I was taken aback recently to hear the hard statistics: The United States imports more than 50% of the fruits and vegetables we put on our tables.
We regularly see produce from Mexico, Canada, Chile, China, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru and more — imports that have tripled since the 1990s. The produce is harvested before it is even ripe, so that it can be cheaply and efficiently boxed and shipped to our shores for consumption often weeks later.
And while it is a fact that the local food movement is growing exponentially, the reality is that these small farming efforts are often built on marginal land or urban plots. As for big agriculture, according to the American Farmland Trust we lose more than one acre of farmland to urban development every minute of every day, 24/7.
It all adds up. Stifling competition from often inferior product from abroad. Aggressive developers here at home. Shopping malls. Young farm family members choosing not to follow in their parents’ footsteps.
According to the USDA, the number of farms in the United States fell to a six-year low in 2012.
Shrinking number of farmers
According to the USDA, as of 2007 (the latest date for such statistics) the average age of principal farm operators was 57 years old and there are relatively few prepared with the skills to take their place. How could it be that the Unites States, once the envy of the world in terms of agricultural output, is not even producing enough to feed our own people?
As a nation it’s no secret that we eat too much and too much of the wrong foods, and this has dire consequences on our health. We are currently ranked 33rd on Newsweek / Bloomberg’s 2012 survey of the world’s healthiest countries.
I was reminded of these and other sobering statistics at a screening of “Ground Operations: Battlefields to Farm Fields,” a powerful documentary that addresses the urgent need to retool and reboot U.S. farming practices.
Thanks to the efforts of Dulanie Ellis and Ray Singer, award-winning filmmakers in Ojai, Calif., a social action campaign has been launched nationwide to give combat veterans the opportunity to become a new generation of farmers.
In 2000, Dulanie Ellis launched Walk Your Talk Productions to explore what it would take to protect the world-class farmland in her region of California from development. Thus began her commitment to agricultural activism. Her partner in the documentary, filmmaker Ray Singer, shared her passion and together they embarked on a three-year journey that has profoundly affected each of them. Their goal is to strengthen the growing network of combat veterans who are transitioning into organic agriculture and to build resources for veterans so they can create healthy new lives for themselves and contribute to food security for our nation.
Back from the battlefields
Recently returned from protecting U.S. interests overseas and having traded in their fatigues for overalls, hundreds of veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq are now committed to growing organic produce and selling it to local communities from Seattle to Florida.
Colin and Karen Archipley, founders of Archi’s Acres in Valley Center, Calif., have taught more than 100 veterans not only how to grow crops, but how to run a farm as a business through their Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training (VSAT) program.
VSAT is a proprietary hands-on six-week training program “from seed to market” with an emphasis on developing a business plan. Colin and Karen purposefully tap into the skills and military training of the veterans — attention to detail, dedication and thoroughness — and assist with job placement and business creation at the end of the immersive training. Graduates include successful farm owners and workers, soil-testing pioneers, restaurateurs, and owners of food companies.
Michael O’Gorman, a passionate advocate for the cause of teaching veterans to farm, is the founder and director of the Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC) located in Davis, Calif. This national network of independent veterans-in-agriculture has teamed up with the USDA to offer free educational retreats in sustainable agriculture all around the country, open to veterans and their spouses.
The coalition serves as an important networking agency. Veterans are able to talk with farmers, attend workshops on financing and related business topics. FVC also offers the Fellowship Fund, which makes small but strategic grants to farmer-vets so they can get what they need most to strengthen their operation.
“Our goal is to connect the latest generation of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan to viable careers in agriculture,” says Michael. “What we see amounts to religious conversions. These young folks have taken on the military and farming — two of the hardest challenges we face — and they’re not even 30 years old.”
American-grown food for all — it’s more than a wish. The United States is projected to add some 18 million people by the year 2020. With nearly 334 million mouths to feed by the end of this decade, food supply is arguably one of the defining issues of our time. Think about it. Homegrown food is healthier for you. Healthier for your children. Healthier for our communities. Healthier for America.
The next time you plan your week’s shopping, check first for a local farmers market. You may just find a veteran farmer continuing to do service for our country.
Top photo: Mark Winkworth. Credit: JJ Britt
It doesn’t take a large area to find a wide variety of food specialties, and five neighboring Italian coastal villages provide just that.
My destination was Cinque Terre, a short piece of the Ligurian coastline, just west of the border with Tuscany. Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore are five multicolored borghi (villages) overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. They are pretty close to each other, a few minutes distance by car or train. Better yet, a boat, weather permitting, will take you back and forth, making an unforgettable five-stop mini-cruise. If you like to hike, you can also reach them via a beautiful trail and enjoy spectacular sea views.
Food-wise, besides the classic products of Liguria, such as olive oil, pesto, walnut sauce and different varieties of focaccia, each “terra” (village with its surrounding land) has its own culinary specialties.
1. I did it! I ate the eyes!
It happened at the Trattoria dal Billy in Manarola. I was enjoying the antipasto di pesce, a 12-item platter of warm and cold fish, when the chef proudly showed me the catch of the day: a superb branzino (Mediterranean sea bass). How could I say no to such a beauty?
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It was served with roasted potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and garden herbs, a perfect combination of the best the sea and the land could offer. Then the chef came back at my table, checked that I was enjoying it and insisted that I eat the fish eyes. Well, I closed my eyes and ate them. I had a pleasant surprise, they were not at all slimy, as I expected. They were more like a zesty touch that added a great seasoning to the delicate taste of the fish.
2. Fried goodness on the road
While in Cinque Terre, I loved to get lost in the winding, small streets and passages called caruggi, where street vendors cook fried calamari, squid, shrimp and sardines, often sided by stands selling local vegetables. They were fried to perfection, wrapped in paper and garnished with a slice of lemon. Hot, crunchy and tasty. You eat them on the road.
3. Grazie Nonna!
“We have a surprise for you,” said Marzia Vivaldi and Luca Natale, the promoters of the Parco Nazionale Cinque Terre. “We will take you to the great restaurant Aristide (Via Discovolo, 138 Manarola), where Nonna Grazia will show you how to prepare her famous muscoli ripieni (stuffed mussels).” Nonna (Grandma in Italian) welcomed me with the most adorable smile and explained her secret recipe:
“It simple and easy. I make the stuffing with leftover bread, mussel meat, eggs, Parmesan, parsley and mortadella. I fill up the mussels, I cover with a generous fresh tomato and basil sauce, then I bake it. That’s it!”
As an Italian, hearing seafood and cheese, not to mention the addition of meat, mixed together, seemed somewhat heretical, but what a fantastic result.
4. Anchovies, what a treat!
Following a secular tradition, anchovies are caught with a seine net and a fishing lamp, then hand-processed within two or three days, carefully stratified in jars, pressed and covered with brine, making them tender and tasty, and allowing a perfect preservation. I tried them served with local olive oil, oregano, focaccia bread and butter. They were accompanied by a glass of Cinque Terre, the famous white wine of the area that requires mountain climbing abilities to produce, given the steep incline on which the grapes grow facing the sea.
5. Sciacchetrà: It’s time to toast
Imagine a secret bottle kept in the cave for years (sometimes more than 30). It’s the rich and velvety wine called sciacchetrà. This aged treasure resurges in occasion of a wedding as the greatest gift that the family of the groom could offer to the bride’s family. I had the privilege of opening a bottle that was more than 10 years old. It reminded me of a rich passito straw wine, sweet and liqueur-like. The color is intense: from golden shades to amber. The taste is a fruity, floral bouquet that is reminiscent of a Mediterranean garden: scents of nuts, apricot jam, nectarine, vanilla, chestnut honey and spices.
Grand finale: A dream accommodation
I ended my visit in the other location making up part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site: Porto Venere, a colorful and elegant resort with a delightful port. I followed the recommendation to have a candlelight dinner at Palmaria, the restaurant on the terrace of the magnificent renovated Grand Hotel, once a convent and now reopened as a four-star classy destination that offers impeccable service.
The restaurant’s view was spectacular. So was the menu. I obviously went for fish. I tried the most tender seared scallops with a baby potato cream and the exquisite Gran Bollito di Pesce a delicate boiled sea bass and shellfish stew, served with handmade mayonnaise.
You can visit the beautiful Cinque Terre in few days. A great period for trekking is from March to September. The right time to taste the unique cuisine … any day of the year!
Main photo: Manarola, one of the villages of Italy’s Cinque Terre. Credit: Cesare Zucca
I grew up with people who liked to eat but didn’t have fancy palates and weren’t interested in acquiring them. Meals were delicious but predictable. Baked stuffed haddock was Friday’s dinner of choice, and an appetizing meat loaf appeared regularly. My mother and father came from long lines of Maine families, so, except during summer’s heat, baked beans were expected on Saturday night.
The closest we came to Italian food was something called American chop suey, a mixture of elbow macaroni, hamburger, and canned tomato sauce; Chinese was represented by an ancient bottle of soy sauce and tins of crispy chow mein noodles which were scattered over the top of a tuna fish casserole. But Indian? Mexican? Greek? Out of the question! French? A bottle of “French” dressing — who knows what gave it that curious cherry-orange color — was sometimes used to dress salads. Olive oil lived in the medicine cabinet. Garlic was indigestible. Mushrooms were toadstools and poisonous. Cheese was a pungent cheddar called rat cheese, delicious but unvarying. And wine was usually sweet and old — not an old vintage but a vintage in a bottle that had been opened a long time ago and kept for the occasional visiting relative who drank the stuff in preference to more customary whisky and rum.
Inspirational hot and sour soup and moules
I owe my early gastronomic education to a Cleveland lawyer who provided a generous allowance for his Harvard undergraduate son, with which the son and I explored Boston’s wealth of ethnic and fancy restaurants from Joyce Chen’s Chinese place in Fresh Pond where I had a first revelatory taste of hot-and-sour soup, to La Duchesse Anne where I sat next to the future Aga Khan (who knew?) and dined on moules, which back in Maine were scorned as mussels. We frequented the Athens Olympia where the belly dancer who entertained on Fridays spent the rest of the week serving up Greek stuffed vine leaves and moussaka, and the Ritz-Carlton’s handsome dining room, its tall windows overlooking the greenery of the Public Garden, where we breakfasted on beautifully poached eggs atop roast beef hash — not, you will note, corned beef hash, much too Irish for the Ritz.
After the lawyer’s son, there were other beaux — an Englishman who had spent time in India showed me how to make a proper curry by first clarifying an entire pound of butter; a Greek writer introduced me to rice pilaf with onions and black pepper and chicken stock from a can; a Belgian poet stuffed raw button mushrooms with cream cheese and chopped watercress (don’t laugh — try it: it’s like eating the green lawn after a spring rain!); a run-of-the-mill New York film producer rose to heights of glory when he marinated steaks in mustard and honey, then grilled them in the fireplace of his penthouse apartment, certainly not something you would expect to treasure from a film producer.
But I really learned to cook from Elizabeth David. As it happened, I was working for Harper’s, the American publisher of “French Provincial Cooking,” David’s first cookbook launched in the United States. That was in 1962 and Mr. Canfield, the head of the firm, had picked up the book on his annual tour of British publishing houses. Uncertain what to make of it, he passed it around among his junior staff, all of whom were female and most of whom liked to cook. Or occasionally make chocolate chip cookies when warranted.
Turning a corner with Elizabeth David
I was enthralled from the very first page. Raised like my mother before me on “The Boston Cooking School Cookbook,” aka Fannie Farmer, I had not known that one could think about food like this, let alone write about it. I opened “French Provincial Cooking” to almost any page and was immediately and utterly smitten. Here is Mrs. David on “Soupe de Poissons de Marseille,” which is, she says:
… made from all sorts of the little shining red, pink, brown, yellow and silver-striped fish which one can buy by the basketful from the market stalls in the Vieux Port … I don’t think it is possible to make the soup without all these odd little Mediterranean fish … and I have not attempted to cook it since I lived on the Mediterranean shores, but still the method, which was shouted above the hubbub of the market to me many years ago by the fishwife at a market stall, is worth recording.
Reading that in a tiny Brooklyn kitchen, I was filled with longing. I wanted to buy those fish, to smell those smells, to taste that soupe, I wanted to be that person. And short of that, I would make that soupe de poissons, even with the meager supply of fish available in New York markets in the 1960s.
Mrs. David was little known in the U.S. at that time. Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” published a year earlier, had failed to interest me with its precise and doubtless foolproof instructions that smacked of Fannie-Farmer-goes-to-France. No, I wanted that fishwife shouting at me above the hubbub of a Marseilles market stall. I could almost be there as the fragrance of leeks, onions and tomatoes, of parsley, fennel, garlic and saffron, of olive oil such as it was back in 1962, enveloped the fish in my cooking pot. I strained it all as directed, “pound[ing] the fish a little with a wooden pestle so that the very essence gets through into the broth.” The very essence! Magical! Then I added a handful of pasta fragments to the savory orange broth and served it up with grated gruyere to spoon on top.
“The soup should be rather highly spiced,” my idol wrote. Indeed it was, spiced above all with my own longing for the world she had opened to me.
Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of several books, the latest of which is her newly revised “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” Her other food books include, “Cucina del Sole: A Celebration of the Cuisines of Southern Italy” and “The Essential Mediterranean,” which looks at a dozen foods key to understanding Mediterranean cuisines. She also wrote “Flavors of Tuscany,” “Flavors of Puglia” and “The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” She is working on a book on Atlantic salmon. A former staff writer with The New York Times, Nancy continues to contribute to the Times in addition to writing for The Washington Post, Saveur, Food & Wine and other national publications. She currently divides her time between a Tuscan farmhouse and a home on the coast of Maine where she was born and raised. She has lived and worked throughout the countries of the Mediterranean, at various times making a home in Spain, France, Italy, Lebanon, and Cyprus as well as in Hong Kong and England. You can read more of her food writing on her site, NancyHarmonJenkins.com.
Photo: Fish market in Catania, Italy. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
If the average food magazine were a castaway on the ’60s TV show “Gilligan’s Island,” it would be Ginger: glamorous, worldly and somewhat unattainable. Cook’s Illustrated magazine, on the other hand, would be a hybrid of Mary Ann and the Professor: wholesome, intelligent and oh-so-accessible.
Just look at a cover of Cook’s Illustrated and you’ll see what I mean. Rather than seducing readers with gorgeous food-porn photography, Cook’s presents still-life illustrations of basic ingredients, such as walnuts or heads of garlic. Inside the magazine you won’t find profiles of celebrity chefs or reviews of the hottest new restaurants. You won’t even find color. Cook’s is printed in no-nonsense black and white, and most of its images are simple line drawings.
By the editors of "America's Test Kitchen"
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While the glossy magazines present features about how to entertain your impossibly beautiful friends on the rooftop deck of your Manhattan apartment, Cook’s chronicles its 37 failed attempts at roasting the perfect chicken before discovering the best technique.
To put it another way: Cook’s Illustrated is a cooking magazine for nerds. Nerds like me.
Through its pages I learned to make wonderfully creamy scrambled eggs by cooking them slowly over a low flame and gently stirring with a heat-resistant rubber spatula. I learned how to avoid making a watery, gray scramble by cooking the eggs and vegetables separately and combining them just before serving. I learned to make a nearly foolproof pie crust by adding vodka.
Kimball’s food publishing adventures
I have Christopher Kimball to thank for all that kitchen know-how. Kimball founded the original Cook’s magazine in 1980 and ran it as editor and publisher until 1989, when he sold it to the Bonnier Group. The magazine eventually folded under its new publisher, and in 1993, Kimball relaunched the magazine as Cook’s Illustrated. Its audience has since grown to more than a million subscribers.
America’s Test Kitchen isn’t just a TV show, it’s a working test kitchen outside of Boston where three dozen cooks, editors, food scientists, tasters and equipment experts collaborate.
It was this team, led by Kimball, that created ATK’s impressive new book, “The America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook.” This mammoth 822-page tome isn’t merely a collection of exhaustively tested recipes, it’s an education in essential cooking techniques. The book covers not only the “how” of each technique but also the “why,” and provides useful tips on such diverse topics as perfecting knife skills and choosing cookware.
We checked in with Kimball about ATK’s new book, the philosophy behind Cook’s Illustrated and the evolution of American home cooking.
What sorts of dishes did your family eat when you were growing up? Were your parents good cooks?
My mother was an early promoter of organic foods and ripped up the front lawn at our home in the ’60s to plant a large, organic garden with only partially composted fertilizer. The neighbors loved it! But she was not much of a cook. The food I loved the best was cooked at the Yellow Farmhouse in our small town in Vermont where we spent summers and weekends. Marie Briggs cooked the standard meat and potatoes but her specialty was baking — Anadama bread, molasses cookies, nutmeg doughnuts. I am still a meat and potatoes guy.
How did you learn to cook?
Marie taught me a lot on rainy days when I wasn’t out haying. I started using the old Fannie Farmer book when I was about 10. I eventually met Malvina Kinard, a friend of Jim Beard’s and the founder of the Cooks Corner retail stores. She taught me classic French cookery including coulibiac of salmon and how to make pate brisée.
In a world of glossy cooking magazines and celebrity TV chefs, why do you think Cook’s Illustrated and “America’s Test Kitchen” have been so successful?
We ain’t glossy! The secret of teaching cooking is to put oneself in the shoes and kitchen of the typical home cook. They experience a great deal of fear and frustration (and failed recipes). That’s why we always start off with “bad” food. We make people comfortable by showing what can and often does go wrong. Then we fix the recipe together and explain why a recipe works. It’s taking the time to explain why things go wrong that is important — an educated cook is a better cook.
How many variations are typically tested at ATK before a recipe is deemed ready for publication?
The typical Cook’s Illustrated recipe is tested at least 50 times over a period of weeks.
What was involved in creating the “America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook”?
Lots of aspirin and long nights in the kitchen and at the computer. We tried to put what we know about cooking into a form that was both in-depth and easy to approach and digest. The book is really a culmination of over 20 years of kitchen work.
Why is it important to know why a particular technique works versus simply knowing the technique itself?
If you understand why, you are much more likely to do it right. When you don’t understand what you are doing you are less likely to do it, and then you end up doing something really stupid like substituting shrimp for chicken (a true story from one of our readers).
Are Americans better cooks today than they were when you started Cook’s magazine?
Yes, no question. The 1980s were a low point in American cooking. Women had fled the kitchen and left for the workplace. Convenience was at a premium and the food industry exploded with more and more bloody-awful products that nobody questioned at the time. These days, balance is being restored. More parents are choosing to stay home. Health is a major consideration, which places the emphasis back on home cooking; it’s the best way to control what goes into your body. And, finally, a whole generation of kids had grown up in households without parents that cooked much and they wanted to find out what they were missing. Plus, the emergence of food television has also brought many folks into the kitchen.
How much of being a good cook is science versus art?
There is very little art in cooking unless one is a top chef. There is also not much science to it unless you develop recipes professionally. That is, you don’t really need to know that flour does not contain gluten per se, it contains glutenin and gliadin, two proteins that interconnect to form gluten in the presence of water. Cooking is really about paying attention and caring about what you are doing.
How important are improvisational skills in the kitchen?
Too many people want to improvise rather than follow a recipe; they think that doing it step by step is beneath them. That is, however, the only way to become a good cook. Then, later in life, with many thousands of recipes behind you, the art starts to come into the process. First, you have to know what food should feel, look, smell, sound and taste like.
What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday dinner at home?
Pot au feu — boiled beef with a salsa verde, horseradish and simmered vegetables such as cabbage, potatoes and carrots. And don’t forget a couple of bottles of a great white Burgundy while you are at it, and a good store-bought baguette.
Top photo: Christopher Kimball of Cook’s Illustrated and “America’s Test Kitchen.” Credit: Courtesy of “America’s Test Kitchen”
It was the kind of interview I hate. Thirty minutes with a famous chef. In and out, and the chef, surreptitiously checking his watch, is itching to be done before we even start. Two hours later, and we were still talking. Jean-Georges Vongerichten was in my town and in a talking mood. He arrived in Boston to check on his new venture, Market, at the W Hotel, one installation of the partnership of his company — Culinary Concepts — with Starwood Hotels. It was Bastille Day and Boston was lucky (and a little surprised) to capture him on the French-est of public holidays. On Tuesday night he had been host of a dinner at his restaurant and invited a score of local Boston chefs. On Wednesday, he was presiding over a Bastille Day do at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art with the French Consul. In between, for a couple of hours, he was talking to me.
The chef swatted open the kitchen door, smoothing the sleeves of his fresh white jacket. He was smiling, calm, a seal-cap of short, perfectly glazed dark hair and blue eyes that are hard not to describe as “bleu marine.” I was unprepared for his friendliness, and for his willingness to spend the better part of the afternoon chatting with me about the restaurant business, his early life, his first marriage, his success and how much he hates to travel — a surprising admission from a chef with 22 restaurants on multiple continents, from Shanghai to Vegas, and plans for 50 more.
It was a tad terrifying to begin a conversation with an icon. What could I possibly ask him that he hasn’t been asked 300 times before? But, what the hell, he’s the most famous chef in the world and I’d gotten a chance to talk to him. I decided to go with my heart, the question I always want to know: How did Jean-Georges become “JG”?
How do you transit from being a good, hard-working chef to a monogram?
I started my apprenticeship in Strasbourg in Alsace at 16 — one day at school, four days working in the restaurant kitchen, Auberge de L’Ill. I started cooking right away, plucking chickens and pheasants, cleaning fish. I learned to skin a fish, break it down and butcher it correctly. It was a fourth-generation restaurant, and had a family feeling. For me, a very soft breaking into the restaurant business. I spent two years at the restaurant as an apprentice, and then took another year to learn more. And then, I was a commis in Paris, and I got a chance to cook at the Elysee Palace for the French president! Pretty exciting for a boy not yet 20!
Did you plan to leave Paris, ever?
At that point, I had to go into the army for my compulsory service. I was the chef on a boat, cooking for one captain and three officers. We sailed to dozens of ports — to Italy, Hamburg, Norway, New England, Canada, Portugal, Casablanca in Morocco … My job started when we pulled into port. The captain always invited guests on board for dinner –– the mayor of the city, the French consul, whomever it was important to entertain. In each port, I went shopping at the local markets. I loved going to the souk in Morocco to buy food! But honestly, being in the army was sort of a waste of time for me, although I did learn how to smoke a cigarette!
I finished my service, and went back to the kitchen for another apprenticeship. I wanted to see another region of France. I had already cooked in Alsace, where I was from, but the South of France was all about different flavors — I went from cabbage and pork, the flavors of Alsace, to rosemary and lavender, basil. Summer flavors. Next, I wanted to work with Paul Bocuse in Lyon, another rich culinary region in France.
How did you end up cooking in Bangkok?
The chef I’d worked with in the South of France began consulting for The Oriental in Bangkok. He asked me to become the sous chef. I thought he was crazy. I was a young kid. I’d never directed a kitchen or done any kind of purchasing. He called me every day for two months.
I went to Bangkok. It was a very different time. Today, if you want to know about how to cook something, you go online. You can find recipes, descriptions. Then, in the early ’80s, there were hardly any cookbooks. I used to learn about new dishes by reading the Guide Michelin, where it described the specialty of the restaurant. As I read the description of the chef’s specialty, I could think it through. Today, whatever you want to know, you just go online.
I figured they would throw me out of the country after two nights. I stayed in Thailand for two years. I was 22, I didn’t know how to run a kitchen, I’d never placed an order, even in French — and I didn’t speak English or Thai, which meant I did not have a common language with any of the 22 Thai cooks working under me. Some of the chefs were 45 years old and I’m supposed to do 80 covers a night, and teach Thai-speaking chefs how to cook French food for the hotel’s fine-dining French restaurant? I’d cook in the mornings and evenings, and in the afternoons, I took English lessons with the hotel staff — the housekeepers, the bellboys.
So you lasted more than two weeks in Bangkok?
I ended up spending two years in Bangkok and five years in Asia before landing in London. I loved Asia. I learned about lemongrass, ginger and chilies. I was running a French restaurant, but for myself, I wasn’t about to cook with apples and butter in Bangkok! I converted myself to a Thai eater, and decided to eat only Thai food for my first years in Bangkok. I visited every hotel in the country. I went to Phuket in 1980, and slept on the beach. There weren’t any hotels there yet. I did eight hotel openings for the same chef/entrepreneur. By the time I got to London, people told me I spoke English with an Asian accent.
As a Boston writer, I’m curious about your time in Boston.
For two years I was the chef at the Marquis de Lafayette, the fine dining French restaurant at the Swissotel in Boston. We were one block from the Combat Zone, and two blocks from Chinatown. I learned a big and valuable lesson in Boston. The idea of a full French meal at lunch wasn’t attractive. No one wanted to spend that time on a meal.
I started changing the concept, adding in my own recipes with lemongrass and ginger that I bought at the street markets in Chinatown. I got great reviews, but the restaurant was considered wonderful for chefs and critics but not for customers. Then, I moved to New York, where time moves even faster. Much less time spent at the table. Even at home, people spend 20 minutes eating, unless it’s a special occasion.
How did you morph from a fine dining hotel chef in New York to “Jean-Georges”?
We lost the contract at the Swissotel and my mentor wanted me to go to Chicago. But I decided I belonged in New York. I was 31 or 32, and I was really starting to develop my own food. I didn’t want to move to Chicago and cook his food anymore. He had a hard time understanding. It was hard for him when I broke off.
I went to the head of the Swissotel, and I said, “I’m ready. Put a wall up between the two restaurants and I’ll pay you 10 percent of sales.” It turned out to be a bad deal for me, but on the other hand, I didn’t have any build-out costs. By this time, I had 200-300 of my own recipes in my portfolio.
An easy transition from chef to owner?
I learned right away that being a chef and a restaurateur are two very different things. I’d left school at 16, I knew nothing about business. And at the same time my first marriage began to break up. We’d married in Bangkok when she was 21 and I was 23, so that she didn’t have to keep going back and forth to get a visa renewed. Our son was born in Bangkok, our daughter in New York. Ten years later, we were two different people. One morning, she woke up and told me she wanted to move back to France with the kids. I didn’t want to go back to France! My life had really just begun. The day the Gulf War started, she went back to France, and took the kids. We had a legal separation. It was hard. But in so many ways, my real life started at that moment. For the next 10 years, I was free to devote myself to work. Everyone told me that my kids would hate me forever, but right now the two oldest are living in New York. I have a new project — my 10-year-old daughter.
How do you keep up with the travel? Are you ever home?
I only travel one week a month. I’m really disciplined about that. I don’t want to be a vagabond. I need to be at home every night. I can’t sleep well on airplanes and can’t be creative if I’m away from home all the time. On the other hand, I don’t do day-to-day management. I don’t do payroll or the bookkeeping. Even if I open 50 more restaurants, I can’t be away from home more than I am now. I hire well and train even better. I don’t micromanage. What I do is create recipes and style beautiful food.
Zester Daily contributor Louisa Kasdon is a Boston-based food writer, former restaurant owner and founder of letstalkaboutfood.com. She is a columnist for the Boston Phoenix, the food editor for Stuff Magazine and has contributed to Fortune, MORE, Cooking Light, the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine and the Christian Science Monitor, among others.
When I decided to join a community-supported agriculture (CSA) group last year, I had many reasons — first among them, my weekly share of gorgeous local produce from Free Bird Farm. But I also felt it was important to do what I could to help support an organic family farm and preserve agricultural land in upstate New York. As an environmentalist and food writer, I wanted to put my money where my mouth and pen were.
What surprised me, though, was how much more I gained in return. Beyond the wonderful produce and eggs and an even greater respect for seasonality, farmers and Mother Nature — something that, as the descendant of farmers, I already possessed — my CSA taught me many lessons, mundane and profound. Here are three.
The freezer is your friend
When I unpack my weekly CSA haul, I immediately start picturing all the fabulous dishes I can make from the colorful jewels before me. Nevermind that the recipes I’m imagining usually require an army of kitchen assistants and a willful ignorance of the space-time continuum. I am not easily deterred, and I embark upon my fool’s errand with inordinate enthusiasm, until suddenly it is 10 p.m. and I do not know where my sous chefs are. (Oh, that’s right. I don’t have any.) How then to use up all these wonderful ingredients fast enough to beat the ticking spoilage clock?
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When my CSA gave me kale last summer, I put it in the crisper drawer, where it promptly got buried under a deluge of greens. Upon rediscovering it several days later, it looked the way I feel after a long flight, wilted and dehydrated. Then the penny dropped. Hey, that really cold part of my refrigerator exists for a reason. Faced with other, more perishable leftovers in the queue for my next meal, and reservations to eat out the following day, I decided to trim and wash the kale leaves and store them in a freezer bag, where they were retrieved for smoothies the following week.
When the CSA gave me shelling peas, I removed them from their pods, froze them on a baking sheet and transferred them to a bag. Strawberries? Same thing. Parsley, basil and other herbs? I cleaned, chopped and blended them with olive oil, and poured the combination into ice-cube trays. (Warning: Don’t reach for the wrong cubes when you are mixing a gin and tonic.)
Not everything freezes well, but by storing those items that do, you’ll be liberated to focus on the “eat me now” diva ingredients instead. (I’m looking at you, tomatoes.)
How my CSA taught me to stop worrying and love kohlrabi
OK, maybe “love” is too strong a word. Of my relationship with this alien-looking vegetable, I’d have to say, “It’s complicated.” But when I joined the CSA, I promised myself I would tackle each ingredient at least twice. With kohlrabi, this meant roasting it the first time and slicing it into a type of coleslaw the next. I put forth the same effort for every item that I would not normally gravitate toward, such as radishes, turnips and broccoli.
Over the course of the season, I found myself thumbing through long-forgotten cookbooks or going online in search of inspiration. Not every dish that emerged from this exploration was a winner, and I still sometimes trade in the kohlrabi for a different vegetable in the swap box, but as in other facets of life, it’s been edifying to push myself out of my comfort zone. Being part of a CSA forced me out of certain kitchen ruts and helped me to discover delicious recipes — like roasted radishes — that I probably wouldn’t have tried otherwise.
When in doubt, tortilla
It’s great to experiment, but some nights all you want is dinner. When a pile of miscellaneous produce leaves me unmotivated, my go-to dish is Spanish tortilla. Though the classic version of this frittata-like omelet calls for potato, onion and eggs, you can build one around almost any vegetable-and-herb combination.
First, sauté your produce in olive oil to your preferred level of doneness. Beat the eggs in a large bowl, and add the sautéed vegetables, making sure to stir immediately so the heat doesn’t cook the eggs. Season with salt and pepper, toss in any herbs you’re using and pour the mixture into a non-stick or well-seasoned skillet. If you want to include cheese — which is not traditional, but tasty nonetheless — add it now.
The number of eggs you use will depend on the produce. For greens that release a lot of water (like spinach), add an extra egg to bind the combination. (In general, the mixture should be more liquid than solid, and it’s always safer to err on the side of additional eggs.)
When the top of the tortilla is firm around the edges and you’re able to lift it cleanly with a spatula, place a plate larger than the skillet face down over it. With a potholder on top of the inverted plate, flip the skillet so the tortilla transfers to the plate. (This maneuver will be terrifying the first few times you do it. Trust me, it gets easier. Until you master it, flip it over an easy-to-clean counter in case anything leaks out.) Slide the flipped tortilla back into the pan, cook it on the other side, and– ¡olé! — dinner is served.
But just before you tuck into your meal, there’s one last step: Remember to give thanks for the local farmers who made it possible — in my case, Ken Fruehstorfer and Maryellen Driscoll.
Main photo: Part of the weekly share from the CSA. Credit: Sofia Perez
Third in a series on growing what you cook
and cooking what you grow.
I once took cooking classes with a French cook who insisted that Brassica family vegetables should always be blanched before using in any recipe to allow the unpleasant sulfurous odor released during the initial cooking to escape. She discouraged steaming because she felt the stinky steam would have no escape from a lidded pot; at the very least, she said, you should lift the lid briefly once the vegetables began to cook.
There’s some scientific truth to many of the cooking maxims I’ve learned from French cooks, though I’m not so sure the steaming lid part of the equation has any foundation. What I do now understand is that blanching cruciferous vegetables releases some of their sulfurous compounds and does help them dissipate. That’s blanching, not boiling. if you cook these vegetables too long, the compounds will increase; the vegetables become mushy, dull and unappealing; and your house will smell like my Russian grandmother’s apartment.
So when I am making dishes with kales, collards, cabbages, cauliflowers and Brussels sprouts, I start by plunging them into a large pot of salted boiling water. You need an abundance of water to dissipate the compounds, and it helps to fill a bowl with ice water before you add the vegetables to the pot so that you can quickly “shock” them to stop the cooking process. Broccoli is less sulfurous than cabbages; I usually steam it, but never for more than 5 minutes. If I do blanch broccoli – which I’ll do when I’m making pasta, since I’ve already got a big pot of water at a boil — I won’t leave it in the water for more than 3 minutes, or the delicate flowers will turn to mush.
Chopping similarly can release sulfurous compounds, as can soaking in cold water after chopping, which will cause many of the chemicals to leach out. This might explain why the Portuguese cut cabbage or kale into such fine filaments for their national soup, caldo verde. I always thought it was because it made the soup so pretty, but it also affects the flavor.
Portuguese Green Soup
When I think of the ultimate greens dish, I think of caldo verde. Go to any market in that beautiful country, and you’ll find women reducing Galician cabbage into fine filaments on shredding wheels designed specifically for the task. Galician cabbage is an emerald green Brassica with flat, tender leaves. The color is the bright green of turnip greens, which can be substituted. You can also use collards or kale, but be sure to remove the tough stems and to cut the filaments very thin so they cook properly. If the greens are tough, some Portuguese cooks will blanch them first. Caldo verde would not be caldo verde without the final addition of chourico, the Portuguese version of Spanish chorizo, which can be substituted. If you can’t find either of these, use mild Italian sausage or kielbasa.
- Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over medium heat in a large, heavy soup pot and add the onion and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring, until tender, about 3 to 5 minutes, and add the garlic. Cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
- Stir in the potatoes and water. Bring to a boil, add salt, reduce the heat, cover and simmer 30 minutes, until the potatoes are falling apart.
- While that simmers, prepare the greens and the sausage. Stack 6 to 8 leaves, roll them up tightly and slice crosswise into very thin filaments. Sauté the sliced sausage gently over medium-low heat in a medium skillet for 8 to 10 minutes, until the fat runs out. Discard the fat.
- Mash the potatoes in the pot with a potato masher or a hand blender. Stir in the sausage and simmer 5 minutes. Stir in the greens and simmer uncovered for 5 to 10 minutes (depending on the type of green and how tender it is), until the greens turn bright green and tender.
- Taste, adjust salt, and add pepper. Stir in the remaining olive oil and serve, with crusty bread.
Note: You can blanch the greens before adding to the soup in salted boiling water for a minute or two if they’re very tough.
Pan-cooked Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Dill
This is a classic preparation. If you don’t like Brussels sprouts, it’s probably because you’ve always had them overcooked. The sherry vinegar adds nice flavor; it will dull the color of the sprouts.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil while you trim the bottoms off the Brussels sprouts. Fill a bowl with ice water. When the water comes to a boil, salt generously and add the Brussels sprouts. Boil 2 minutes, transfer to the ice water, then drain. Quarter the sprouts or slice them ¼- inch thick, and set aside.
- Heat a large, heavy skillet over medium heat and add the bacon. Cook the bacon until it is chewy in the middle and crisp on the edges. Remove from the pan and transfer to a double thickness of paper towel. Cut crosswise into ⅛- inch thick slivers. Set aside. Drain most of the fat from the skillet.
- Heat the olive oil over medium heat in the same skillet in which you cooked the bacon and add the Brussels sprouts. Season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring or shaking in the pan, for 5 minutes. Add the vinegar and cook until the vinegar has evaporated and been absorbed by the sprouts and the sprouts are tender, another 5 minutes. Stir in the bacon and the dill and continue to cook, stirring, for another minute or two. Taste, adjust seasonings, and serve.
Clifford A. Wright’s Brussels Sprouts
There’s another fantastic way to cook Brussels sprouts that I learned from cook and author Clifford A. Wright, and it doesn’t require blanching. You simply heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat, cut the sprouts in half and put them cut-side down in the hot oil. Cook them until golden brown, turn them over and cook them on the other side until cooked through. The seared flavor of the Brussels sprouts is addictive (Who knew you could ever use the words “addictive” and “Brussels sprouts” in the same sentence?).
Mashed Potatoes with Kale (Colcannon)
Colcannon is one of the great signature dishes of Ireland. The most common version pairs cabbage with potatoes, but the dish is also made with kale. Curly kale would be used in Ireland; I like to make it with cavolo nero.
Serves 6 to 8
- Cover the potatoes with water in a saucepan, add about 1/2 teaspoon of salt and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium, cover partially and cook until tender all the way through when pierced with a knife, about 30 to 45 minutes. Drain off the water, return the potatoes to the pan, cover tightly and let steam over very low heat for another 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and mash with a potato masher or a fork, through a food mill or in a standing mixer fitted with the paddle, while still hot.
- While the potatoes are cooking, bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil and fill a bowl with ice water. If using cabbage, quarter and core, then cut the quarters crosswise into thin strips. If using kale, tear the leaves from the ribs and clean well in two changes of water. Add the cabbage or kale to the salted boiling water and boil for 4 to 6 minutes, until the leaves are tender but still bright green. Transfer to the ice water, allow to cool for a couple of minutes, then drain and squeeze out excess water. Chop fine (you can use a food processor for this).
- Towards the end of the potato cooking time, combine the milk and the scallions in a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat and let steep for a few minutes. Stir the chopped cabbage or kale into the hot mashed potatoes and beat in the milk. The mixture should be fluffy (you can do this in an electric mixer fitted with the paddle). Add salt to taste and freshly ground pepper. Transfer to a hot serving dish, make a depression in the center and place the butter in the center to melt, then stir and serve at once. Alternatively, keep warm in a double boiler: set the bowl in a saucepan filled one third of the way with water. Make sure the water doesn’t touch the bottom of the bowl. Bring the water to a simmer. Stir the potato and kale mixture from time to time.
Martha Rose Shulman is the award-winning author of more than 25 cookbooks, including “Mediterranean Harvest: Vegetarian Recipes From the World’s Healthiest Cuisine,” “Mediterranean Light,” “Provencal Light” and “Entertaining Light.”
Photos by Martha Rose Shulman
Angelenos drive right by them all the time: nondescript ethnic markets that make one wonder what they’re selling, who’s shopping in there, and — after passing by them for years — how they’ve managed to stay in business for so long. We ponder these questions for a stoplight, then continue on our way to Whole Foods.
I’d been driving past Tehran Market, a 21-year-old institution in Santa Monica, almost daily for a decade before I finally stepped inside. If it hadn’t been for my friend Tomi Yaghmai, who is married to an Iranian and lived in Iran for years, I might still be. Now I pity the passing cars filled with those unaware of the amazing array of Middle Eastern specialties and great produce that fill the small market. A whole community of food lovers that gathers here — Iranians, Russians, Turks and third-generation Santa Monicans — looking for foods from their homelands or foods they’ve recently learned to love.
The facade of Tehran Market isn’t exactly inviting. The windows facing busy Wilshire Boulevard are papered over with taped-up posters and signs. Peer past them, and you see a jumble of cleaning supplies: paper towels, Tide and Ajax. Inside, the linoleum floors reflect the fluorescent lighting, and cardboard boxes clutter the shop’s short aisles. But no one’s here for the decor. They’ve come for the jars of pickled, fried or pureed eggplant; the bags of dried chickpeas, lentils and black-eyed peas; or maybe the selection of grape leaves.
I arrived seeking the fixings for panir sabzi, a dish Tomi served at a dinner one night. Sabzi, which means vegetables in Farsi, generally consists of a heap of fresh herbs — tarragon, basil, mint — and vegetables, like radishes and onions, which are served with feta and walnuts. You wrap up a bit of everything in a small square of lavash and eat it as the salad component of a Persian meal. I found myself craving the dish. Tomi insisted the only place to buy the ingredients was Tehran Market.
As shopping there became habit, I noticed Morteza Pourvasei, who runs the family business with his brother, Mory, chatting with customers from behind a counter filled with a variety of halvas, nuts and olives floating in large, plastic storage bins, all identified by handwritten tape labels. But it was only recently that I had a real conversation with him. The little shop was busy, but Pourvasei, a dapper 72-year-old with a full head of gray hair, seemed pleased to take a break to chat with me, while Francisco Panameno, an employee since soon after the shop opened, manned the counter.
Like many Iranians living in their war-ravished homeland in the 1980s, Pourvasei, who was working at an oil company, wanted to leave but found an American visa elusive. (As he tells me this, he grabs some fresh, raw pistachios from a bin on the counter and peels one for me. Delicious.) He sent his eldest son to Los Angeles as a student in 1985, then his eldest daughter, a year later. A year and a half after that, his wife and other two children arrived. Finally, Pourvasei joined them — and the family business — in 1989, a year after his brother had opened the store.
Pourvasei excuses himself to retrieve an envelope from a drawer near an outdated cash register. He opens it and nods slowly and proudly as he shows me snapshots taken at festive occasions and family gatherings of his chic wife, his handsome college-educated children and grandchildren. His hospitality is genuine. “It’s our culture to be friendly,” he says.
On a recent shopping trip, I bumped into my friend, Tomi. I was surprised, but she wasn’t. “I see everyone here,” she said. I told her I was here for mint, feta and walnuts. She suggested I get some mortadella to go with the sabzi. “Mortadella?” I asked, surprised. “Yes,” she replied, going on about how delicious it is wrapped with cucumbers and tomatoes and feta in lavash. “It’s the perfect light meal. Ask for the one without extra garlic.” When I pointed out that it was a bit surprising that a Persian market would serve mortadella, she laughed. Over the centuries, Iran welcomed influences of many countries, Italy included. Why mortadella — and not prosciutto or salami — gained popularity is anyone’s guess. I suspect it has something to do with the pistachios that stud the meat. (Tehran Market sells a beef-and-pork version as well as one made with just veal for non-pork eaters.)
Over time, I’d added fresh and dried herbs, vegetables, rice, tea and olive oils to my Tehran Market shopping list, but it wasn’t until I walked the aisles with Tomi that I learned what lures in-the-know Middle Easterners here. “This rice is crazy good,” she said, lifting a box of prepared Rice-a-Roni-looking stuff from a shelf. If you make the herbed rice — or many other classic Persian dishes — from scratch, she explains, you’ll spend a lot of time chopping. She led me to a freezer case and revealed a Persian cook’s secret weapon: packages of chopped herbs — some fried, some not — ready to be mixed into the rice dishes and stews that are hallmarks of Persian cuisine.
Expensive saffron, I learned, is kept in a drawer behind the counter and a taste of Iranian pistachios is available for the asking. Customs are high for nuts shipped directly from Iran to America, so they usually pass through Canada. Sometimes they get stuck in customs and Pourvasei’s supply dries up temporarily. Luckily, he had a handful left when I was there and offered me one. It had a rounder, fuller flavor than the Californian — it was tasty — but I don’t know that I would pay almost twice the price for the import.
Long before Persian cucumbers were available at Trader Joe’s, they were at Tehran Market. “People brought seeds over,” Pourvasei says of his countrymen. You can get Persian basil here, which is a little more bitter than the Italian variety, and, in the summer, Persian melon. What customers had been missing at the market was a meat counter. Pourvasei, the attentive shop-owner, will be installing one soon.
Phone: (310) 393-6719
Hours: Mon.-Sat., 9 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sun., 9 a.m.-7 p.m.Shopping List:
- Panir sabzifixings: mint, tarragon, basil, French feta, walnut halves, lavash
- Sadaf brand’s Basmati Herb Rice Mix
- Spicy olives from the bin under the counter
- Fresh dates
- Pistachios, Iranian or Californian
- Persian pastries, which arrive from local bakeries two or three times a week
- Najmieh Batmanglij’s "Persian Cooking for a Healthy Kitchen" or any of her other cookbooks.
Tomi learned to cook Persian specialties by listening in on her mother-in-law’s instructions to the family cook when she was living in Iran. Now she shops at Tehran Market weekly, buying flat breads; her favorite Best Tea (a blend of Ceylon and Earl Grey); the freshest Persian cucumbers; tart, dried barberries to sprinkle on top of rice dishes; pistachios and (as an occasional treat) her husband’s favorite raisin cookies. I note that Tehran Market sells these identical-looking cookies from four different local bakeries. I ask Pourvasei why. “Customers have their favorites. [The cookies] are similar, yes, but different.”
This might explain why there are so many variations on other baked sweets, pickles, olives, beans, grains, pomegranate molasses, jams, rices, flat breads and olive oils. “Customers ask for special brands,” Pourvasei says, and he delivers. “A lady came in for the first time and when she saw the different cheeses we have, she told me she feels at home. I want them to feel at home when they are here.”
When asked about his competition, Pourvasei doesn’t mention other Persian grocers in nearby Westwood, he talks about Vons, the supermarket down the street. “We have good prices here. We’re friendly and try to get to know our customers. If something costs $12.05, we’ll just ask for $12.” The prices, on everything from produce to French feta, are, indeed, competitive. And that may be part of why the store has been around for so long and why it’s always busy.
That’s not really what brings me in. I may have started out coming for sabzi fixings, but now I come for so much more — many new foods and community.