The UPS box of bamboo shoots I ordered from Jeff Rieger at Penryn Orchard Specialties arrived at my doorstep within three days of placing the order. When I opened the box, I counted more than a dozen freshly harvested shoots, each weighing between a quarter-pound and a half-pound, covered in their dark bark with moist soil still clinging around them. I was elated by their earthiness and beauty. Like cherry blossoms, these terrestrial shooters signal the arrival of spring, which comes late in the foothill of the Sierra east of Sacramento, Calif., where Rieger’s farm is located.
I never expected I would encounter fresh bamboo shoots in California. The last time I ate good bamboo in Los Angeles was when my husband brought back a big, fat shoot from Japan in his suitcase. He had dug out the shoot from a friend’s bamboo forest. It was then cooked and packaged by his friend’s wife to bring back to me as a souvenir.
Rieger grows Sweetshoot Bamboo, Phyllostachys dulcis, which is the common name of an edible variety prized for its tender texture and sweet, delicate flavor. It is one of the many plants the previous Japanese-American owner of Penryn Farms, George Oki, planted that reminded him and his wife of Japan. They also grew Asian pears, peaches, plums, persimmons and mandarins.
Rieger has had the bamboo forest for more than 10 years, but he is just starting to go into the market with the bamboo shoots in the hope of getting chefs and cooks interested in using them as a culinary ingredient. So far, it has been a challenge because local chefs don’t know how to cook with them, even though it’s easier than one might expect. It didn’t take any effort on his part to sell them to me. I even asked him if I could come to his farm to dig the shoots out of the ground.
Harvesting bamboo shoots
Every morning during harvest time in May, Rieger goes out into the bamboo forest looking for young shoots less than 1 foot tall, at which point they are sweet and tender and good for culinary purposes. The timing of the harvest is important because, depending on the variety, bamboo can grow at a speed of 2 inches per hour — up to 4 feet in one day — and they harden quickly. Unlike some trees that take decades to mature, bamboo can fully mature in as little as three years.
Bamboo: A metaphor for life
In Asia, bamboo is often used as a metaphor for life. Bamboo is flexible, it bends with wind and snow, it doesn’t break easily and it grows straight up into the sky — good qualities you would want to see in a person. That is why the Japanese eat fresh bamboo shoots in the springtime, because it’s time for new growth. Digging bamboo shoots was an annual spring activity I did with my grandmother to celebrate these qualities of life, and it’s amazing that after all these years, I tell myself to be like bamboo when things get me down. I shake off what bothers me and spring right up.
Two popular bamboo shoot dishes
One of the most popular ways to prepare fresh bamboo shoots in Japan is to make rice with them or simmer the bamboo with fresh wakame seaweed in a lightly seasoned konbu-bonito based dashi stock.
Bamboo shoots are prized not only for their flavor and texture but also for their dietary fiber, vitamins, minerals and low fat content. Some bamboos are inedible and contain toxins, but like mushrooms, you have to source the edible varieties and learn how to prepare them so you can get rid of the inherit bitterness in the bamboo shoot.
Tips for cooking bamboo shoots
The Japanese prepare bamboo shoots in two steps. First the outer layer of bamboo, the dark and hard bark, is peeled away until you reach the tender skin, which is pale and tender like heart of palm.
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You can use cooked bamboo in a variety of ways — in a stew, stir-fried, cooked with rice or in a salad. Fresh bamboo shoots are one of the most versatile ingredients you can use in your cooking, and they taste nothing like the smelly and flavorless water-packed bamboo shoots that come in a can.
Fresh Bamboo Rice
This recipe can be made in a rice cooker, donabe rice cooker or saucepan. Follow the rice manufacturer’s cooking instructions for optimum results.
2¼ cups short-grain Japanese rice, rinsed and drained
2½ cups dashi (see recipe below)
2 tablespoons Koikuchi soy sauce
1 tablespoon sake
1 tablespoon mirin
½ pound boiled bamboo shoots, thinly sliced into small pieces, about ⅛-inch thick
2 shiitake mushrooms from dashi stock, sliced thinly
Sansho pepper leaves, sliced shiso leaves, or roasted sesame seeds salt for garnish
1. Put washed rice in a rice cooker and pour dashi soup stock over the rice. Add soy sauce, sake and mirin and stir the rice.
2. Put the sliced bamboo and shiitake mushrooms on top of the rice.
3. Cook the rice as you would regular rice. When rice is done, serve in individual rice bowls.
4. Garnish with sansho leaves, shiso leaves or roasted sesame seeds and salt.
Konbu-Shitake Mushrooms Dashi Stock
Makes approximately 2½ cups
3 cups filtered water
1 piece of konbu, 4 inches long
2 dried shiitake mushrooms
1. Soak the konbu and shiitake mushrooms in water for four hours or overnight.
2. Bring to a boil in a saucepan over high heat. Just before liquid comes to a boil, remove the konbu. Lower the heat and continue simmering for another 5 minutes.
3. Turn off the heat. Save the mushrooms for the bamboo rice.
Piedmont means pasta. It’s also a signifier for truffles and Barolo, but those will be for another time. And pasta is one of my own personal passions. Admittedly, I don’t pursue my passion with quite the same single-minded dedication as Bill Buford — described vividly in his book “Heat” — but it’s high on my list of go-to foods.
When in Italy I’m drawn to different, unusual types of pasta as a jackdaw to jewelry. At home I love making it, saucing it and, of course, eating it. So when, on a recent visit to Piedmont, Italy, with a group of friends, an invitation arrived from pasta-meister Mauro Musso of La Casa dei Tajarin in Alba to observe him at work, followed by a degustazione of four or five different pastas, each teamed up with its own sauce and wines to match, I accepted without a moment’s hesitation.
Musso comes from a farming family. In 1994, when the farm was flooded out in a particularly vicious spell of Piedmont weather, the family was forced to abandon the land and move to Alba. Musso, by his own admission, was down and out. He looked for employment and wound up working for a supermarket. “Not my thing,” he admits, adding, “I stuck it for a bit, then decided I’d rather be my own boss.” His experience of working with large-scale food production and retailing led him in quite the opposite direction. His plan was to make pasta on an artisan scale from specialist, organic flours and sell directly to the public.
Three years ago, he carved out a tiny workspace (he calls it his laboratorio) on the ground floor of the family home. He produces two different shapes of pasta: the classic Piedmontese tajarin, after which the business is named (called tagliolini or taglierini in other parts of Italy), slender strands of egg-based pasta that melt on cooking into a state of gently yielding deliciousness and which lend themselves to all kinds of saucery; and casarecce, a more robust, egg-less type that demands correspondingly feisty accompaniments.
Variety of grains lend themselves to dozens of types of pasta
Within these two categories — fine and egg-based, chunky and egg-less — he makes 25 distinct kinds of pasta; the difference lies in the flours used.
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Why so many different kinds of flour? Musso is well aware of the rise in wheat allergies and intolerances in recent years, from the severe medical condition of celiac disease to the less serious but nonetheless genuinely felt discomforts grouped under the heading of gluten intolerance. His theory is that most of us have been raised on a diet of highly refined flour from a restricted range of wheats that have been selected over centuries, principally for their yields and resistance to disease. This limited range, he claims, could help to explain these digestive problems.
Rather than restrict himself to the classic white flour types used in industrial pastas, he experiments with flours milled from ancient varieties of wheat and rye, or from grains and cereals with little or no gluten such as millet, teff, quinoa, amaranth and carob.
The day of our visit, Musso’s mamma showed us into the laboratorio, where he was absorbed in the task of making casarecce from rye flour with the help of his trusty assistant, his dad. First the flour went into the hopper at the top of the pasta machine and water was dribbled in through a funnel. This was mixed to a loose, breadcrumb-like texture. Finally, as if by magic, this dry, unpromising-looking mixture emerged from the extruder as silken ropes of pasta, which Musso patiently snipped into short lengths wielding a huge pair of scissors, rather like Struwwelpeter. The cut pasta was laid on large, flat, sieve-like trays and transferred to walk-in drying rooms, where it would spend 15 hours. E basta!
We settled down in the small dining room adjoining the kitchen, a bottle of Carica l’Asino (a fragrant white from a long-lost Piedmontese variety) was uncorked and we tucked into our first taste of rye flour tajarin. The characteristic earthy flavor of rye was matched with perfect simplicity by ribbons of sage (“from the herb garden”) and lashings of lightly salted butter (“from Normandy — it’s the best!”). Casarecce came next, made from a blend of emmer wheat and rye (gorgeous, chunky texture and taste), which met their match with Musso’s homemade pesto loaded with basil, garlic, lightly toasted local hazelnuts and olive oil. The wine, similarly characterful, was a deep, golden Muntà, a blend of Cortese and little-known local variety Favorita from biodynamic grower Andrea Tirelli.
Delicate strands of tajarin from durum wheat wound themselves around tomato-infused mussels for our next dish, and the wine, an outstanding, mineral-infused Riesling “K” from Paul Kubler, took me straight back home to Alsace. By now we were beginning to flag. With the promise (or maybe the threat) of Musso’s homemade bunet (chocolate flan) hanging in the air, we negotiated a deal with our pasta-meister and skipped (with reluctance) a planned dish of whole-wheat casarecce with a meat sugo in favor of yet more silken tajarin with mushrooms, accompanied by a sprightly Dolcetto d’Alba from Rivella Serafino.
More than a demo, more than instructions on which pasta works best with which sauce, more even than a memorable meal, it turned out to be a lesson in the importance of valuing and using what grows locally to make flavorsome, healthy foods and wines of simple distinction.
The lesson is being learned and word is getting around about this pasta iconoclast — he’s one of the so-called “heretics” in a recent short film titled “Storie di eretici nell’Italia dei capannoni,” a lament for an Italy increasingly overrun by factories and warehouses. On Saturday mornings, customers stop by on their way home from the market in Alba to stock up on his pastas, and Musso is also building up a loyal following among local chefs. It’s an irresistible story of a fine artisan product from a passionate individualist rooted in his beloved Piedmont.
Long before I cooked Asian snakehead, or channa, I had heard all the tales about this notorious fish. Dubbed “Fishzilla” and “Frankenfish,” the predatory, freshwater creature consumes not only plankton and insects but also other fish, amphibians and small mammals. Hence the snappy monikers.
As an air breather, it can survive out of water for several days. It also can migrate over land, wreaking havoc on wildlife in its path. With a large, protruding mouth that contains canine-like teeth and a predilection for using them, it is, by all accounts, one tough fish.
In America, the snakehead has become a cause for concern. A non-indigenous predator lacking any natural enemies, it could decimate native fish species and permanently alter our aquatic ecosystems. Because of this concern, most states have outlawed the sale of it. Even so, thanks to live fish markets and anglers surreptitiously stocking their local waters, snakehead keeps turning up in U.S. lakes, ponds, canals and reservoirs.
Frankenfish key source of protein in Cambodia
While it may be viewed as an invasive menace in the U.S., in Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, snakehead is considered an essential part of everyday diets.
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In Southeast Asia, the snakehead’s toughness serves as a selling point. Because it lives in shallow, murky waters, eats virtually anything and grows quickly, it is a boon to struggling fish farmers looking for a hardy, low-cost, fast-yield crop.
The fact that it can get by for several days outside of water is gift to both farmers and consumers. Because of this unique feature, snakehead maintains its freshness in the worst of transportation and market conditions. While visiting outdoor markets in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and Ho Cho Minh City, Vietnam, I was stunned to see 1- to 2-foot-long live snakeheads sitting out in crates and on unrefrigerated metal trays. In spite of the less-than-ideal storage conditions, they looked as healthy as if they’d been pottering about in water-filled tanks.
What do cooks in Southeast Asia do with all these rugged fish? They feature them in soups and stews as well as in poached, sautéed, grilled and fried dishes. The snakehead’s moderately high oil content means it also responds well to smoking and drying.
In Cambodia, snakehead stars in a traditional curry dish known as amok trey. Amok refers to the technique of steaming fish, chicken or tofu in woven banana leaf baskets. In amok trey, the fish is steamed alongside a mixture of coconut milk, fish sauce, eggs and the Khmer flavor paste known as kroeung. Served inside a hollowed-out coconut, the final dish is juicy, fragrant and flavorful.
I got a chance to prepare amok trey with snakehead at the Tara Angkor Hotel in Siem Reap. The fish with which I worked had originated in the nearby Tonle Sap Lake. The largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, Tonle Sap contains roughly 200 fish species and accounts for 75% of the country’s inland fish production. Snakehead is one of the most popular and economically important species in this lake.
Because I was starting my amok trey with a whole snakehead, I had to clean and then fillet the fish first. To accomplish this, I followed the same technique I would use with any round fish. After a minimal amount of effort, I ended up with two beautiful, white, firm-fleshed fillets.
Although I would slice the fish into thin strips for amok trey, the snakehead fillets could just as easily be pan-seared or grilled. I could then serve them with a grind of black pepper, dab of salted butter or splash of lemon juice. While mild in flavor, this fish needs little adornment to shine.
Back in New York City, I can continue cook with snakehead fish. In spite of a 2002 federal prohibition on the transportation and sale of live snakehead, Asian seafood markets around the city continue to carry this fish. Plus, if recent reports prove true, snakehead has moved into a neighborhood near mine, into the urban fisherman’s oasis of Central Park’s Harlem Meer. Anglers there have been instructed not to release this fish back into the lake.
In spite of snakehead’s growing presence in the U.S., I substitute striped bass or another firm, white-fleshed fish when making amok trey at home. However, should a snakehead happen to slither onto my doorstep, it would star in one tasty and authentic Cambodian meal.
Angkor-Style Striped Bass (Amok Trey)
Taken from my first cookbook, “Fish Market” (Running Press, 2013), this recipe features striped bass instead of the traditional snakehead fish. My version of amok trey does, however, use the distinctly Cambodia flavoring kroeung. You’ll find galangal root and morinda or noni leaves in the produce section of Asian markets and jars of galangal root in the Asian section of most supermarkets.
For the kroeung:
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped lemongrass
1 tablespoon minced galangal root
1 (1-inch) piece fresh ginger, peeled and roughly chopped (about 2 tablespoons)
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
For the fish:
¾ cup well-shaken canned coconut milk, plus more for serving
1 morinda or noni leaf, chopped
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
2 large eggs, whisked
½ teaspoon sea salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
12 ounces striped bass fillets, skinned and thinly sliced
½ small red bell pepper, thinly sliced
3 to 4 cups steamed rice, for serving
1. Fill a large, wide pot with 1½ inches of water. Place a steamer basket in the pot and bring the water to a boil.
2. Using a mortar and pestle, pulverize the garlic, lemongrass, galangal root, ginger, salt and turmeric until you have a thick paste. You’ll have about ⅓ cup. Spoon 2½ tablespoons of kroeung into a large bowl. Cover and refrigerate the rest for future use.
3. Add the coconut milk, morinda leaf, fish sauce, sugar, eggs, salt and black pepper to the 2½ tablespoons of kroueng. Mix the ingredients together until well combined. Add the fish and stir gently to coat.
4. Spoon the mixture into 6 to 8 small, oven-safe ramekins, filling each about two-thirds full. Place them in the steamer basket, cover and allow the fish to steam for roughly 15 minutes. When finished, the fish will feel firm and appear white and cooked through.
5. Carefully remove the ramekins from the steamer. Garnish the top of each with slices of red pepper and a drizzle of coconut milk. Serve hot with steamed rice.
Top photo: Amok trey. Credit: Kathy Hunt
At a reading a few weeks ago in Portland, Ore., I finally blurted it out for the first time: “I hate the word veggies!” There was a stirring in the audience. I expected trouble, but instead, there was a solid murmur of agreement. One chef, Cathy Whims of Nostrana, said she couldn’t stand the word either, but was sometimes horrified to hear herself using it on occasion because it’s just around so much. Like using “like.” Can we make it go away?
And why would I bother to have and squander any emotion at all about the word veggies? I’ve wondered myself about why I don’t like it and won’t use it. I think it’s this: The word veggie is infantile. Like puppies. Or Cuties. It reduces vegetables to something fluffy and insubstantial. Think about it: We don’t say “fruities,” or “meaties” “or “wheaties” — unless it’s the cereal. We don’t say “eggies” or “beefies.” We don’t have a Thanksgiving birdy; we have the bird. But we don’t seem to be able to say vegetable. Certainly it’s no longer than saying “Grass-fed beef” or “I’ll have a latte.”
Veggie turns vegetables into something kind of sweet but dumb, and in turn, one who eats a lot of vegetables might be construed as something of a lightweight, but one who can somehow excused. “It’s just veggies, after all. They’ll snap out of it.”
‘Vegetables’ speaks to their many strong traits
But the word isn’t used just by errant omnivores. Vegetarians are very fond of the word too, and they use it all the time. Plant foods, especially vegetables, are the backbone of vegetarian magazines, yet even there they’re reduced to veggies. I think vegetable is a more dignifying name by far. Just think of what plants do and what they’ve gone through to be on our plates.
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They’ve been moved all around the world and gone rather willingly to where we humans have wanted them.
They’ve been altered to be pleasing to human palates.
They have adapted to all kinds of circumstances and survive against all odds and at extremes ranges of heat and cold, wetness and aridity.
The tiniest sprouts can move concrete. Eventually.
They can be dangerous and deadly, or they can be tender and sweet. And some come close to being both in the same plant. Like potatoes and tomatoes.
They can cure ills, for example, aspirin comes from willow; liver remedies are derived from members of the aster family, which include artichokes, burdock, chicories, milk thistle and lettuce among others; brassicas may prevent cancer. There’s the whole pharmaceutical stance one can take regarding vegetables given the truly amazing nutrition they offer.
Vegetables have serious means of protecting themselves — with spines and thorns, or by emitting subtle odors or substances. They can keep other plants at a distance so they alone can make use of limited amounts of water and nutrients; they can find ways to use other plants to climb on. Seed pods are cleverly designed to attach a ride to a jacket, a hat, a dog’s fur to be carried elsewhere to grow. (The burdock burr was the model for Velcro.) And they can defend themselves against predators; pinions discharge a sap that keeps bark beetles from boring in. (The food part is the pine nut).
Plants also keep other forms of life going by attracting bees and hummingbirds, moths and insects, which they feed. They can sometimes cajole birds into carrying away their seeds to plant elsewhere. Plus they give us flowers and fruits in abundance. We love honey of all varietals — especially that derived from thyme, a member of the mint family, and flowers, too. We even use flowers in the kitchen.
Their seeds can sometimes last for hundreds of years or more. Some sprout only in fires, which is one reason burned forests can recover some kind of growth soon after a fire.
They don’t complain when we waste them by using only the most tender parts and ignoring rough-looking leaves and stems and cores. Chickens are grateful of them.
In short, plants are generally quite amazing, strong and clever beings that evolve with time. Whether you are an omnivore or a vegetarian (or a chicken), we all benefit by eating plants. Plant foods. Vegetables. Fruits. Seeds. Stalks. Heads. Crowns. Skins. Cores.
I hadn’t thought about it when I was working on “Vegetable Literacy,” but I think — I hope — that the book, among other things, offers a way to go beyond the “veggie” concept of vegetables by introducing them as the eccentric and powerful personalities they are.
Top photo: Rainbow chard. Credit: Deborah Madison
The non-descript bar was the perfect refuge for a rainy spring afternoon. Seated at a small Formica table that would have been at home in a 1950s kitchen, with small plates and a fat tumbler of Havana Gold 7-year-old rum in front of me, I discovered the new love of my culinary life: anchovies.
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In Bar Pozano, a narrow workingman’s hangout across the river from the Burgos Cathedral in northern Spain, half a dozen older men sat talking and ignoring a soccer game on mute on a flat-screen TV high on the wall near the front door. In the narrow refrigerated display case on the bar were the tapas of the day. Plates were displayed with Spanish omelets (tortillas de palatas), Iberian ham sandwiches (bocadillos) and skewered octopus bits seasoned with olive oil and pimentón. With all those delicious tapas inviting attention, it was the anchovies gathered around hard boiled eggs, pickles, pitted green olives, poached tuna and mussels that won my heart.
Anchovies are part of the ocean’s bounty. Found in great abundance all over the planet, the tiny fish, like goldilocks, prefer temperate waters that are not too hot, not too cold. Available in some areas fresh as filets with the silvery skin on one side, anchovies are usually sold as skinless filets in jars and flat tins.
I left my heart in Spain but brought home the anchovies
The thing about anchovies is that people either love them or hate them. With these delicate fish there is no middle ground. For those diners who enjoy them, anchovies have an umami flavor similar to that of shiitake mushrooms but with a deeply nuanced saltiness and feather-light raspiness on the tongue.
The Spanish get the best out of anchovies by applying them liberally on tapas and pinxtos, Basque open-faced sandwiches. Italians know that skinless anchovy filets will dissolve in heated butter or olive oil, creating an exquisite sauce that adds a depth of flavor to braising sauces and pastas.
Part of the beauty of anchovies is that they are easy to use. To have a delicious snack, just open a jar or tin, drag out a couple with a fork, lay the filets over a piece of grilled bread with slices of Manchego cheese, drizzle with olive oil, dust with pimentón and serve with ice cold beer or a light white wine.
For an entrée, only a little more work is required. Dissolve four or five anchovies in heated oil, toss with cooked pasta, sprinkle with finely chopped Italian parsley and freshly grated Parmesan cheese and the main course is finished in less than 10 minutes.
To have a thoroughly enjoyable evening with anchovies as the centerpiece, all that’s needed is a group of like-minded diners who regard the anchovy as one of nature’s best treats.
Anchovies With Hard-Boiled Eggs
Infinitely variable, the basics are the salty anchovy filets, which contrast with the dry and creamy hard-boiled eggs. In Spain, a condiment made with finely chopped, charred red and green peppers and onions is used as a topping on neutral tasting products like poached tuna filets or mussels. That topping goes beautifully with the hard-boiled eggs and anchovies.
I am indebted to Katie Goodman who described her method for hard-boiling eggs to facilitate easy shell removal.
4 farmers market fresh large eggs, washed
1 teaspoon kosher salt
¼ red pepper, washed and seeded
¼ green pepper, washed and seeded
¼ medium yellow onion, washed and peeled
2 tablespoons olive oil
8 anchovy filets packed in olive oil
4 mini-dill pickles, cut in half longwise
8 mussels, canned or freshly steamed, debearded and shelled
Pimentón (optional) or cayenne
8 long toothpicks or short bamboo skewers 3 or 4 inches in length
1. Cover the eggs in a pot of water. Add 1 teaspoon kosher salt. Bring to a vigorous boil and cook uncovered for three minutes.
Remove from the flame, cover and let sit for 15 minutes.
Pour off the hot water and soak the eggs in cold water. Allow to cool, then remove the shells. Dry and refrigerate in an airtight container until ready to use.
2. On a hot barbecue grill or on a stovetop gas burner with the flame turned on high, place the green and red peppers and the onion on the flame. Allow the outer skin to lightly char. Turn once with tongs and remove.
Once the peppers and onions are cool to the touch, use a sharp chef’s knife to finely chop the vegetables and place in a small, lidded container. Cover with the olive oil, seal and refrigerate until ready to use.
3. Assemble just before serving. First, carefully slice each hard-boiled egg from top to bottom using a very sharp paring knife. Slide the skewer through one anchovy, then through the side of one half of the hard boiled egg, then the pickle half and the mussel. Add one more anchovy on the other end if desired.
Top with an espresso-sized teaspoon of the marinated peppers and onions and a little olive oil. Season as desired with sea salt, black pepper and pimentón.
- Instead of the mussel, place a slab of canned tuna fish filet, preferably a good quality tuna from Spain.
- Instead of the mini-dill pickle, use a pitted green olive.
- Instead of the mini-dill pickle, use crisp and vinegary, pickled Basque guindilla peppers, available from Spain in jars.
- In addition to the marinated charred peppers and onion topping, dust the hard boiled egg with finely chopped fresh Italian parsley.
Top photo: A Spanish tapas made at home with anchovy, mussels, hard-boiled egg, marinated chopped peppers and onions and pickle on a skewer. Credit: David Latt
Coffee growers are in crisis. According to Kew Gardens, Arabica coffee falls into the vulnerable extinction risk category, though some suggest a rating of endangered is more apt because of the rapid deforestation in Ethiopia. Further deforestation in other Arabica coffee-growing regions and climate change compound the emergency. In short, once Arabica left its place of origin and source of biological diversity, combined with less-than-favorable cultivation practices, coffee plants’ abilities to remain strong diminished. Most global coffee plantations are increasingly vulnerable to the onslaught of pests, diseases and climate change, just like any other monoculture or commodity crop comparable to corn, wheat and soy.
How to proceed, and how to do some good, so you and future generations can still get your coffee mojo? Two approaches: Buy coffee that is produced sustainably and pays a fair wage and safeguard the place of origin of coffee so its rich biological and cultural diversity thrives to benefit all growers in crisis worldwide.
Top tips on sustainable, fair-trade coffee, it’s best to buy:
- Organic or low-chemical and low-pesticide use beans.
- Shade-grown coffee. (Rustic is best.)
- Products labeled fair trade.
- Rain Forest Alliance-certified coffee.
- “Bird-friendly” Smithsonian Seal of Approval coffee.
Also, ask your local markets to carry those brands. In sum, vote with your dollars, ask questions and support other establishments that advocate the above practices.
Ethiopia deforestation and hopeful solutions
More than four decades ago, 40% of Ethiopian land was covered in forests; now only 3% remains, based on a report from the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
AFRICAN ORIGINS OF COFFEE
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» Part 1: Coffee's early roots and routes
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Historically, local communities rely on the forest for biological and cultural sustenance. Dependence on subsistence farming, as of late, has changed the delicate balance where deforestation ensues. Partnering with the Ethiopian government, several governmental and non-governmental organizations have designated the Kafa Biosphere Reserve in 2010. The reserve is recognized by UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme and tasked to promote sustainable development built upon local community participation and sound science.
An indigenous organization, Kafa Limat Forum, is at the forefront of establishing a National Coffee Museum in the Kafa Biosphere Reserve in Bonga. The museum will be a crossroads and gathering point for the many diverse communities to celebrate the rich cultural heritage, including the origins and ceremonies around coffee. The museum will provide a sacred space for locals and visitors to unify in diversity. The museum seeks to reaffirm the communities’ connections to the dwindling sacred forests that represent the centers of biocultural variety.
Maybe it is time to support the economy and people of Ethiopia directly with the purchase of Ethiopian coffee varieties grown on smallholder farms from some of the main coffee-growing areas: Bedele, Ghimbi, Goma Woreda, Harar, Illubador, Lekempti, Limu, Sidamo and Yirga Cheffe. Or, better yet, follow the general coffee-buying guidelines and help all cultivators, growers and laborers revitalize their lives and their environments.
Top photo: Coffee beans. Credit: Sarah Khan
This article was partially underwritten by the The Christensen Fund, a nonprofit organization, dedicated to biocultural and agricultural diversity of marginalized people and landscapes globally.
In the 1970s, ’80s, and part of the ’90s, Italy’s Soave wines used to have a bad reputation as cheap, insipid, mass production whites, the kind you definitely want to avoid. But in the past couple of decades, a determined younger generation has been reviving the region’s even older tradition of quality. This crisp, almondy 2011 Inama Soave Classico, with its combination of smoky minerality, spicy fruit flavors and mouth-filling texture is a great everyday bianco that’s widely available at a very good price.
Elin McCoy’s Wine of the Week
Price: $12 to $15
Region: Veneto, Italy
Grapes: 100% Garganega
Serve: As an aperitif, with sushi, salads, vegetable risotto
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The Veneto region around the city of Verona, in the northeast of Italy, is Soave country. The wines are named for the town of Soave, and the best ones, like this Inama, come from rugged surrounding hillside vineyards of mineral-rich basaltic rock in the Classico zone, the original Soave area mapped in 1927. Only wines made in this zone can use the word Classico on the label.
The grape is late-ripening Garganega, which very much reflects where and how it’s grown. Soaves made from grapes grown on the flat valley floor outside the Classico zone tend to be pretty neutral. Though up to 30% of a Soave can contain Trebbiano or Chardonnay, Stefano Inama sticks to 100% Garganega, from old vines, which he believes give wines more richness and complexity.
Giuseppe Inama, the estate’s founder, began assembling a patchwork of small top vineyards in Classico zone in the mid-1960s, but sold his wine in bulk. Starting in the mid-1990s, his son Stefano shifted to organic viticulture, cut yields and started bottling the wines.
Climbing the Soave ladder
Inama makes three different Soaves; this is their basic, entry-level bottle, fermented and aged in stainless steel. The other two, which come from special parcels and single vineyards on Monte Foscarino, are fermented in barrels.
If you’ve dismissed Soave as just white plonk, it’s time to try again. This 2011 Inama Soave Classico is a low-cost introduction to the good stuff.
Top photo composite:
2011 Inama Soave Classico label. Credit: Elin McCoy
Vineyard. Credit: Courtesy of Inama
Simplicity is ubiquitous: if you — like I — get sucked down the gorgeous wormhole that is Pinterest, you know what I mean. Click on the DESIGN tab, and there they are: hundreds of rooms painted a dull monochromatic gray/beige/ecru. A single, long Forsythia branch stands imperfectly perfect in a chipped wabi-sabi bud vase, which is set upon an ancient pine side table chinked with time. Click on the FASHION tab: passels of tranquil, doe-eyed models dressed in dull, monochromatic gray/beige/ecru. They’re wearing loose-fitting overcoats, and modern and expensive versions of their grandfathers’ 1930s cordovan wingtips. Click on the FOOD tab: chipped, matte-finished Heath coffee bowls in gray/beige/ecru hues, filled with variations of the same thing — grains, beans, usually some kale, a drizzle of olive oil, a tangle of lemon zest — and set down on askew cream-and-red dishtowels that have seen endless washings and line-dryings. The image, or any number of versions of it, has been re-pinned a thousand times which, in Pinterest parlance, is a really good thing.
Oh, the simplicity, a work-harried friend wistfully whined to me one morning while we were on the train, commuting two hours to our Manhattan jobs from rural Connecticut. I really want to live and eat like that, she added, looking over my shoulder at my iPad — simply and quietly.
Of course you do, I told her. And so do I.
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And, apparently, so does everyone else these days, so much so that a new crop of magnificently-produced, nearly wordless, expensive magazines — maga-Tumblrs, really — has arrived on the scene, promising vicarious calm, conviviality and aspirational serenity of the sort that Thoreau went to the woods to find 159 years ago. Instagram-softened images of meaningful dinner parties abound; young flannel-shirted men in their 20s — Smith Brothers look-alikes — smoke vintage Meerschaum pipes as they gaze across placid ponds at tire swings swaying in the distance while their ladies thoughtfully pour local herb-infused gimlets into authentic 1930s Ball canning jars. You read the sparse text. You swoon. You study. You wonder if these people have day jobs.
The message is clear: You – yeah you, with the three kids in daycare and the divorce, getting off the IRT and running into Starbucks for your McVenti before hunkering down in your cubicle under those fluorescent lights for eight hours while the jackass next to you yammers on his cell phone about the great sex he had last night — you, too, can live a simple life.
That is, if you work hard enough at it.
If you wear the right authentic clothes and drink the right authentic drinks out of the right authentic vessels. If your food is unfettered and unfussy and thoughtfully produced and served in the right coffee bowls of the right color, and was perhaps procured from the right CSA or the right farmers market.
For those of us who have suffered through the fashion of anxious, nervous food — inauthentic, tall, overwrought — such simple, gastronomical style is exactly what we’ve been breathlessly waiting for. But has the style of living and eating this way, with its gorgeous prepackaged rusticity and come-hither appeal, just become exigent fetish? Are our attempts to be “simple” so self-conscious and superficial that the benefits of real simplicity, peace, mindfulness, thrift are lost? Will being simple — eating simply, living simply — go the way of the Pet Rock?
Trends are a direct reflection of our ever-changing cultural and socio-emotional needs. In the greed-is-good 1980s, everything was big — shoulder pads, hig hair — and the contrived food of the time, unnatural vertical and architectural, was an extension of that style. In late 1988, I was served an elaborate, human fist-sized chocolate piano at a restaurant in Beverly Hills. A scaled-down replica of a Steinway baby grand, it had eighty-eight black and white chocolate keys, and strings fashioned from spun sugar. After the grim 1970s, life was suddenly all about the frantic quest for the elaborate and ornate, and the food on our plates reflected it. In the 1990s, everyone declared themselves a home-schooled chef — the Food Network went on the air in 1993 — and we all went out to buy kitchen blowtorches and home foamers and timbale molds. After 9/11, we craved peace and conviviality, and the next big thing was comfort food. The sale of crockpots and Creuset casseroles took off like they’d been shot from a cannon.
So what created this fraught mandate for the ancient saucepan — dented to perfection — that we spend hours searching for at Goodwill? Why the farmhouse tables laden with elemental dishes and the longing gazes serene as stone? Desperation for simplicity and authenticity smacks of a sort of psychic exhaustion, and the stark realization that living and eating in a complicated overdone way will take a toll on our souls. It compels us with an almost furious hysteria to return to preconceived notions of what’s real, even if what’s real is nothing more than an often fetishized metaphor for ever-elusive safety, and a commodified yearning to bind our frayed connection to equanimity and control.
In a world of constant digital connectedness, of nebulous relationships and jobs that disappear before our eyes, of an often fraudulent and dangerous food system, where we feed our children pink slime and anyone can slap a green label on their over-processed product and pretend it’s organic, we’ll pay anything we can to get simplicity, or some semblance of it back.
But if simplicity really is just a fetish, what will happen when the fetish fades and the trend is over? What will we eat and how will we live?
Top photo: Elissa Altman. Credit: © Susan Turner