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Louisa Kasdon

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Zester Daily contributor Louisa Kasdon is a Boston-based food writer, former restaurant owner and  the Founder and CEO of Let's Talk About Food, an organization that engages the public around food issues in our world (letstalkaboutfood.com.) Kasdon was the food editor for Stuff magazine and the Contributing Editor for Food for the Boston Phoenix.  Winner of the M.F.k> fisher Award for Culinary Excellence, she has  written for Fortune, MORE, Cooking Light, The Boston Globe, Boston Magazine and The Christian Science Monitor, among others.

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A Fruitcake Recipe That Finishes With A Big Bang Image

Like many people, I thought fruitcakes — like Twinkies — came wrapped and packaged and were the kind of food that goes into the fallout shelter with you. It never occurred to me that real people made fruitcakes and consumed them in real time.

My mother had a stack of untouched fruitcakes in tins from long-gone retailers like S.S. Pierce. I found a few in the cupboard last month as I was cleaning out her house. Still virginal, and probably still safe to eat in the case of a nuclear attack.

Then I married into my husband’s Irish family.

Family’s fruitcake recipe holds dear memories

Michael comes from a long line of professional bakers who make fruitcakes for holiday giving with their own little floury hands. (Family lore is that his grandfather actually was the inventor of Marshmallow Fluff and was robbed of the glory.)

Grandfather Hynes’ fruitcake recipe for 40 loaves was part of the bounty of our marriage. We had our friend the pastry chef adapt the recipe for our wedding cake, doing the math to make it come out as three-tiered edible greatness. Everyone went home with a healthy chunk. My mother kept one whole layer of the cake for herself in her fridge, and for the next 10 years she had a slice of it for dinner with a healthy shot of Maker’s Mark.

Weddings were just fine, I learned, but the real fruitcake moment was Christmas. According to my sister-in-law Maryellen, making Grandfather Hynes’ fruitcakes was the most special and sacred childhood holiday ritual in their Worcester, Mass., household.

Every year, the children and their father would grate, mix and steep the fruit, then bake and wrap dozens of cakes to give to family and friends and other fruitcake-poor households. And the weekend to do it was the weekend immediately after Thanksgiving. Fruitcakes, Maryellen explained to me, “need time for the fruitcake to mature.”

So she came up to our house for Thanksgiving with a plan to use the rest of the weekend to re-create the treasured memory of fruitcakes past with her brother. She had it all planned. (She is a very organized person). The two would bond over their reminiscences and perhaps a healthy shot or two of Jamesons.

She went to the store and bought 48 small stainless loaf pans along with several bottles of spirits, sacks of aromatic spices, flour, and sugar, bags and bags of dried fruit and nuts, and two enormous cans of Crisco. I was surprised Crisco was even still available – and shocked to see that the label proclaimed it both “Transfats Free” and Kosher. Who knew? She needed to buy a lot since this was going to be an annual tradition in my house, I was informed. I vetoed the Crisco and opted for butter.

I had some problems with this idea. Specifically, that weekend we were doing a big neighborhood Sunday brunch to celebrate my daughter’s recent engagement. Industrial-scale fruitcake making tends to take over the kitchen for a number of days and makes putting together an elegant brunch for 30 a bit of a challenge. Secondly, her brother (my husband, remember) had absolutely no interest in the project. He’d long ago moved on from baking to tinkering with robots and software. And my daughters just thought it was plain weird. That left me as the designated helper, and a tad grumpy about the whole enterprise.

We got out my bathtub-scaled mixing bowls and began to mix the batter. We began with our spatulas and spoons, but by the end we were up to our elbows in the batter. Fruitcake batter is a turgid proposition and as a result a very good upper-arm workout.

By early Sunday morning, the batter was ready. The kitchen began to smell like a pub. We were a little woozy just from the waft of the alcohol, but I assumed that was a bonus. Maybe we’d been just a little overgenerous with the Jameson’s?

Once all the tins were filled to perfection, we loaded them in neat rows in my heavy duty, professional-quality Viking range. The kind with the door that closes so firmly it takes two hands to open. I cleaned up the kitchen and went in to glare at my husband sitting in front of his computer.

Suddenly, a huge boom! Kids rolling out of bed. Windows rattling. A terrorist attack? A plane falling out of the sky? Should we call 911? I ran into the kitchen — the direction of the bomb. What I saw was the doors blown open on my two ovens and the kitchen window with a spider web of cracks and a sweet mist of spirits. The fruitcakes were still innocently baking in their tiny tins. The Jameson’s and port had evaporated with a bang. I closed the oven doors, took an extra nip of Jameson’s for my nerves and decided never again.

But the fruitcakes were delicious. And every single person who received one raved about it as the first and only fruitcake they’d ever eaten and enjoyed. And we still have the tins, right? And so here we are again, making the fruitcakes, and I share Grandfather Hynes’ special Irish fruitcake recipe with you all.

Grandfather Hynes’ Fruitcake

You can use this recipe to make 40 loaves by scaling up the ingredients by 10. You’ll need a lot more whiskey!

Yield: Makes 1 (4-pound) cake or four loaves

Ingredients

2 pounds dried fruit (currants, some dark raisins and some candied citron)

1 bottle or more of good quality port, Irish whiskey etc. You’ll need enough to cover the currants and raisins as they soak overnight

8 ounces (1/2 pound by weight) white sugar

Approximately 8 eggs (1/2 pound by weight)

1/2 pound butter (If Crisco speaks to you, go with it!)

2 tablespoons grated nutmeg (It’s best if grated fresh.)

1 tablespoon salt

1/2 tablespoon ground mace

2 tablespoons ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

8 ounces (1/2 pound by weight) all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 pound candied cherries

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 250 F.

2. Let the dried currants, raisin and citron steep overnight in the port or whiskey.

3. Cream the sugar, eggs and butter (or shortening).

4. Add the salt, nutmeg, mace, cinnamon and cloves and mix well.

5. Add the flour and baking soda and mix well.

6. Add the steeped dry fruits and mix until well incorporated.

7. Pour the batter into greased pans.

8. Place the cherries in the loaf pans by hand. Bury a row of cherries, evenly spaced, in the batter so each slice has a cherry for color and flavor.

9. Bake for 2 hours, checking for doneness by inserting a toothpick into the center.

10. Cool the fruitcakes in pans placed on a rack.

Note: Tipple on any remaining whiskey — especially if its Jameson’s. It will make the fruitcake much more delicious.

Main photo: A holiday fruitcake. Credit: Shutterstock/Hurst Photo

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Game Plan For A Perfect Last-Minute Thanksgiving Image

Hello, my name is Louisa, and I am a procrastinator. Especially about big, fancy things like making a Thanksgiving feast for 20 of my nearest and dearest.

Like everyone else, I collect all the cooking magazines with trendy new recipes for holiday classics; I listen to endless radio pieces about Thanksgivings of yore. In my heart, I am revved up to do it ahead, make and freeze, be organized. And yet, once again it is Tuesday night, 36 hours and counting, and all I’ve done so far is order a turkey.

For self-made crises like this, you need a game plan to get a whole made-from-scratch turkey feast ready in less than a day. It can be done. That’s not theory; it’s experience. I do it every year. You can turn a grocery bag of ingredients into a first-class meal. The key is prep — good, smart, last-minute prep.

Tuesday night

Pick up a fresh, not-frozen turkey. If you get a frozen turkey, you are screwed. You’ll either have to pray it defrosts in the refrigerator or wake up every three hours to change its water bath. Go with fresh.

Order or purchase three pies (recommendations: pumpkin, pecan and apple). This is not the year to experiment with rolling the perfect crust. No one will mind if they are not homemade as long as you have good vanilla ice cream to go with the pies.

Pull out any basic cookbook. Use it for timing, quantities and whatever cooking tips your mental state can accommodate. Do not attempt a complicated, fussy recipe!

Make the stuffing. Use any old bread you have on hand and/or buy a loaf of good sandwich bread. Collect any unsweetened leftover breakfast cereal in your pantry (cornflakes, Raisin Bran, etc., but not Froot Loops or Cocoa Puffs). Tear up the bread so no piece is bigger than a domino. Combine the bread and the cereal with a little chicken broth or some water and mix well; you want it to be moist, like a sponge you’ve just wrung out. Add salt (sparingly) and fresh ground pepper. Toss in a tablespoon or so of any fresh or dried seasonings you like — I’m a fan of fresh sage, rosemary and thyme. Meanwhile, sauté two or three good-sized onions with a little olive oil until the onions are soft. Combine all in a bowl.

Put the turkey in the fridge and put tinfoil over the bowl of dressing.

Call the guests and assign them the appetizers to bring, and have someone else bring a green salad.

Turn out kitchen lights and go to bed.

Wednesday morning

If you can, get to the grocery store before 10 a.m. If you can’t take the morning off, take the afternoon off. Do not get anxious. You won’t miss anything at work. Everyone else tunes out by lunch the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

Check your pantry: Look for brown sugar, granulated sugar, salt, pepper, olive oil, rosemary, thyme, butter, vanilla, cream or milk and other obvious staples.

Make a shopping list. The quantities you will need depend on the size of the party, but I usually figure on a cooked cup or more of each vegetable per person, and one sweet potato per person.

Onions

Celery

Sweet potatoes or yams

Brussels sprouts. Credit: Louisa Kasdon

Brussels sprouts. Credit: Louisa Kasdon

Brussels sprouts (unless you hate them)

Potatoes (Russets for mashed potatoes, fingerlings for roasted)

Green beans

Mushrooms (several fun varieties for gravy and vegetables)

2 bags of fresh cranberries

Butternut squash (cheat here and buy the bags of fresh, pre-peeled squash)

Orange juice

Fresh lemons

Wednesday night

This is prep time; you will need two to three solid hours in an unobstructed kitchen. (Order Chinese or sushi for dinner.)

Green beans: Blanch the green beans in salted water until they are bright green. Have a bowl of ice and water ready. Drain, cool and put beans in a zip-close bag in the refrigerator.

Brussels sprouts: Trim and blanch the Brussels sprouts using the same method. (They take a few more minutes than the green beans.) Drain, cool, cut in half through the stem and put in a bag in the fridge.

Fresh cranberries. Credit: Louisa Kasdon

Fresh cranberries. Credit: Louisa Kasdon

Cranberry relish: Follow the directions on the cranberry bag for water and sugar ratios for cooked cranberries. Let them come to a boil and start bursting, then remove from the heat. Tip: I use orange juice (frozen or fresh) instead of water to cook the cranberries and grate orange peel with a zester and add it to the relish. I also add a spoonful of red horseradish to the relish because my family likes heat with our sweet. Refrigerate relish.

Butternut squash: Steam the squash until it is tender to a fork. Drain, cool, mash or puree — but not to the consistency of baby food. Add salt and pepper to taste, then add butter to taste. For a savory flavor, add some thyme. For sweet, use a few grinds of fresh nutmeg and a little cinnamon. Don’t over spice! You can always add more tomorrow.

While all this is happening on the stove top, bake the unpeeled, washed sweet potatoes at 350 F until they are soft. Let them cool overnight on the countertop.

Mashed potatoes: Peel, scrub and throw them into a large pot of salted water while all else is baking and boiling. Let them cool in the liquid overnight. Roasted potatoes can wait till the morning.

Turn out the kitchen lights and go to bed.

Thanksgiving morning

Wake up. Turn on the parade. Make coffee.

Roast the turkey: Heat the oven to 300 F or 350 F, salt the inside of the bird then stuff it. Dress the turkey skin with olive oil, pepper, salt and herbs.

Tie the legs together with twine (or whatever) and close the opening as much as possible. Put some celery and cut onions in the bottom of the pan with a cup or so of water.

Place turkey on a rack in the roasting pan, then put it in the oven.

Do the math according to the size of the bird and use a meat thermometer. Very few turkeys take more than three hours to cook. Figure your start time based on the turkey being done an hour or so before you want to serve.

Exit the kitchen. Move the furniture. Set the table. Find candles, napkins and a tablecloth. Iron only if absolutely necessary. Decide which serving utensils and dishes you’ll need for the beans, squash and gravy.

Put wine and water in the fridge to cool. Take the pies out of the fridge.

Back to the kitchen: Check on the turkey. If it is browning too fast, put a sheet of foil over the breast.

Mushrooms: In a large pan over medium heat, sauté the mushrooms in olive oil with a splash of lemon. Let them get soft.

Sweet potatoes and yams at the market. Credit: Louisa Kasdon

Sweet potatoes and yams at the market. Credit: Louisa Kasdon

Candied sweet potatoes/yams: If you want the sweet potatoes candied and in chunks, gently peel away the skin as if you were unwrapping a precious gift, cut into chunks, and place them in an attractive pattern in an oven-to-table baking dish or pan. Add a little water or juice to the pan. Mix maple syrup and butter, or honey and vanilla, dust with cinnamon, dot liberally with butter and crumble brown sugar over the top. Put sweet potatoes in the oven for a half hour or more before serving and after your turkey has come out. They should be crusty and caramelized.

Mashed sweet potatoes: Peel off the skin. Mash sweet potatoes with a ricer or fork to a smooth consistency. Thin with a little liquid if needed. (Apple cider is terrific!) Add butter, cream, cinnamon, salt and pepper. Put in a greased oven-to-table baking dish and top with butter, sprinkle with cinnamon and nutmeg, and if you like, dot with mini marshmallows.

Two hours before you want to serve dinner

Roasted potatoes: One hour before you estimate the turkey will be done, toss whole small fingerlings or another type in a bowl with salt, oil and rosemary. Arrange around the turkey in the pan, then the pan goes back in the oven.

Put cranberry relish in a pretty bowl.

Make mashed potatoes. Peel if you want. Do not puree! Add milk, butter, salt, etc. Put in a microwaveable serving dish.

Take a shower and make the bed. Get sort of dressed. Save the mascara application, if wearing, until everything is out of the oven.

One hour or less before dinner

Sweet potatoes: Put the sweet potatoes in the oven. After a half hour, put the squash and the mashed potatoes in the oven to warm.

Brussels sprouts: Heat a big sauté pan over a high flame and sauté the Brussels sprouts with a little lemon and/or balsamic glaze. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Let them get a little charred and move them to a microwaveable serving dish.

Gravy: Using the pan drippings, make the gravy. Add wine or water and reduce the liquid on the stove top. In our house, we add a jar of currant jelly to the pan to give the gravy body and bulk.

Green beans: Just before serving, reduce the heat in the pan to medium, add a little more olive oil and a tad of butter, then sauté the green beans. Add a few handfuls of the cooked mushrooms and a splash of lemon juice.

Just before dinner

Uncork the wine. Put the turkey on the platter. Some idiot decides to carve. Side dishes go briefly back in the oven, stove top or microwave to get piping hot.

Turn off the oven. Put pies in cooling oven to warm for dessert.

Put on mascara if desired.

Take a bow. Operation complete.

Main photo: Fall squash. Credit: Louisa Kasdon

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A Fresh Take On New England’s Classic Dishes Image

As far as I am concerned, we New Englanders own the winter kitchen, from the cranberries and pumpkin pies of Thanksgiving all the way to the corned beef and cabbage of St. Patrick’s Day. Our regional cooking is reliable and time tested, but possibly also a bit dated — in need of a pick-me-up, a refresher that catches us up with the way the rest of the country eats. Chef Jeremy Sewall is offering that refresher course in his new cookbook, “The New England Kitchen: Fresh Takes on Seasonal Recipes” (Rizzoli, 2014).

Sewall is one of the best chefs in Boston. A true New Englander (he descends from a family of seafarers and lobstermen), he is the chef and partner at four top Boston restaurants (Lineage, Eastern Standard, Island Creek Oyster Bar and Row 34). Following in the great tradition of Fannie Farmer, Jasper White and Lydia Shire, Sewall is widely seen as the new face of classic New England cuisine: heavy on the seafood, aware of the seasons, conversant with the flavors of the globe. This is his first cookbook, and it’s a modern classic — and a keeper.

New England fare for all seasons

Here’s my test for a new cookbook: If I’d instantly start prepping the first three entrees I come across, I know I’ve got my nose in a new classic. I hadn’t even finished the introduction before I started rummaging in my fridge, freezer and pantry to see if I could make the Steamed Mussels With Pilsner, Garlic and Fresno Peppers. I moved on to the Mushroom Ragout and the English Pea Soup before I acknowledged that I was getting very excited about ingredients that wouldn’t truly be available until early spring. So I thumbed deeper into the book and made Sewall’s recipe for Seared Sea Scallops With Creamy Turnip Puree and Crisp Shiitake Mushrooms. That held me for a while.

Sewall is a prodigiously talented, hardworking and remarkably humble chef. Not a TV commodity, he picked time in the kitchen over time in front of the camera, so you may not know him. But if you begin to work through his recipes, you’ll appreciate the skills honed over decades on the line.

For this book, he smartly teamed up with food writer Erin Byers Murray, the author of “Shucked.” The two share a connection to Island Creek Oysters, where Murray worked for a year as an oyster farmer, taking a sabbatical from her day job as a food writer and editor, and Sewall is the executive chef at two Island Creek Boston restaurants. The two seamlessly present a voice that is warm, confident and so infused with New England roots that you can hear the broad vowels as you read.

But there’s nothing provincial or backward looking in “The New England Kitchen.” It is stocked with food you want to eat because you love the flavors of New England and you live in this century. Razor clams and pot roast. Fried clams (of course) and a mussel dish that puts the French to shame. Pan-roasted hake and roasted duck confit. A recipe for skate wing I’ve made twice so far, and it’s made me a kitchen hero both times. A gorgeous lemon tart with lavender cream.

Each recipe is illustrated with a gorgeous large-format photo by Michael Harlan Turkell, making you believe that you can deliver on the promise of a perfect meal.

Reading through the book, you will get a good sense of the local bounty of New England season by season, and how a top-tier regional chef makes the most of it.

If you need a new cookbook to get you through the New England winter, this is the one.

Spiced Skate Wing

Recipe courtesy of “The New England Kitchen: Fresh Takes on Seasonal Recipes.”

Sewall’s note: “Skate might seem like an unusual choice for the home cook, but it has a nice firm texture and a really sweet flavor. Here, I toss it with a seasoned flour and quickly sauté it for an easy weeknight dish. Buy skate from a trusted fishmonger and give it a sniff before bringing it home (it takes on an ammonia smell when beginning to go bad). If you can’t find skate, freshwater trout is a great substitute, but it might require a minute or two longer to cook, depending on the thickness.”

Yield: Serves 4

Ingredients

Spiced Skate Wing With Toasted Orzo with Spinach and Chorizo. Credit: Michael Harlan Turkell

Spiced Skate Wing and Toasted Orzo With Spinach and Chorizo. Credit: Michael Harlan Turkell

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 garlic clove, crushed

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon dry mustard

1 tablespoon ground turmeric

1 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon curry powder

4 tablespoons canola oil

4 (6-ounce) skate wing fillets, trimmed, skin removed

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Directions

1. In a small sauté pan, heat the olive oil and garlic over medium heat until the garlic starts to brown just a little, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and place in a small bowl. Let cool for 1 hour. Just before serving, whisk the lemon juice into the garlic oil.

2. In a large bowl, combine the flour with the cumin, dry mustard, turmeric, white pepper, coriander and curry powder. Set aside.

3. In a cast-iron skillet or large sauté pan, heat 2 tablespoons of the canola oil over medium-high heat. Dredge the skate in the flour mixture and shake off any excess. Season the fish with salt and black pepper. Place two pieces of fish in the pan and cook until they begin to brown lightly, 1 to 2 minutes. Flip over the fish and immediately remove the pan from the heat; let the fish rest in the pan for 30 seconds before removing it. Repeat with the remaining 2 tablespoons oil and the remaining fillets.

4. Place the fillets on individual plates. Drizzle with garlic oil just before serving. Serve with Toasted Orzo With Spinach and Chorizo (see recipe below).

Toasted Orzo With Spinach and Chorizo

Recipe courtesy of “The New England Kitchen: Fresh Takes on Seasonal Recipes.”

Sewall’s note: “I often pair this pasta dish with Spiced Skate Wing, but you can try it with other fish, chicken, or on its own. Chorizo is a spicy sausage that comes fresh or dry; for this recipe I use dry chorizo and cook it lightly. The heat from the sausage mellows when tossed with spinach and pasta.”

Yield: Serves 4

Ingredients

1 cup orzo pasta

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

Kosher salt

1/4 cup canola oil

6 ounces dry chorizo sausage, cut into thin rounds

1 red onion, cut in half lengthwise and then into 1/4-inch-wide strips

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

3 tablespoons vegetable stock

2 cups lightly packed baby spinach

Freshly ground black pepper

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.

2. Toss the orzo with the olive oil in a baking pan and toast in the oven for 7 minutes, stirring halfway through. The pasta should be lightly toasted and have a nutty smell to it.

3. Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil and add the toasted orzo, lower the heat and simmer until tender, about 12 minutes. Drain and spread on a baking sheet to cool.

4. In a large sauté pan, heat the canola oil over medium-high heat and add the chorizo and onion. Sauté until some of the sausage fat starts to render out and the sausage begins to lightly crisp around the edges, about 6 minutes. Remove from the heat and drain off any excess fat. Add the orzo, lemon zest and stock to the pan and warm through over medium heat. Add the spinach and immediately remove the pan from the heat; the spinach should be slightly wilted. Toss together and season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

Main photo: Chef Jeremy Sewall and his new cookbook, “The New England Kitchen.” Credit: Michael Harlan Turkell

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Let’s Talk About Food And Transform Our Food Culture Image

I remember the moment very clearly. I was moderating a panel discussion after a special screening of “Food Inc.” in September 2010. More than 300 people had come for this free weekday screening. The staff at Boston’s Museum of Science, the hosts of the event, had told us to expect maybe 30 or 40 to attend.

During the presentation, a woman stood up and proudly announced she was working on a farm-to-school program with primary school students in Dedham, Mass. A few minutes later, another good soul described her curriculum teaching kids in Cambridge about edible gardens. A third woman offered up her school gardening program in Milton. I paused, and then asked, “Do any of you know each other?” Nope. Nope. Nope.

How was this possible? A distance of less than 20 miles separated the three thriving initiatives, but there was no cross-fertilization, no sharing of successes and strategies. Each one was a good-food activist toiling away in her own private silo.

That’s when I conceived the idea ­­– and more important, the need — for Let’s Talk About Food. So many people, organizations, websites, meet ups and special programs are aimed at mobilizing a shift in our food system, and each one is dutifully tending or protecting its tiny bit of turf.

Let’s Talk About Food based on simple premise

My big idea was pretty simple: Let’s get everyone talking together. Let’s get the myriad initiatives aimed at ensuring better food out of their tidy little silos and into one big tent.

If we start to work together, stimulating and sharing, connecting with like-minded souls, we can leverage our impact and move a lot faster to our goal — a healthier food system. Whether our individual passion is school food, cooking, animal welfare, sustainability or GMO labeling. Whether we agree with each other or not. Whether we care about the oceans or obesity, food security or food waste, or wonder what the heck happened with the farm bill. We need to be talking to each other, and to the public — the people who buy groceries, hate the food their kids eat at school, and hope they are feeding their family food they can trust.

We need to bring the experts, the advocates and the public into the same conversation. If we don’t, we are just talking to ourselves and a tiny group of like-minded people. To grow a food revolution, we need to go beyond the usual suspects.

I know there’s a problem. We all have egos. All the organizations and individuals who work in the food space feel a little protective and perhaps a little competitive about their turf, but we have to get beyond that. There isn’t one single recipe to change food in America. We need to come at it from every angle, inviting in every sector of society.

Forming collaborations

So, I started Let’s Talk About Food in 2010. It’s a tiny organization with one employee — me. I’m working for free and wondering what happened to all the smart lessons I learned in business school. I am a lapsed restaurant owner and was a reasonably successful journalist in Boston. I’m nobody special, not particularly well-connected and certainly not rich enough to take on the volunteer post I’d given myself.

LEARN MORE


You can find out more about the Let’s Talk About Food mission and its events and initiatives at www.letstalkaboutfood.com or on Facebook or Twitter (@LTAFood, #talkfood).

The annual Let’s Talk About Food Festival kicks off with a Vote With Your Fork Rally on Sept. 26 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Trinity Church in Boston. The free festival will be held Sept. 27 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Copley Square. Visit the Let's Talk About Food Festival page for more information.

Since starting Let’s Talk About Food, I have curated, with a handful of volunteers, more than 60 public food events in and around Boston, all aimed at bringing experts and the public together. Each event was more successful than the last. We started with that first screening of “Food Inc.” at the Museum of Science and marched forward, leveraging the expertise in our own community, forming collaborations with museums, hospitals, science fairs, law schools, public health schools, an aquarium, churches, libraries,  and state and city governments. Event by event, step by step, we formed partnerships with local media, such as our presenting sponsorship with the Boston Globe and with our public radio station, with magazines and local nonprofits, so the community knows what we are doing.

We’ve tackled diverse and specific topics, including “What’s Up with Food Allergies?” “How Do We Sustain the Fish and the Fishermen?” GMO labeling, the farm bill, the economics of aquaculture, the ethics of food and food labeling, and we’ve asked important questions: Can New England feed itself? How close can we get to sustainability? We even sparked a group of people who are now collaborating on an action plan for a regional commissary for healthy school food in Massachusetts.

Festival attracts thousands

Our annual Let’s Talk About Food Festival attracts more than 15,000 people who come together in Boston’s Copley Square for one spectacular day to engage and learn more about food — and have fun in the process. We have a huge demonstration cooking stage where chefs and “expert conversants” are paired, we have an open-air seminar that we call The Endless Table and co-create with the Museum of Science. We have hands-on cooking for kids, an edible garden, an ask-a-nutritionist booth and our Kitchen Conversations project — a mobile recording studio that invites people to come into our cozy kitchen and share a food story or memory. We have chefs, cookbook authors, fishermen, farmers and foodies of every stripe.

We don’t have a single agenda, and we don’t provide any specific answers to the questions we pose. Our goal (and note, in four years we have moved from being a “me” to becoming a “we”) is to get people talking. Our philosophy: Engage the mind, and you spark the change. Because talking about food leads to action about food.

Let’s Talk About Food is based in Boston because that’s where I live, but the idea of a community-wide conversation about food should not be confined to my hometown. Any city in America could have an organization like Let’s Talk About Food. I’d be glad to help you get it started where you live. Like a simple recipe, it’s an idea that is easy to share.

Silos keep grain safe, but they don’t store all the ingredients to make a full meal.

Tom Colicchio from Number 44 Productions on Vimeo.

Main photo: Boston-area kids try their hand at making healthy lunches while chef Jody Adams works in the background at the Let’s Talk About Food Festival 2013. Credit: Courtesy of Let’s Talk About Food

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Beef Tzimmes Makes Rosh Hashana Even More Special Image

I look forward to Rosh Hashana every year. It should be because it is the beginning of another new year, shimmering with possibilities. Or because each year I give myself permission to buy a new, stylish go-to-temple outfit. It’s also fall, the best, most exhilarating season in my New England home.

Religiously, Rosh Hashana (which this year begins at sundown Sept. 24) is the time to wipe away the troubles of last year and pledge to begin anew with resolutions for improvement in personal relationships and goals. Officially, Rosh Hashana is the beginning of the new year of the Jewish calendar, and always a season for coming together joyfully. It’s honey and apples, friends and family.

But if I am honest, my love of the holiday has nothing to do with any of this. Rosh Hashana is tzimmes season. Oozing with meat juices and richness, beef tzimmes may be the least politically correct dish in my repertoire from a nutritional standpoint. And I love it — umami heaven! It is full of rich, meaty flavor and thick with chunks of carrots, sweet potatoes, onions and prunes. It’s a production that requires planning but not that much skill.

Beef Tzimmes for Rosh Hashana

Prep Time: 2 hours

Cook Time: 5 hours

Total Time: 7 hours

Yield: 12 servings

Beef tzimmes is a major production for a major holiday. I love making this dish. People look forward to it every year, and as a result it transforms me into an iconic Jewish cook. It’s also not that hard to pull off, but it does take time. It’s very important to make the entire dish a day before serving so you can refrigerate and skim the fat. You’ll need a large, heavy roasting pan such as a turkey roaster. I make it in a huge Le Creuset pot, but any large, covered Dutch oven or roasting pan will do.

Ingredients

  • 6 short ribs (ask the butcher for the right cuts for this and the following meat)
  • 4 pounds beef flanken or brisket (not too lean)
  • Kosher salt and black pepper to taste
  • 5 pounds carrots, peeled and cut in big chunks
  • 6 to 8 onions, quartered
  • 2 cups honey
  • 2 cups dark brown sugar, plus more to sprinkle on top during cooking
  • A stick (or two) of cinnamon
  • Beef stock or water
  • 6 to 8 peeled sweet potatoes (or more to your preference)
  • 2 cups pitted prunes
  • 2 tablespoons matzo meal for thickening the sauce

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 F and then roast the short ribs for an hour in the oven.
  2. Meanwhile, braise the flanken in a large sauté pan on the stove top.
  3. Place the bones in the bottom of a roasting pan and layer on top the chunks of flanken.
  4. Sprinkle the meat with salt and pepper to taste. (You can also adjust it before serving, after all flavors have come together.)
  5. Add the carrots, onions, honey, brown sugar, cinnamon and enough beef stock or water to cover the meat.
  6. Cook covered for three hours in a 350 F oven, turning the meat chunks occasionally.
  7. Add the sweet potatoes and prunes to the pan, adding more stock if necessary. Cook another 45 minutes, until the meat is soft.
  8. Strain off the liquid and reduce it on the stove top, then thicken it with matzo meal. Return it to the pan. The liquid should be about ¾ of the way up the pan.
  9. Sprinkle with brown sugar to caramelize on top.
  10. Return to the oven and cook uncovered for one hour. To degrease the meat, refrigerate for a few hours or overnight, and then remove fat. The dish is best served the day after cooking. The leftovers freeze beautifully.

Main photo: Beef tzimmes. Credit: Louisa Kasdon

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Why ‘Fed Up’ Has The Food Industry In Its Cross Hairs Image

“Fed Up” is a jab to the belly of many of the myths we hold about the causes and culprits responsible for the obesity epidemic in America. The well-crafted, accessible documentary’s focus is on kids, the food industry, Congress and most directly on the sneaky amount of sugar present in almost everything we pluck off a supermarket shelf, including all those helpful foods labeled “natural” and “low fat.”

In an era when one-third of our kids are diagnosed as clinically obese and have prospects for shorter lives than their parents, “Fed Up” should be shown to schools, youth groups, PTAs, projected on the walls at shopping malls — you name it. Anywhere that kids and parents hang out.

Produced by Laurie David, cookbook author, activist and the producer who shared the Academy Award with Al Gore for “An Inconvenient Truth,” narrated and co-produced by Katie Couric and directed by Stephanie Soechtig, the film is an indictment of the powerful hold that the packaged and processed food industry has over the American waistline. The film also pokes at the industry’s too cozy relationship with our government and suggests that the power of the food lobby has been quietly putting a muzzle on one of the great icons and advocates of health in America, Michelle Obama.

“Fed Up” is a labor of love and measured outrage. But it is the kind of outrage that translates into a call to action. “Fed Up” will cause you to think hard and critically, not in some abstract way, perhaps as soon as the next time you lift a fork to your lips. The tone of the film is a little in your face — an excellent thing, especially if you want to bring your school-age and older children to see the film. They will get it.

"Fed Up" poster. Credit: Courtesy of "Fed Up"

The narrative thread of the documentary follows a few young teenagers who are desperate to lose weight. It’s heartbreaking to see the pain these boys and girls suffer as obese kids. The director gave the kids their own mini-cams so that they could film soliloquies as the thoughts occurred and in moments of teenage privacy. One young girl, bewildered by the fact that she couldn’t lose weight, no matter how much exercise she added to her weekly routine, made me cry with compassion. In a theater full of strangers. One of the main arguments of the movie is that exercise isn’t the answer to obesity. The film argues that there aren’t enough hours in the day in which even the vigorous calorie-burning activity can balance out the calorific and toxic food environment that we live in. (Remember it is a documentary and has a specific point of view.) Watching the kids and their families struggle with weight issues, the shame of being young and fat, the fear of the health consequences, the possibility of early death from metabolic syndrome — haunts me still.

A fresh look at food issue

Honestly, as someone who swims daily in the conversation about our food system, I found the film fresh and energizing. I learned new things, and the takeaways were presented in ways that resonated for me.

"Fed Up" looks at the surreptitious way sugar shows up in our diets. Credit: Screenshot from "Fed Up" trailer

“Fed Up” looks at the surreptitious way sugar shows up in our diets. Credit: Screen shot from “Fed Up” trailer

The film has the requisite number of familiar talking heads that no serious foodie film would be without (among them Michael Pollan and Mark Hyman), but it also introduces less familiar talking heads who I am thrilled are connecting to a broader audience about food. Top among these is Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatrician and medical academic from San Francisco whose clear-eyed research on sugar has had me agog for years; and President Bill Clinton, the recent vegan who sorta/kinda admits that his administration “missed” the dawning of the obesity crisis with its misbegotten public health emphasis on low fat and under regulation of the food industry. (P.S.: There’s a neat statistical correlation between the uptick in obesity in the U.S. and the years that “low fat” became the diet watchwords.) Almost at once, all the major food companies decided to make up for the sawdust taste of low and reduced fat products by loading them up with sugar.

Surprisingly, the movie isn’t a downer. At the end of the film in a packed theater, everyone stood up and cheered. The documentary offers a Fed Up challenge: Go sugar free for 10 days. That’s more complicated than just giving up sodas and desserts, by the way. You have to suss out the sugar in your salad dressings, your spaghetti sauce, your healthy super-power packed granola bars! But it’s a challenge well worth accepting. If only to prove to yourself that like Laurie David and Katie Couric and all the team that created the film, you are Fed Up too.

Main photo: Focusing on the causes of child obesity is one of the targets of the documentary film “Fed Up.” Credit: Courtesy of “Fed Up” film website

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