of salt. (Don’t salt the labneh.) Scrape the yogurt into a shallow bowl and smooth it with the back of a spoon to create a wide indentation. Using a sharp knife, cut away the peel and white pith from the orange and dice the flesh.

2. Scatter the orange pieces over the yogurt. Sprinkle the olives and onion on top. Drizzle with the oil in a thin stream. Season lightly with salt and more aggressively with pepper. Dust with the sumac, if using. Serve immediately with the toasted pita triangles.

Grilled Red-Onion Raita for Hanger Steak

Note: Reprinted with permission from “Yogurt,” by Janet Fletcher, copyright 2015, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Prep time: Approximately 20 minutes

Cooking time: Approximately 25 minutes

Total time: Approximately 45 minutes

Yield: Serves 4

Ingredients

1 large red onion (10-12 ounces)

Vegetable oil

Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt

1 clove garlic, grated or finely minced

1 tablespoon finely minced cilantro or 1 1 ⁄ 2 teaspoons finely minced fresh mint

1 ⁄ 4 teaspoon toasted and ground cumin seeds

1 ⁄ 2 teaspoon mustard seeds

Directions

1. Prepare a moderate charcoal fire in the center of your grill, leaving the outer rim devoid of coals so you can grill the red onions over indirect heat. Alternatively, preheat a gas grill to medium, leaving one burner unlit for indirect grilling.

2. Peel the onion and slice neatly into 1/2-inch-thick rounds. Carefully thread a thin bamboo skewer through each slice to hold the rings together. Brush the slices with oil on each side, and season with salt and pepper on each side. Grill over indirect heat — not directly over the coals or gas flame — turning once, until the onions are soft and slightly charred, about 25 minutes. Do not rush them or they will blacken before they are fully cooked. Transfer to a cutting board and pull out the skewers. If the outer ring of the onion slices is dry and papery, discard it. Chop the remainder of the onion coarsely.

3. In a bowl, whisk together the yogurt, garlic, cilantro or mint and cumin. In a small skillet or butter warmer, warm 2 teaspoons vegetable oil over medium heat. Have the skillet lid handy. When the oil is hot, add the mustard seeds. Protecting your face with the lid, cook until the mustard seeds pop and become fragrant, 1 minute or less. Pour the hot oil and mustard seeds over the yogurt and stir in. Fold in the grilled onion. Season the raita with salt.

Main photo: Yotam Ottolenghi’s yogurt-drizzled butternut squash. Reprinted with permission from “NOPI: The Cookbook,” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Ramael Scully, copyright 2015. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Food photography: Copyright 2015 Jonathan Lovekin. Location photography: Copyright 2015 Adam Hinton

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Toast Ale is made from a special Belgian recipe that includes fresh, surplus bread. All profits go to the charity called Feedback, which supports the fight against food waste, making Toast Ale the best thing since … well, you know. Credit: Copyright 2016 Publicis

Toast Ale is a liquid message in a bottle: a beer brewed in the UK with fresh, surplus bread that would otherwise be thrown away, it highlights the problem of global food waste, starting with our daily loaf.

It tastes good, too.

Newly launched and brewed in London, Toast Ale recently won Best New Beverage Concept at the FoodBev awards, and has been lauded on British television by celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver. There has already been so much interest from people in the U.S. that Toast Ale has plans to launch in New York.

But this is a here-today, gone-tomorrow type of beer, and if the man behind this ephemeral brew has his way, production will eventually dry up — and there will be plenty to celebrate.

The founder’s strange dream

Tristram Stuart is one of the world’s leading food waste activists, but even he was once accused of wasting food - - three grains of rice left at the bottom of a bowl of food he had eaten in China. Listen to that story and more in his Ted Talk, “The Global Food Waste Scandal.” Credit: Copyright 2016 Erik Nordlund

Tristram Stuart is one of the world’s leading food waste activists, but even he was once accused of wasting food — three grains of rice left at the bottom of a bowl of food he had eaten in China. Listen to that story and more in his Ted Talk, “The Global Food Waste Scandal.” Credit: Copyright 2016 Erik Nordlund

“We hope to put ourselves out of business. The day there’s no waste bread is the day Toast Ale can no longer exist,” said Tristram Stuart, Toast Ale founder, food waste activist, and author of “Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal,” a book nominated for a James Beard Foundation award in 2010.

Global food waste not only involves hunger, but greenhouse gas emissions and water waste. A 2013 UN FAO report estimated “that each year, approximately one third of all food produced for human consumption in the world is lost or wasted.” Uneaten bread is one of the most shocking examples. According to Toast Ale, around 44% of bread in the UK, alone, is thrown away, including 24 million slices a year in UK homes.

Stuart discovered a passion to fight food waste when he was teenager raising pigs at his home in Sussex, selling off the pork locally to earn extra pocket money. He fed them unwanted food he collected from his local baker, greengrocer, and his school cafeteria. One morning, he noticed a particularly appetizing loaf with sundried tomatoes, which he ate for breakfast as he was feeding his pigs — proof that much of the food destined for the garbage is perfectly good to eat.

Toast Ale is brewed in London by Hackney Brewery, which uses 100% green energy that comes from windmills, and gives spent grain to local farmers to use for animal feed. Toasted bread used to brew Toast Ale adds caramel notes that balance the bitter hops, giving a malty taste similar to amber ales and wheat beers. Jon Swain from Hackney Brewery said, “The important thing for us, as brewers, was to create a beer that tasted good and stood up against other craft beers.”

Putting excess bread to good use

Making Toast Ale at Hackney Brewery, where toasted surplus bread collected from bakeries, delis and commercial sandwich makers is added during the mash stage. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tom Moggach

Making Toast Ale at Hackney Brewery, where toasted surplus bread collected from bakeries, delis and commercial sandwich makers is added during the mash stage. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tom Moggach

Toast Ale uses all kinds of unwanted bread — white and brown — collected from many sources, from artisanal bakeries to commercial sandwich makers, who typically waste bread by discarding the “heels” of the loaf. “We were pleasantly surprised that the taste of the finished beer wasn’t too different — therefore we could use all types of bread,” said Andrew Schein of Toast Ale.

Although Toast Ale gives new shelf life to surplus bread, its mission is to encourage everyone to find creative ways to stop wasting bread in the first place. (Note to commercial sandwich makers: My husband adores bread heels — I’m sure he’s not alone — so I challenge you to make a virtue of them by creating a range of “Well-Heeled” sandwiches. How about a pulled pork sandwich called “Pigs in High Heels”?)

All proceeds from Toast Ale go to Stuart’s charity, Feedback, an umbrella organization for his three main food waste campaigns:

Feeding the 5000: Free public feasts, using food that would otherwise be wasted, held in cities all over the world.

The Gleaning Network UK: Volunteers harvest surplus farm produce that would be left to rot and redistribute it to UK charities.

The Pig Idea: Seeks to change laws that restrict food waste being used to feed pigs.

The inspiration and recipe for Toast Ale came from the bread beer, Babylone, brewed by the innovative Brussels Beer Project brewery, in Belgium. Brewing beer with bread is as old as beer making itself. According to the article, Brewing: A legacy of ancient times by David M. Kiefer, published in 2001 in the American Chemical Society’s magazine, Today’s Chemist at Work, “Frequently, the dried malt was formed into small, lightly baked loaves. When a batch of fresh beer was to be brewed, these beer breads would be crumbled, mixed with cereals, and soaked in water.”

Bread is a beloved, ancient staple that is often taken for granted. In the Biblical story of the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, the disciples collected 12 baskets of scraps after the outdoor feast. It’s not clear what they did with them. People have traditionally transformed unwanted bread into French Toast and bread pudding, or croutons and breadcrumbs.

Now home brewers can make their own bread beer — the Toast Ale recipe has just been published on its website.

Main photo: Toast Ale is made from a special Belgian recipe that includes fresh, surplus bread. All profits go to the charity called Feedback, which supports the fight against food waste, making Toast Ale the best thing since … well, you know. Credit: Copyright 2016 Publicis

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Gemma Wardle is the voice behind the blog

South Korea is in the middle of a food revolution. Led by expats, returning Korean-Americans and Koreans who have fallen in love with food overseas, once unheard-of dishes are now being served up all over Seoul. Spinach and artichoke pizza, pulled pork sandwiches and Spanish paella were just exotic dreams 10 years ago, but today they’re widely available, though price and quality can vary enormously.

Gemma Wardle, 31, is the self-described “fat girl” from England (though she lost significant weight two years ago). She is dedicated to documenting the Korean food revolution through her blog, A Fat Girl’s Food Guide to Eating in Korea. In four years, the Fat Girl’s Guide has become the go-to resource for foreign food in the Korean capital.

“I have been fat all my life,” Wardle says, tucking into a slice of macaroni and cheese pizza at Maddux, a new by-the-slice pizzeria near her apartment. “And I’m a person who loves to eat.”

The beginnings of a blog

Wardle reviews a restaurant; here, she holds a shrimp with sauce and pickling spices. Credit: Copyright 2016 Gemma Wardle

Wardle reviews a restaurant; here, she holds a shrimp with sauce and pickling spices. Credit: Copyright 2016 Gemma Wardle

Wardle began running the blog four years ago, after eating and shopping her way through the city. “I had this wealth of information, and people were always asking me, ‘Oh, how did you make this?’ or ‘Where did you buy this?’ or ‘Where’s a good date restaurant?'” Wardle says. “And I was just sick of saying the same things over and over again. So I started writing it down.”

Today it gets over 100,000 unique views a month, and advertisers are flocking to it. Wardle describes the blog as a “kimchi-free zone” that focuses on the influx of foreign food into this once isolated, now rapidly diversifying country. Though blogs covering Korean food are legion, there is little that focuses on the expanding foreign food market.

“I felt, as a Westerner living in Korea, I didn’t need to find Korean food. It’s everywhere you look,” Wardle says. “For those people coming up to Seoul a couple times a year, I wanted to say look, come here, this is the place you need to eat at.”

An international city

Pizza, including pizza topped with macaroni and cheese, is one of the latest offerings in South Korea. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dave Hazzan

Pizza, including pizza topped with macaroni and cheese, is one of the latest offerings in South Korea. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dave Hazzan

Though Wardle covers the whole of Seoul, she focuses mostly on the central neighborhood of Itaewon. Located near the gates of Yongsan U.S. Army Garrison, for decades it had a reputation as a sleazy, U.S. Army camptown, the place only soldiers, and the prostitutes who served them, would visit.

But beginning in the late 1990s, Itaewon started to gentrify — the number of soldiers was drawn down, and those left were put on tighter leashes. Foreign businesspeople, English teachers and migrant workers began hanging out and opening businesses. Finally, Koreans themselves, eager for an “authentic” foreign experience in their own country, started visiting and investing their money. Today, it is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the city.

“It’s become more of an international kind of city,” Wardle says, a phenomenon she attributes to Koreans traveling more and developing more of an international palate.

Cocktails — which Wardle adores — have also become popular, in a country where a few years ago the only way to get liquor at most bars was by the bottle. Wardle says today’s other big trend is American comfort food, like barbecue, meatloaf and hamburgers.

A boom in restaurant growth

South Korea's restaurants include all types of foods, such as this paella in a Spanish restaurant. Credit: Copyright 2016 Gemma Wardle

South Korea’s restaurants include all types of foods, such as this paella in a Spanish restaurant. Credit: Copyright 2016 Gemma Wardle

There has also been a liberalizing in trade laws that allows you to get nearly any ingredient you want, provided you can pay for it. A lot of the blog used to be recipes to make hard-to-find items from scratch, like cheese and yogurt. Today Wardle does much less of that, since almost everything is available on the shelves.

“I will still do a recipe now and again,” she says. “And I used to do a lot more where-to-shop posts, and I will still throw one in if there’s something worth doing. But I’d say the bulk now is restaurant reviews, where we used to be a bit more evenly split.”

Every week there is at least one, and often up to four, new restaurants to review, a rate of growth unimaginable a few years ago. There are currently at least 300 restaurants listed on the blog — Wardle doesn’t know exactly how many.

Wardle continues to teach English part time. She’d like to only write the blog, but the money just isn’t there yet. In the meantime, she plans to stay in Korea at least two more years before contemplating a return to the UK.

“I’ve loved living here, and I’m very happy writing here,” Wardle says. “I just wish I’d started it sooner.”

Main photo: Gemma Wardle is the voice behind the blog A Fat Girl’s Food Guide to Eating in Korea. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dave Hazzan

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