The cream of the culinary crème was in London to attend the annual San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards and find out whether Chef René Redzepi’s Noma could retain its title as world’s best restaurant for a fourth year (it couldn’t: the three Roca brothers, of El Celler de Can Roca in Spain, knocked him off the throne into second place, while Italian chef Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana moved up to take third place).
Several special prizes were given out during the April awards ceremony, held in London’s magnificent medieval Guildhall, which rocked with loud music and pink lighting for the occasion. The prizes included the Sustainable Restaurant and Best Asian Chef awards to Tokyo’s Yoshihiro Narisawa; the Highest New Entry to Australian restaurant Attica; and the coveted Chef’s Choice Award to Grant Achatz.
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“Cooking is like art, it stirs the emotions,” she said as she smiled out across the sea of chefs and food professionals. “Like poetry and music, it creates a harmony of soul and mind. Food is the best way to meet and enjoy the world.” She also mentioned cooking’s need for team spirit: Since her marriage in 1974, Nadia Santini has cooked in her husband’s family’s restaurant alongside her mother-in-law, Bruna, who at 84 still helps with the daily food preparations. Antonio Santini, Nadia’s husband, runs the dining room and its outstanding wine cellar. Nadia Santini was first awarded three Michelin stars in 1996 and has retained them ever since, a record in Italy.
A few hours before the 50 Best dénouement, an intimate champagne lunch was hosted in Belgravia by Veuve Clicquot to honor Nadia Santini. It was held at Ametsa restaurant in the Halkin Hotel, across the street from Buckingham Palace. The clean-lined dining room overlooks a leafy garden and was a fitting setting for the meal’s modernist food. The restaurant, whose full name is Ametsa with Arzak Instruction, is under the guidance of Juan Mari Arzak and his daughter, Elena, of the award-winning Arzak restaurant in San Sebastián, Spain. They have entrusted the London kitchen to three chefs who worked at Arzak in San Sebastián.
Elena Arzak won the Best Female Chef award in 2012. I asked her whether we really need a separate award for female chefs today.
“There are two things,” she explained as we were served a signature Arzak dish of langoustines with crisp rice noodles and corn salsa that went beautifully with Veuve Clicquot Vintage 2004 — part of a flight of five rare Champagnes. “Madame Clicquot, who lived 200 years ago, was a pioneering business woman and innovative visionary before her time. So it’s an honor to receive an award in her name.” (The Champagne house also honors women in other fields of achievement: Their Business Woman Award this year went to architect Zaha Hadid).
“I’m Basque, and we live in a matriarchy where women have always been the mainstay of our families and society,” Elena Arzak continued. “Our restaurant, which opened in 1897, was in the hands of women cooks until my father took over in his generation. Most of our chefs are women, too.” Her father asked her advice about food and created dishes with her from an early age.
“I’ve been lucky to grow up in an environment in which women are respected even if they are sometimes behind the scenes, working as well as bringing up children. I cooked alongside my parents and never felt discriminated against because of my sex. I wish it could be the same for all women,” she said. “However, I am sure it’s just a question of time before there will be more young women in lists such as these.”
She was sitting across the table from just such a woman. Duangporn “Bo” Songvisava is a young Thai chef whose restaurant, Bo.lan is in Bangkok. She recently won the Veuve Clicquot Best Female Chef in Asia award, when the 50 Best produced its first all-Asian list. Songvisava works with her husband, Dylan Jones, and features only locally sourced, seasonal produce in their menu.
“In Thailand, women are known to be great cooks, so it’s not hard for us to be accepted,” she said. “Perhaps the biggest difference between men and women is not their imagination but their strength, as professional kitchens can be very physically demanding.”
Nadia Santini agrees. “Cooking is hard work, but I’ve always been very happy to be in this profession. It’s important for women to express their own sensibilities and bring these differences to what is, after all, a universal love of food.”
Top photo: Chefs Elena Arzak (left), Nadia Santini and Bo Songvisava celebrate. Credit: Carla Capalbo
We’ve gathered around a rustic wooden table at Don Alfredo Pollos al Pastor, a country restaurant sitting 7,000 feet in the Nahuatzén Mountains, an hour west of Morelia, Michoacán, in the colonial town of Pátzcuaro, Mexico. The wait for the Mexican food is a torment. Aromas of grilling meat hit us hard and make us pant through the thinner air in anticipation of what’s to come.
I sip an amber Victoria beer and drift into memories of the restaurant in the late 1980s, when the place was nothing more than a roadside shack with a dirt floor and corrugated metal roof. Then we sat at wobbly metal tables on rusted chairs boasting Cola-Cola logos for decor.
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We were there for the food. We didn’t have to think about it. The menu was simple: chicken, handmade corn tortillas, soupy pink beans and a fresh table salsa made with the local heat-packing chile manzano (Capsicum pubescens), onions and sour oranges. If we were lucky and there on a weekend, they’d have a few baby lamb legs over a fire. As time has passed, the lamb has become so popular the restaurant’s simple terracotta serving plates now boast a new hand-lettered name: Don Alfredo Pollos y Borrego al Pastor (chicken and lamb over coals).
Before entering the larger space today — now with a real concrete floor and solid roof — we gape at the main attraction, a trench 20 feet long and 4 feet wide filled with a long, center mound of glowing embers of white mesquite. On either side of the trench are a few dozen 4-foot spiked metal rods, each impaling three chickens, lined up in two neat rows. The bright yellow flesh of the birds comes from their diet of fluorescent orange marigolds. Combine this and the high temperature of the coals, and you have incomparable flavor and beautifully charred crisp, golden skin.
A flamenco twist to a Mexican surprise
The biggest surprise lies at the far end of one row — 10 additional steel rods with a few kilos of marinated pork hanging from each rod, pouring out aromas the way only pork can. The chunks of meat appear dark from the mesquite, but not a speck of blackened pork is anywhere in sight. Roasting meat is in the blood of these cooks; they rotate and swivel the rods like turns of flamenco, flourish and sizzle, flourish and sizzle.
It has been a long, dry season for lovers of flesh in this part of the world. Pork is celebrated after a Lenten stretch and the Easter lambs have all been eaten. I’ve had my share, perhaps more than my share, of succulent carnitas over the years here in Michoacán, the carnitas capital of the world, but this young pork is primal perfection. These pigs are Mexicans, raised to be fat and placed upon a hot fire, not like their American cousins bred to be lean, mean and articulated muscle machines. Their flavor comes from mesquite smoke and bubbling fat-basted meat cooked lowly and slowly to achieve a moist interior and a mahogany-colored, stunningly brittle skin.
As orders fly in, the cooks select chicken or pork from the spikes and transfer it to a chopping block. A few precision hacks with a machete, a squirt of sour orange juice over the crunchy spitting skin, a sprinkle of salt and the platter is on its way to the table. The torture is over, the waiting is complete and satisfaction is imminent.
Not more than 10 minutes and a half bottle of beer have been swallowed since we passed through the doorway, but they were slow Mexican minutes and we have the patience of hungry Americans, which is to say none.
We ravenously descend on our platters. The waiter has brought pork, chicken and warm corn tortillas. There is a growling silence until, one by one, tortillas are piled with copious quantities of meat and that sweat-inducing table salsa to make perfect tacos. One bite says everything; the wait was worth it. Full grinning mouths smile at each other across the table. We are reduced to happy noises, for there are no words worth the pause.
Fresh Chile Manzano and Sour Orange Table Salsa
You may substitute one juice orange and one Mexican (aka Key) lime to achieve a similar flavor to Don Alfredo’s sour orange, a type of Seville orange primarily used in marmalade. A chile manzano, rocoto or perón (Capsicum pubescens) looks like a huge habañero, so to be sure that you have the right chile cut it open, manzano seeds are black.
Makes about 1½ cups
1 white onion (3 inches), peeled and finely chopped
½ chile manzano, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped
2 Mexican sour oranges, juiced
Sea or kosher salt to taste
Stir all the ingredients in a serving bowl. Serve at room temperature.
Don Alfredo Pollos y Barrego Al Pastor, Tanganxuan intersection on the Periférico (aka the lower end of Libramiento, before it enters the Glorieta opposite the Bodega Aurrerá supermarket), Pátzcuaro, Michoacán. Telephone: (434) 342-3151. (The original location, and still the best.) A second spot is on the autopista Morelia-Pátzcuaro, Km. 6. Telephone: (443) 132-5975.
Top photo: Pork and chickens over mesquite in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, Mexico. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky
Eating a local diet, one where consumers subsist on food grown locally — often within 100 miles from the source — is no longer edgy or revolutionary. It’s common to find restaurants across the United States touting goods from local farms, proving that it is not difficult to eat abundantly but with a small carbon footprint.
Except, of course, if you live in Alaska. The unavailability of fresh produce during the long winters as well as the presumed unavailability of grains makes eating local in Alaska seemingly impossible.
But one small group of people set out to prove that was a myth and spent one year eating better than they ever had.
Planning and canning
Headed by Anchorage couple Saskia Esslinger and Matt Oster, the Alaska Food Challenge was a loose collection of Anchorage residents who committed to eating only Alaskan food for one year. Each set up their own parameters. Oster, for example, allowed himself beer from local breweries even though the hops and other ingredients were not local. Esslinger accepted gifts of chocolate and butter on her birthday, and the couple took a vacation to Italy shortly after their first child was born.
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As expected, the Alaska Food Challenge came with some surprises and, fittingly, challenges. The first surprise was the sheer abundance of food available. Esslinger notes that that year was the healthiest she’d ever eaten. Alaska has excellent seafood, including salmon, halibut, crab and scallops, as well as game such as moose and caribou. The couple has a large urban garden, where they grew berries, salad greens, kale, turnips, tomatoes and more.
Chickens, for eggs and butchering, supplied more protein options, and the difficulty of butchering them surprised the couple. “It’s so much work,” Esslinger said. “The industrial system must cut so many corners to process so many.”
The local-eating year was full of discoveries such as that one — certain foods require large amounts of work. The couple realized that even though they had eaten mostly Alaskan before the food challenge, they were still out of touch with many of their food sources.
Other challenges included discovering the amount of planning required to eat locally for a year, as well as planning for a winter of eating. It is almost impossible to grow produce year-round in Alaska because of temperatures and severely limited daylight, and so the Esslinger-Osters harvested more than 1,600 pounds of produce from their garden. In turn, they had to process and preserve all those vegetables. They built a root cellar in their garage, experimented with fermenting and purchased a full-size freezer.
Part of the challenge was simply knowing how much food to put away. “Once you do it and you know how much you need, it’s much easier,” Esslinger said. “Harvest season was exhausting. Not only were we learning new skills like making butter, but we were also trying to put away everything for the wintertime.” Harvest season was a flurry of canning, drying and smoking, but once winter set in, they were able to “take a break and just cook and enjoy it all,” Esslinger said. They were surprised to find that they actually harvested too much food, including garbage bags full of kale.
Barley and wheat came from Delta Junction, about 300 miles north of Anchorage. They bought a mill for grinding the grains, and were able to bake bread all winter. A local creamery provided cream for butter, made in a Cuisinart, and a goat-milk share supplied milk.
The lack of fresh produce over the winter was difficult, Esslinger admits, but when they allowed themselves a salad on Oster’s birthday, they were disappointed by the limp, faded lettuce that had traveled thousands of miles to reach Alaska. Their diet remained varied, though they admit (somewhat guiltily) of tiring of salmon.
The lasting effects of eating local
Esslinger and Oster live in a suburban home on a corner lot, which they have converted into a massive garden. A partially-sunken greenhouse doubles as a chicken coop, and a beehive perches on their roof. They teach classes on urban chicken raising, soil maintenance and permaculture.
Though the food challenge is over, the couple still eats mostly local and organic. They have found that the food tastes better and that in all, the Alaska Food Challenge wasn’t as massive a challenge as even they believed.
However, Esslinger does admit to appreciating being able to buy organic butter at the store.
The garden at Saskia Esslinger and Matt Oster’s Alaska home. Credit: Saskia Esslinger
As a kid, I’d follow close on my dad’s heels when he went to the local fishing hole, where he’d spend the day reeling in crappie and bluegill. We’d share peanut butter sandwiches and catch crawdaddies and garter snakes while waiting for the fish to bite. At some point in the day, we’d always hunt for wild asparagus, which also grew around the pond.
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My father will tell anyone who will listen that the asparagus doesn’t grow until the thunder shakes it from the ground. He has a full head of white hair now, and people sit in rapture of his wisdom. Me? I’m not so sure. I picked my first asparagus this year between snowstorms. It made its debut almost seven weeks later than last year.
That might sound frustrating, but it is actually part of the appeal. I only eat wild asparagus, which grows during a narrow window in the spring.
For me, store-bought asparagus will never do. I don’t ever want to see it on my plate at the end of summer, or at Thanksgiving. The fact that it only appears once a year, and in a way that is highly variable, only adds to its charm. When the asparagus finally arrives, it is a herald of the season, and it is marked with a feast. Part of the joy of foraging is only eating foods during the short window of time that they are in season. It makes for an endless series of celebrations.
The wild asparagus I forage, Asparagus officinalis, is the same that Euell Gibbons made famous in his book, “Stalking the Wild Asparagus.” It is also the same species as the one sold commercially. This means that once you know how to find it in the wild, it is readily recognized.
The surest way to find asparagus is to find the overgrown fern-like mature plants from the previous year. For the most part, it grows in the same place from year to year. Old, dried asparagus has a distinctive orange-yellow tone that stands out against the new green growth of spring. Wild asparagus seems to really love fence lines, railroads and drainage ditches, but don’t be surprised to see it growing in the middle of a field.
Some people will try to tell you that only thin asparagus is good. Don’t believe them. Thick or thin, wild asparagus tastes the same. I prefer the thicker ones simply because they provide a more substantial bite of asparagus goodness. The most important factor in picking wild asparagus is to choose stalks that still have tightly closed heads, no matter how tall or thick they should grow.
Wild Asparagus Bites
I prefer to serve these gluten-free nibbles at room temperature, but they are equally delicious eaten hot or cold.
12 spears wild asparagus
1 shallot, sliced into half moons
½ cup ricotta cheese
2 ounces goat cheese chevre
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 egg, room temperature
1 tablespoon cornstarch
¼ teaspoon salt
Black pepper, to taste
1. Heat oven to 425 F.
2. Clean the wild asparagus and prepare them by snapping off the tough ends.
3. Toss the asparagus and shallots with olive oil, salt and pepper, making certain the asparagus and shallots are coated with oil.
4. Place the vegetables on a baking sheet and roast for 15 minutes, or until the thickest asparagus spear can easily be pierced with a knife. After removing the asparagus and shallots, reduce the oven temperature to 300 F.
5 While the asparagus is roasting, prepare the cheesy base. Mix together the ricotta, goat cheese, Parmesan cheese, egg, cornstarch, salt and pepper until they are evenly combined.
6. Carefully cut off the tips of the roasted asparagus and set them aside.
7. Chop the remaining asparagus and shallots. You can do this roughly with a knife. Just make certain the pieces end up at least a quarter-inch thick or smaller.
8. Stir the chopped asparagus and shallots into the egg and cheese mixture.
9. Fill 12 greased mini muffin cups three-quarters full with the asparagus mixture. Place an asparagus tip atop each filled cup.
10. Bake the wild asparagus bites at 300 F for 20 minutes.
Wild asparagus bites. Credit: Wendy Petty
I spotted a pair of fresh Atlantic mackerel at my fishmonger in Umbria, Italy, this morning, their unmistakable sleek, glossy skin, marked like the waves of the ocean, steely blue and gray. It’s astonishing that a fish so reputedly fragile could be brought so far, from the Atlantic coast of France to this little market town in the Tiber valley, without damage, and yet this pair smelled as fresh as a sea breeze.
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In some quarters, mackerel has a reputation as poor folks’ food, and fancy chefs often scorn it. But I adore this fine fish. Beautiful to look at, even more so to taste, rich and fat and full of healthful Omega 3 fatty acids, mackerel is just the thing to pick me up after a surfeit of meat, which I’ve been consuming at a tremendous rate in the last couple of weeks. Nothing truly beats the mackerel you catch off a dock in Maine on a calm, early summer evening — jigging for mackerel, it’s called — but any fresh mackerel is worth the very slight effort it takes to prepare it. Emphasis is on “fresh,” however — your nose will tell you immediately if it’s not, but the visible evidence is just as reliable: When the shiny skin goes dull and the eyes lose their luster, that’s a fish to reject.
If you catch the mackerel yourself, gut it right there on the dock and toss the guts back in the water where they’ll make a fine supper for some other creature, whether finned or winged. If you’re buying from a fishmonger, have him or her gut the fish for you but leave the head and tail intact for a handsome presentation. The best mackerel recipe is the simplest: Build up a fire on the grill and throw the whole fish on, let the skin blister and bubble, then turn the fish (carefully — use a wide spatula and try not to break up the fish) once only, and cook the other side to a blister. Because the fish are small, rarely reaching as much as a pound, they cook quickly and are done in minutes. Serve with a wedge of lemon and enjoy!
Any fish you don’t consume immediately can be turned into a sort of soused mackerel, a recipe that comes from the eastern Adriatic and is reminiscent of Spanish escabeche.
1 to 1½ pounds fresh mackerel, grilled or broiled
¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
1½ cups water
Zest of an organic lemon
Juice of the same lemon, plus enough white wine vinegar to make 1½ cups
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon sugar
3 garlic cloves, crushed with the flat blade of a knife
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
Pinch of sea salt
3 or 4 fresh rosemary sprigs
1. Combine everything but the fish and simmer together for half an hour or so to reduce.
2. Once the marinade is reduced, set it aside to cool and then pour it over the fish — either the whole grilled fish or the fillets, which, once cooked, are very easy to lift off. Leave to marinate overnight or in the refrigerator a couple of days. Serve as part of an antipasto or meze.
But back to the Elizabeth David recipe, Maqueraux a la Façon de Quimper, which is simply poached mackerel with an egg-butter-mustard sauce. I use olive oil instead of butter — it goes better with a rich fish like mackerel. This is also a splendid sauce to serve with poached or grilled salmon.
Maqueraux à la Façon de Quimper
Adapted from Elizabeth David’s recipe in “French Provincial Cooking.”
Makes 2 main course servings, or 4 first-course servings
For the fish:
2 fresh mackerel, each weighing a little under a pound
6 cups water
1½ cups dry white wine
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 carrot, scraped and coarsely chopped
1 small yellow onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 branch celery, coarsely chopped
Handful of fresh parsley, coarsely chopped
For the sauce:
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard
Freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon lemon juice, or more to taste
2 tablespoons chopped green herbs (parsley, chervil, tarragon, chives, dill, fennel tops)
¼ to ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
For the fish:
1. As soon as you get the mackerel home, gut them, if necessary, and rinse under running water. Keep them very cold until ready to cook. Put them in a bowl with ice cubes piled around and set the bowl, covered, in the refrigerator.
2. Make a court bouillon for poaching: In a saucepan or fish kettle large enough to hold the mackerel, combine the water, wine, bay leaves, peppercorns, carrot, onion, celery and parsley. Bring to a boil and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes.
3. Drain the mackerel and add to the simmering liquid. Bring back to a gentle simmer and cook for just 10 minutes, then remove the fish immediately from the court bouillon and set aside to cool.
4. When cool enough to handle, lift the skin off the fish and take the fillets off the bones. Check to be sure all the bones are gone, then arrange the fillets on a serving platter and keep cool while you make the sauce.
For the sauce:
You can make the sauce by hand in a bowl, using a wire whisk, but it is easier to make in a blender or food processor.
1. Combine the egg yolks and mustard in the processor and buzz briefly. Add the pepper, vinegar and herbs, and buzz once again, just to combine.
2. Now, with the motor running, slowly add the olive oil, just as you would with mayonnaise, a few drops at a time at first, and then in a steady dribble. The sauce should mount like mayonnaise but for this recipe it should be no thicker than heavy cream. Taste and add more lemon juice if it seems to need it.
3. Pile the sauce in the middle of the serving platter and serve immediately.
Top photo: Mackerel and a copper poissonnière. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Among other accomplishments, the film shows us the lives of agrarians who have managed to hold onto their farms into the 21st century who are now being urged to “expand or die.” Apparently, in the beginning days of research, Bahrani spent time with the family of Troy Roush, the corn and soybean farmer who was featured in the documentary, “Food, Inc.”
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“At Any Price,” revolves around a not terribly loving father-son relationship and 3,500 acres of farmland planted with seeds from the Liberty Seed Company, which sells genetically modified seeds. It’s kind of interesting how in every film where GMOs have a major role, the seller of those seeds is always painted as a bad guy. In recent memory, films such as Bitter Seeds covered the same territory.
Ebert is right, there are many layers to the film, including the father-son relationship, power, familial individuation and greed. But what struck me was the way many of the film’s characters flagrantly disregarded each other.
This was particularly true of the farmer who is also a salesman for the seed company, played by Dennis Quaid. While at the funeral of a neighboring farmer, he expresses his condolences to the widow and her son right there at the graveside, but just seconds later he tries to buy the rights to the man’s land.
Much like the Indian film “Bitter Seeds,” there is a kind of desperation that is implanted by the seed company in those who are both selling the seeds and planting the seeds. Farmers who use genetically modified seeds must agree to strict rules created by the GMO seed companies. Once a farmer buys the GMO seeds, he is required to pay an annual royalty each time the seeds are replanted. After one season, the GMO seeds need additional fertilizers, and as the seasons move forward more insecticides and pesticides. The soil eventually requires more water than a normal saved seed would require. All of this means more and more money for the farmer to lay out, which means somewhere along the line the farmer is likely to become desperate. This is not a sustainable way to farm or live.
On the Whipple Farm, as featured in “At Any Price,” it’s all about bigger yields, bigger harvests and bigger profits. Where the farmer used to be a person of faith and integrity, he is now all about the bigger attitude, which colors everything and leads the main characters to lie about their illegal use of seeds, and to steal and then to lie some more. One of the characters in the film (a girlfriend of the farmer’s son) compares the use of illegally saved Liberty Seeds to a bootlegger who illegally copies DVDs. Ah, that GMOs were so innocuous.
Henry Whipple has two sons. He would like to leave his farm to both of them. After all, his grandfather left it to his father who in turn has left it to him. Three generations already and Whipple would like to make it four. But Henry Whipple’s sons have other lives in mind for themselves. The elder is climbing mountains in South America and the younger would rather be a NASCAR driver. Neither have any respect for their father or the work that he does or the life that he represents.
In his New York Times review in April, Stephen Holden calls farmer Whipple, “a warped caricature of a reassuring American archetype.”
Film raises specter of nation’s ‘wobbly moral compass’
‘Any Any Price’ He says the film is both “a critical exploration of agribusiness and its cutthroat, hypercompetitive ways,” and “a searching, somewhat ham-handed allegory of American hubris in the 21st century and a bleak assessment of the country’s wobbly moral compass.”
The film pays close attention to the stresses that high-tech farming involves and how it freezes small farmers out of their livelihoods. It also sub-plots the kinds of competition that exist between the larger farms and farmers. This is a rivalry that can, and sometimes does, lead to violence.
The movie raises issues that inspire deep reflection. It’s a complicated film, dealing with complicated issues. And it is certainly worth seeing. This is a film that explores subject matters on a variety of levels, all of which deserve our attention.
Top photo: Zac Efron and Dennis Quaid appear in a scene in “At Any Price.” Credit: Courtesy of Ramin Bahrani
It’s spring in Southern California, and our backyard fruit trees have run riot. Golden yellow loquats the size of my child’s fist hang heavily from two trees, and oranges left over from the winter crop spectacularly cover a 30-foot tree shading my daughter’s playhouse. Our yard looks like a postcard trumpeting the glories of Los Angeles suburbia, circa 1923.
But as with any paradise there’s a dark side. This year, the dark side comes from the loquats. I don’t know what to do with them.
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There are so many loquats that our yard has become a hazard. Fully-ripe loquats drop from our trees every five minutes, and as my daughters play in the yard, they grind the soft yellow orbs messily into the lawn and walkway. Still more are up there, some as high as 40 feet, way beyond the reach of our ladder and picking tool. They’ve become a feast for the flocks of squawking, screaming wild parrots in our neighborhood.
These are another holdover from the 1920’s “California is Paradise” meme. Some of the wild parrots are said to be runaways from the estate of Lucky Baldwin, and the creatures tear the loquats to bits, scattering the seeds and skins across our back yard to mix with the rotting ones.
We have two loquat trees that dominate our backyard, each with slightly different variety of fruit. When we first moved to this house, I had no idea what loquats were and wasn’t even sure they were edible. For several weeks we raked them into huge messy piles and shoved them into the recycling bin. But I couldn’t stand to see this bounty left to rot, so I started asking questions about this small, fleshy yellow fruit. I discovered that loquats are not only edible, they’re downright delicious. My youngest daughter became obsessed with loquats when she was just a year old and ate her weight in loquats that first season.
Don’t sweat the seeds
Over the past few years, I have turned our loquats into loquat cobbler, loquat butter and loquat leather, with varying degrees of success. The biggest problem with loquats is their incredible seed-to-flesh ratio. Each loquat contains one to six large seeds, which means that you get almost as much seed as you do edible flesh in each loquat.
When I first starting researching loquats, I’d read that the seeds were poisonous. Filled with arsenic, and possibly cyanide. The websites were not clear. But like any paranoid mother, I worried that my children might eat them and fall into a temporary coma, just like an unnamed child I’d read about online. Although we’d been eating loquats for several years without incident, I decided to put my fears to rest once and for all by checking with an expert.
I put in a call to professor Jules Janick, director of the Indiana Center for New Crops and Plant Products at Purdue University. He’s not only the co-editor of “The Encyclopedia of Fruits and Nuts,” he is also a kind and understanding voice of reason. Janick told me that loquat seeds are indeed toxic, but then so are the seeds of apples and pears. To put things into perspective, Janick said, “If you ate 3 pounds of them, then it might be a problem.” He also reminded me that the bitterness of the seeds would stop someone from eating them pretty quickly. I realized that my daughter was at far greater risk for choking on a loquat seed than being poisoned by its chemical components.
Backyard loquat adventure
With this in mind, on an April afternoon, I took my loquat-loving youngest daughter to the back yard to begin Loquat Harvest 2013. We planned to fill my daughter’s toy wagon with enough fruit to make loquat leather, but we were quickly distracted by the fun of the collection process. We examined huge spider webs woven between the tree’s broad leaves. We ducked our heads from a torrent of loquat hail that rained down on us as I used our fruit picker to reach an especially high cluster of fruit. But we stopped in our tracks when we discovered a tiny hummingbird’s nest attached to a small wavering branch of our loquat tree. All thoughts of loquat leather disappeared and we marveled at this tiny treasure.
Our loquat tree was not only a source of food for humans and birds alike, it was a home. Our loquat trees now feel like an integral part of our own home, one that we happily share with our feathered friends.
I’m still experimenting with new ways to use the backyard bounty, without creating more work than necessary. The simplest approach is to just eat the fruit straight from the tree, spitting out the seeds, of course. But that’s a LOT of loquats to eat.
Our future is sure to be full of new loquat-laced dishes including loquat jelly, loquat chutney and loquat-chicken tagine. Maybe even a batch of loquat ice cream. But even as my family members stuff themselves with loquats, I think that the bounty of Southern California may simply be too much to keep up with.
I may have to ignore much of the fruit of the loquat this year.
And the real beneficiaries, the screaming, squawking, fat and happy parrots.
8 cups seeded loquat halves (approximately 9 to 10 cups of whole, ripe fruit depending on size)
2 cups applesauce (store-bought is fine)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1. Wash loquats and remove any blemishes and remaining brown bits from stem and blossom ends. Be sure to use ripe loquats, which are softer, sweeter and less acidic than unripe loquats.
2. Cut loquats in half. Scoop out the seeds and white membrane inside the pulpy yellow flesh. Don’t bother to peel them.
3. Make two batches of loquat-apple purée by adding 4 cups of loquat halves, 1 cup of applesauce and ½ teaspoon of cinnamon into blender or food processor. Process until smooth. (The blender does a slightly better job on breaking down the peels than the food processor, but either will work.) Repeat with second half of ingredients.
4. Place a solid tray liner, usually called a fruit roll sheet or non-stick dehydrator sheet, on top of your dehydrator tray.
5. Spread a layer of loquat-apple purée, about ¼-inch thick, onto the solid tray liner. The fruit leather will have a more uniform thickness if you spread the puree slightly thicker around the edges. Be sure to follow instructions for your dehydrator. Some suggest brushing the tray with a thin layer of vegetable oil to the tray liner before adding fruit purée.
6. Place the tray (or multiple trays if you have them) into the dehydrator and dehydrate at 135 F for 4 to 8 hours, until the fruit leather is translucent and can be easily peeled from the tray without falling apart. It may still feel a bit sticky to the touch, especially in the middle.
7. Cut into strips and roll. Keep in a closed container or bag until ready to eat.
Picking loquats. Credit: Susan Lutz
I was taken aback recently to hear the hard statistics: The United States imports more than 45% 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
Today more than half of American farmers, roughly 2.2 million individuals, are near or past retirement age and there are 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 28 million people by the year 2020. With nearly 340 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