Articles in Soapbox
The year 2014 not only beckoned all things local, organic and sustainable, it begged for transparency in our food supply. From growing concerns about GMOs and factory farming to the films “Fed Up” and “Food Chains,” people may finally be waking up to the fact that our food system is as much political machinery as tractors and plows.
Here are six food trends that prove consumers want more healthy, sustainable and humane options.
1. Organically growing
Once thought of as a niche movement for flower children and pretentious yupsters, organics is now as marketable as Taylor Swift. With 81% of U.S. families choosing organic food at least sometimes — and restaurants, food companies and grocery stores acquiescing to customer demand — it comprises about 4% of food sales in the U.S. (about $38 billion). Sales of organic products at Costco have doubled in the last two years (to about $3 billion a year), and Walmart is promising to sell organics at the same price as conventional food through an arrangement with Wild Oats. Where will all this organic food come from? Will the industrial-scale Walmartization of organics weaken organic standards and squeeze out the family farmers who helped commercialize the movement? There are already storm clouds on that horizon.
2. Non-GMO labeling
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As consumers are getting hip to Big Food’s genetically engineered ways, the majority of Americans want GMO labeling. But as the big chemical and food companies continue to dump millions into defeating state labeling initiatives, smaller food companies and restaurants are taking matters into their own hands by touting non-GMO ingredients. In fact, Non-GMO Project verification may be the future for GMO labeling. In November, not only was Colorado’s Prop 105 defeated, Oregon’s Measure 92 was so close there was a recount — even though supporters were outspent by opponents, nearly $21 million to $8 million. Vermont is the only state that has successfully passed a labeling law, but it could be held up for years by appeals. Not to mention anti-labelist, corporate-backed politicians have introduced H.R. 4432, a bill that would prevent states’ rights to have mandatory food labeling and would also prevent the FDA from creating a national GMO labeling standard. But you can’t put the pesticide genie back in the Roundup bottle. The more these companies try to hide what’s in our food, the more we want to know.
3. Locally sourced
People not only want to know what’s in their food, they want to know the chicken’s middle name and the arugula’s forwarding address. This new farm-curious mentality stems from the rise of farmers markets all over the country that is fostering familial, Main Street communities. USDA data shows the continued growth of farmers markets for every region in the country. Five of the states with the most growth were in the South — Tennessee, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas and North Carolina. Since this region has some of the highest obesity and poverty rates in the U.S., success here is great news. Community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms are also on the rise, including community seafood that sells sustainable seafood directly from local fishermen to consumers. Expect more artisanal companies to crop up, as well as restaurants touting their chickens’ favorite bedtime lullabies.
4. Vegan and gluten-free menu items
Restaurants jumped on the “V” and “GF” bandwagons, kowtowing to the cow-less and wheat-less among us — not simply to indulge the trendier-than-thou set. People with real food sensitivities want dishes that are safer than thou. Restaurants are getting serious about allergen training, and many have separate menus for top allergens in order to mitigate potential emergency room visits and even fatalities. By law, Massachusetts and Rhode Island require restaurants to provide allergen training to their employees, and similar laws will probably appear in other states or even at the federal level. That way, diners will be less litigious than thou.
5. Dairy-free milks
Many conscious Americans are swapping cow’s milk for plant-based alternatives, and almond milk beats out soy, rice and coconut by a wide margin. However, 80% of the world’s almonds are produced in drought-afflicted California, and 10% of California’s water goes to almond farming (it takes 1.1 gallons of water to grow a single almond), so where does that leave almonds on the sustainability meter? Hazelnuts from Oregon could be poised to respond to the nut milk demand. Oregon grows 99% of the country’s hazelnuts, which use less water, are drought-resistant and can thrive with minimal maintenance. Some high-end café owners actually prefer the taste and are already asking, “is hazelnut milk the new almond milk?”
6. Pasture-raised meats and grass-fed beef
As consumers are getting savvier about factory-farmed animals that eat GMO grains, we’re seeing more pasture- and grass-fed meats at farmers markets from small producers. Grass-fed and grass-finished beef are seeing a greater share of the consumer beef market, and larger producers are selling through chain grocery stores and restaurants. Steve Ells, CEO of Chipotle, says, “Over time, we hope that our demand for grass-fed beef will help pave the way for more American ranchers to adopt a grass-fed program, and in doing so turn grass-fed beef from a niche to a mainstream product. … Most of the U.S. grass-fed beef that meets our standards is simply not produced in sufficient quantities to meet our demand. That’s why we want to encourage more American ranchers to make the transition to raising cattle entirely on grass.“
Main photo: Line up for the Taylor Swift of produce. Credit: Adair Seldon
In artisanal bakeries from Brooklyn to Seattle, the bread counters are piled high with lovely loaves, from the hardiest Scandinavian ryes to French country sourdoughs, from spelt and buckwheat breads to baguettes. Yet this bounty of choice was pretty unusual in the roughly 20,000 years that humanity has been eating grains. While these breads are often associated with European traditions, the long-ago impetus to make a loaf a particular way — or make it into sustenance — has largely been forgotten. Choice — and here I’d include contemporary gluten-avoidance regimes — didn’t determine what was eaten. Necessity did.
“In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey”
By Samuel Fromartz, Viking, 2014, 320 pages
» Enter here for a chance to win a free copy
» Click here to buy the book
If you go back to the pre-modern era, before bread became a commodity and flour was sold in supermarkets, those who depended on grain largely ate what was grown nearby. It might have been wheat. It might have been barley. It might have been rye. Or it might have been nothing at all, if the harvest failed.
To forestall such events, farmers hedged their bets by planting diverse cereal crops. Bakers — both craftsmen and homemakers — then had to figure out how to make this variety of ingredients palatable. Grains, after all, provided up to 80% of the calories in a diet.
Scots made cakes from oats and barley, since both grains were hardy in northern Europe. Rye prevailed in Eastern Europe, because the soil and climate were hospitable. During shortages, coarse bran was mixed into bread. Bakers also added walnuts, acorns and spent grains from the brewery to stretch a loaf. In southern France, ground chickpeas were made into socca flatbread. In Cyprus, bakers fermented chickpeas for wheat and barley loaves. Much later, a New World starch, potatoes, became a buffer against famine in 18th century Europe as the population exploded. Maize or corn served this purpose as well. Corn-rye proved crucial to early American settlers, where it was known as “rye-injun bread” because wheat grew poorly in the southern New England climate.
Now, of course, the impetus for such innovation is gone. Agricultural science has done much to ensure fairly steady wheat harvests, with high-yielding varieties. Industrial millers long ago came up with the means to provide standard flour to produce a steady supply of bread products. As this new wheat took over, their ancient progenitors largely vanished from the landscape — and the palate. By the late 1990s, researchers estimated, 97% of all the spring wheat grown in the developing world came from closely related modern varieties. “Landraces,” those seed populations saved and passed down by farmers, became a rarity.
As for the wheat kernel, about 30% to 40% was siphoned off in the milling of white flour. We often hear about the fiber, minerals, lipids and vitamins in wheat bran and germ that are lost. What is less appreciated is that these nutrient-dense grain fractions also contain a lot of calories. Wheat bran, for instance, represents about 12% to 16% of the wheat kernel. With every kilo of bran removed in the milling of white flour, 2,160 calories are squandered, including 160 grams of protein. “Everyone understood that the whiter the flour, the smaller the number of people who could be fed by a given amount of grain,” historian Steven Kaplan has written of 18th century France. Wheat still provides the second-highest source of calories and is the top source of humanity’s protein, yet we’re content to waste such a significant amount of its nutrition.
Loss of craft baking knowledge
Also jettisoned along the path to modernity was the baker, who came up with the methods to make such whole grains palatable. In the age of industrial bakeries, we may cheer that freedom from drudgery. But I realized, in baking my own loaves for more than a decade, that we lost something else as well. It wasn’t simply the old world loaves that were largely left behind, or the grains that went into them, or the farms that grew diverse cereal crops. We also lost the craft knowledge that came from turning grains into food. This kind of knowledge could only be learned with practice, attention and tactile sensation.
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To make really great bread, I found I had to put away my cognitive mind and learn the essential lessons of touch itself. I had to forget about following routine steps, since different grains — and different batches of them — often required adjustments. My sense of touch told me what tweaks to make, turning passable loaves into desirable ones. My hands were learning. At that moment I realized, if we really want to understand what sustained our species for millennium, spurred numerous innovations, and ultimately increased the supply of food in scarce times, our hands and craftwork are going to be at the center of that process. Our thinking minds will follow.
Main photo: Samuel Fromartz, editor of Food and Environment Reporting Network and author of “In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey.” Credit: Susan Biddle
Dear Surgeon General,
We need your help, Vivek Murthy. You’re now our nation’s top doctor and we need you. Sugar is a problem. We love it. We consume literally tons of it. But it doesn’t love us back.
In fact, our sugar habit is making us sick. You’re the one person in the country we can look to for a full diagnosis. We need you to step boldly into the conversation and assemble all the facts. Just as your predecessor did when he weighed in in 1964 on smoking.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Surgeon General’s first authoritative report on smoking and health, rightly considered a landmark in public health. Since that first report in 1964, there have been 31 more Surgeon General reports on the effects of tobacco smoking. Motivated by these reports, the percentage of Americans who smoke has dropped from 42% in 1964 to 18% in 2012 — still too high, but a real change. Excellent work! Now, it’s time for the Surgeon General to issue a new report. We think it’s sugar’s turn.
In the 50 years since the tobacco study, there has been one report (in 1988) from the Surgeon General on health and nutrition. Over the last 26 years, the science of nutrition and health has advanced enormously. Thanks to modern research and data techniques, today we know a lot more about the impact of our eating habits on our health than we did 50 years ago. In particular, we need you to take a close look at the effects of the skyrocketing levels of sugar we consume.
As part of a growing body of scientific evidence, we now know that added sugar in America’s diet has a huge impact on public health. Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease — driven by high sugar consumption without the essential fiber that accompanies naturally occurring sugar in fruit — afflicts an estimated 31% of American adults and 13% of children. Excessive sugar consumption is also linked to heart disease and type 2 diabetes, affecting 16 million and 26 million Americans respectively. And the trend lines for our kid’s future are even gloomier.
More than 19 teaspoons every day
The average American consumes more than 19 teaspoons (82 grams) every day. That’s two to three times the recommended daily limit. Worse still, our overconsumption of sugar is fueled by healthy-seeming foods that hide sugar — products such as yogurt, tomato sauce and bread — behind synonyms such as barley malt, agave nectar, corn syrup and 61 other innocuous sounding names. Sugar is added to a whopping 74% of packaged foods.
And if that wasn’t enough, Americans are bombarded with slick advertising for products high in sugar. Advertising that is enormously well-funded (about $7 billion annually) and targets vulnerable populations such as children. It’s designed to manipulate the choices we make throughout our lives.
Overconsumption of sugar and its strain on our health and health care system need national attention. There is a momentum building across the country to address this problem. Berkeley, Calif., just passed the nation’s first tax on soda. The Food and Drug Administration recently advanced a proposal to include an “added sugar” line in the ubiquitous Nutrition Facts labels. And the dietary guidelines advisory committee, a panel of experts that advise the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, after considering the latest scientific evidence, supports an added sugar label. These are all glimmers of momentum. But you, Surgeon General, could be the engine that roars ahead.
When we have questions about our health, we go to the doctor. We need you, America’s top doctor, to help us understand the impact of added sugar on our health. It’s time for the Office of the Surgeon General to commission a report on a public health issue affecting so many Americans.
Doctor, can you help us?
Main photo: The average American consumes more than 19 teaspoons of sugar every day. That’s two to three times the recommended daily limit. Credit: iStock
On a Sunday night in May, Scott Wright arrived at his Carlton, Ore., winery to find flames shooting from the roof and smoke billowing into the sky. “There were 30 to 50 firefighters in full gear scrambling around, working on the blaze,” Wright said. “It was like something you see in the movies, very surreal.”
He tracked down the crew chief to find out whether the fire had been contained. Foremost on his mind was the condition of the 2013 vintage at the other end of the building. He’d sampled the wines only the day before and had marveled over the quality.
“It would be absolutely crippling,” he said. “I can’t imagine anything more damaging than losing an entire vintage.”
Wright is one of the winemakers I interviewed for “American Wine Story,” a documentary that explores the drive to start life over in the wine industry. He co-owns Scott Paul Wines, a business he started after leaving behind a successful career in the music industry in Los Angeles.
Wright’s preoccupation with reinventing himself in wine was so great that it had affected his health. Unable to track the source of the decline, his doctor encouraged him to follow his obsession. “Driving home from that doctor’s appointment was when I had the realization that, yes, I really had to do this,” Wright said.
Shortly after that visit, he founded Scott Paul Wines in 1999 and never looked back. In the settling smoke 15 years later, his future was in question.
Wright’s plunge into the wine business follows a common thread in the industry. During five years of filming, I spoke to dozens of people who left their previous lives behind. Engineers, radio personalities, computer programmers — the dizzying array of former careers was matched only by the unimaginable stress and labor it takes to launch a wine brand.
Despite the inherent risks, the steep learning curve and the long hours, there’s no shortage of born-again oenophiles willing to take a shot at making it in wine. We began filming at the height of the Great Recession. At that time, by official count in our home state of Oregon, there were 275 wineries.
A financial downturn seems hardly the time for people to dive en masse into a capital-intensive business like winemaking, in which it takes years to generate a return. But five years later, just as we’re releasing “American Wine Story,” Oregon wineries now number 545.
“Most people starting wineries in Oregon come to it as a second or even third career,” said Michelle Kaufmann of the Oregon Wine Board. It’s no easy transition. “Oregon is a challenging place because our yields are small. It takes a lot to produce wine here.”
Given the obstacles, why did the roster continue to expand even during tough economic times?
“When the recession was happening,” Kaufmann speculated, “people were looking for what really makes them happy.”
Wine makes people happy. And obsessive.
Look at the prices on the top shelf of any good wine shop and you’ll know that you have to be a little crazy to spend a small fortune on a bottle of fermented fruit juice. We found clear evidence of that intense ardor for wine as we traveled to six states, talking to the people who make and sell it. Most of them began as consumers.
A leap triggered by an ‘epiphany bottle’
Often it was a single “epiphany bottle” that rocked their concept of what wine could be. A humble beverage suddenly became a captivating elixir that they strove to understand. And the best way to understand wine? Make it.
A pattern began to emerge: desk job, epiphany bottle, wine enthusiast, home winemaker, wine business owner working 16-hour days with a mad glint in the eye and a heck of a story. None of the winemakers we met had regrets. But a few wondered if they’d be able to go through it all again.
The challenges are clear. Yet more and more people are willing to take the risk and jump in. And it’s not just a West Coast phenomenon. It’s happening in every state in the union.
On the opposite coast, Virginia is also striving to stake its claim on wine. The Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office lists 250 “farm wineries” in the state.
Although Virginia may be a lesser-known region in comparison with California’s Napa or Sonoma or even the booming wine town of Walla Walla, Wash., it has some serious wine history. Thomas Jefferson started the Commonwealth’s first commercial vineyard with an Italian neighbor, Filippo Mazzei, in 1776. That project didn’t take off, but the seeds of an idea were sown, and old Long Tom would be proud of what Virginia’s accomplishing today.
You can visit restored vineyards on the slopes of Monticello, where another Italian, Gabriele Rausse, tends the vines and brings them to harvest with more success, doing his part to further Jefferson’s original vision.
“I think that Jefferson was ready, 200 years ago, to sell wine to the French,” Rausse said with a laugh. “We are not there yet. But we are going in that direction.”
We made stops in Arizona and Missouri to learn about some of America’s more challenging growing conditions. We visited large and small producers. We spoke with Oregon wine pioneer Dick Erath, who grew his namesake label to 90,000 cases before retiring to make wine in his garage. We also spoke with Jim Day of Panache Cellars in Philomath, Ore., who commercially produces vins de garage: 250 cases of fine wine emerge each year from his tiny suburban facility.
Despite the myriad challenges and setbacks, tricky weather, fickle markets, entrepreneurial souls continue to plunge headfirst into wine. New labels and entire regions seem to spring up overnight. Both by pluck and luck, Americans are chasing their dreams by the barrelful.
Although the size of the American dream doesn’t matter when it comes to wine, passion does. And a little luck doesn’t hurt, either.
At Wright’s place, the fire hit on a Sunday night, when most of the volunteer firefighters were at home — and thus available — instead of at work. That saved precious minutes, and the fire was kept from spreading to the storage areas. Otherwise, Wright said, “it might not have been a death blow, but it would have been impossible for a new winery to recover.”
A few days after the fire, Wright sampled his wines and confirmed that they’d survived the flames unscathed, showing the same promise they had before the fire. “It was a damn good tasting.”
Main photo: Of his career switch from music to winemaking, Oregon’s Scott Wright says, “I really had to do this.” Credit: David Baker
Chicken tikka masala — a fairly delectable concoction of tomatoes, cream, fenugreek and grilled, boneless chicken — has become the poster child of stereotypical Indian food, leading most of us knowledgeable in Indian cuisine extremely hesitant to associate with it.
When done right, it can be a palate-pleasing dish. I mean, who can argue with smoky chicken morsels smothered in a mildly spiced tomato cream sauce? All things considered, it’s a fairly good introduction to the world of Indian cuisine before moving on to bigger and better things.
But this is where the problem lies. The love for chicken tikka masala does not leave much room for taking that next step. On the contrary, it seems to be gathering more fans and converts in its wake. A few cohorts that aid in its cause are the saag paneer (Indian cheese morsels in a creamed spinach sauce) and the leavened, butter-slathered naan bread. They woo the spice-averse with cream and butter and the novelty of a tandoori oven.
Lights … camera … stereotype
A recently released food movie, “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” takes us from the bustling markets of Mumbai to farm markets in rural France and on a journey of reinventing Indian food in chic Paris — all in an hour and a half. However, before moving on to molecular gastronomy, the movie’s central character, Hassan Kadam, wows us with his fare in his family restaurant, Maison Mumbai, with dishes such as saag paneer and butter chicken, essentially enough hackneyed restaurant fare to make any true-blue Indian foodie shudder.
Departing from the author’s original fairly adventurous food renderings, the movie makers introduce the viewer to Hassan’s talents by talking tandoori, showing stunning pictures of saag paneer before moving onto other essentials and brave and bold fusion.
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This creates the same frustration that leads most Indian food professionals to shy away from the chicken tikka masala, as the dish has stymied the broadening of the essential Indian repertoire.
Certainly, we have come a long way. There is a lot of exploration in Indian cuisine. Yet few restaurants leave this staple off their menus. They call it different names and sometimes add nuances to it that might add a layer of sophistication or a somewhat varied touch, but it is there — in some shape or form.
Even sandwich chains have moved on to include tikka sandwiches or wraps in their repertoire as a nod to the cuisine of India.
Is chicken tikka masala even originally from India?
Chicken tikka masala also suffers from heritage issues. It is difficult to bond, I mean, truly bond, with a dish that supposedly was invented in a curry house in London. It is hard to wax poetic about it like it was something conjured up in your grandmother’s kitchen.
If you are a fan of this brightly hued, rich-tasting curry, it is not my intent to offend you. Instead, it is to move you along to the other aspects and dimensions of your Indian restaurant menu. Yes, you can be adventurous, too. Explore, and you might surprise yourself with a new favorite or maybe a few. Imagine the possibilities.
If you like it spicy, a chicken chettinad from Southern India might please with its notes of garlic and black pepper. A simple chicken curry with ginger and tomatoes could tantalize the taste buds, without any unnecessary cream. And, of course, a kerala coconut and curry leaf chicken curry might also satisfy the indulgent palate with gentle citrus notes from the curry leaves.
The objective here is to taste the complete bouquet of flavors that good Indian cooking offers, rather than a muted version that is further masked with too much cream.
I offer you as a peace offering a nuanced cauliflower dish, which is creamy and richly flavored with ground poppy seeds and cashews. No cream here. This recipe for cauliflower rezala is a vegetarian adaptation of the Mughlai style of cooking found in Eastern India. This variant combines traditional Mughlai ingredients, such as yogurt and dried fruits, with core Bengali ingredients, such as the poppy seeds used in this dish. A mutton or chicken rezala is fairly rich. I first lightened the original with chicken in the “Bengali Five Spice Chronicles” and have adapted this for the cauliflower and kept it relatively simple. If you can find pale cheddar cauliflower, it should result in a pretty rendition.
Cauliflower Rezala – Cauliflower in a Cashew, Yogurt and Poppy Seed Sauce
Prep Time: 4 hours (mainly to marinate the cauliflower)
Cook Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 4 hours, 30 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
For the marinade:
3/4 cup Greek yogurt
1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
1 medium-sized cauliflower, cut into medium-sized pieces
For the cashew cream paste:
1/2 cup cashews
1/2 cup poppy seeds soaked in warm water for 2 hours or longer
Water for blending
For the base:
2 tablespoons oil
1 teaspoon caraway seeds (know as shazeera)
1 medium-sized onion, grated on the large holes of a box grater
2 to 3 bay leaves
4 to 6 green cardamoms, bruised
3/4 teaspoon red cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon clarified butter (ghee)
1 tablespoon rosewater (optional)
Slivered almonds and or pistachios
1. Beat the yogurt with the salt and marinate the cauliflower pieces in the mixture for at least 3 hours.
2. Grind the cashews and poppy seeds into a smooth paste and set aside. You need to start with the poppy seeds, without too much water, just enough to create a paste, and then add the cashews with 1/3 cup water.
3. Heat the oil and add the caraway seeds. When they sizzle, add the onion.
4. Cook the onion for at least 7 minutes until it begins to turn pale golden.
5. Add the bay leaves, cardamoms, cayenne pepper and then the cauliflower. Cook on medium heat until well mixed. Cover and cook for 7 minutes.
6. Remove the cover and stir well. Add the poppy seed and cashew paste and mix well.
7. Stir in the clarified butter and cook on low heat for another 3 minutes. Note: The gravy should be thick and soft, and the cauliflower tender but not mushy.
8. Sprinkle with the rosewater, if using, and garnish with slivered almonds or pistachios.
Main photo: The ubiquitous chicken tikka masala can be delicious. But why stop there? Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya
In Belgium, beer is the beverage of choice, while mead, an ancient alcoholic drink, is virtually unknown. But a young Belgian beekeeper, Xavier Rennotte, has given mead a makeover with the recent launch of his own brand, Bee Wine.
With roots in historic recipes and “Beowulf,” the real magic behind Bee Wine’s freshly minted flavor comes from Rennotte’s collaboration with a Belgian scientist. Mead is nothing more than honey, water and yeast, although spices and fruit are sometimes added for flavor. It’s not wine, although it tastes like it.
When I first encountered Rennotte some years ago, he had just met Sonia Collin, an expert in brewing and honey at Louvain University. I asked him then why he had turned to science for help. He explained it was his godfather who had made the suggestion: “Learn from the beginning, the scientific way. The best way to understand something is to go deep inside it,” he had told Rennotte.
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But why mead? It turned out Rennotte was obsessed with recreating the flavor of his first boyhood taste of mead, known as hydromel (“honey water”) in French. In other words, he was using science to track down a fleeting, Proustian taste from his childhood in the Belgian countryside.
Rennotte’s story lies at the heart of a book I wrote to explore our mostly pleasurable relationship with flavor, and the science behind it. I caught up with him recently at a food festival in the Parc Royal in Brussels. A crowd was gathered in front of his Nectar & Co stand to sample his Bee Wine.
Many people were mystified — was it wine or not? He happily explained its origins, as he offered tastings. Most people were delighted with the flavor. “It makes a great aperitif, or can be used as an ingredient in a cocktail,” Rennotte said. He’s also a trained chef, and loves using it as a marinade for lamb or fish, or as a dessert ingredient. “It’s great in sabayon,” he noted.
People were also sampling about a dozen types of organic honey with different flavors, aromas, textures and colors that Rennotte imports from around Europe for his Bee Honey collection. They include lemon blossom, wild carrot, eucalyptus and coriander. My favorite is the sunflower honey — thick as molasses, butter yellow and delicious on Le Pain Quotidien sourdough bread. One of his best-sellers is a spreadable paste made of just honey and pureed hazelnut. It tastes like Nutella, but with no added sugar or oil.
Rennotte isn’t the only novice alcoholic beverage entrepreneur who has turned to science for help and inspiration. One of the recipes in my book is for sabayon made with Musa Lova, a banana liqueur produced by a Flemish restaurateur. The liqueur is made in collaboration with the director of the largest in vitro banana species collection in the world, at the Laboratory of Tropical Crop Improvement at Leuven University. Musa Lova, a rum-based liqueur that comes in varieties such coffee or local honey, is made with ordinary Cavendish bananas, without added flavoring. Bananas contain a huge number of flavor molecules, which vary slightly depending on the ripeness.
Science not only helps alcoholic beverage makers, the producers influence science too. During my research in Copenhagen, for example, I discovered that the pH scale, used in medicine, agriculture and food science, was developed at the Carlsberg brewing company’s laboratory in 1909.
Rennotte’s hydromel is made from organic orange blossom honey from the Mount Etna area of Sicily, organic German yeast and spring water. His meadery, south of Brussels, is a former slaughterhouse that he refurbished with solar panels and a system to reuse the water that cools the fermentation tanks.
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The first time I tasted Rennotte’s mead was at his wife’s bakery-patisserie Au Vatel in the European Quarter, where we met often to talk about his search for the perfect mead. The early sample I tasted, which he had poured straight from a plastic lab bottle into a wine glass, was clear, young but tasty. The honey-tinted final product I drank at the food festival was light and sweet with a complex flavor that, one customer noted, develops and changes slightly with every sip.
“I couldn’t have done it without science,” Rennotte said. “I learned how the yeast functions, the importance of the pH of the honey and the temperature of the water — I learned it all from Sonia.”
Rennotte is incredibly proud and happy with his hydromel. But did he manage to capture the flavor he remembered from childhood? “I’m still searching,” he said. “Perhaps I’ll be looking for it for the rest of my life.”
Crumble of Christmas Boudin Sausage With Mead Sauce
Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes (plus chilling)
Yield: Serves 4
For the boudin mixture:
1/3 pound white boudin with pecans
1/4 pound black boudin with raisins
A “knob” of butter (roughly 2 tablespoons)
For the apple compote:
2 cooking apples
1/4 cup water
2 tablespoons sugar
For the mead sauce:
2 cups veal stock
1 1/4 cups mead
Salt and pepper to taste
For the topping:
2 ounces Speculoos (classic Belgian spice cookies)
1. Prepare the compote the day before or in the morning, so that it can be well chilled before serving. Peel and cut the apples into chunks. Cook the apples in the water on high heat. After 5 minutes, mash the apples, drain off any excess water and add the sugar. Chill.
2. Before serving, remove the skin of the sausages and place the meat in a mixing bowl. Mash the sausage meat with a fork. Cook the sausage meat in the butter in a nonstick pan on high heat. Remove when the meat is browned and keep warm.
3. To create the mead sauce, combine the veal stock and the mead in a saucepan, simmer and reduce. Salt and pepper to taste.
4. Prepare the Speculoos cookies by breaking them into small pieces.
5. When serving use 4 balloon-type wine glasses to layer the ingredients in the following order:
- 2 tablespoons warm sausage meat
- 1 tablespoon mead sauce
- 2 tablespoons cold compote
- 1 tablespoon crumbled Speculoos cookies
This is one of Xavier Rennotte’s favorite mead recipes, a starter or amuse-bouche based on boudin (blood sausage) from the southern, Francophone region of Belgium. During Christmastime in Wallonia, butcher shops’ windows are overflowing with boudin made with a variety of ingredients, such as raisins, apples, walnuts, leeks, pumpkin, truffles and Port. Each butcher competes to offer his or her clients a selection of sweet and savory boudin sausage.
Main photo: Belgian beekeeper Xavier Rennotte has given mead a makeover with the launch of his Bee Wine. Credit: Xavier Rennotte
I haven’t watched the Food Network since kitchen turned coliseum. The old shows served up a relaxing, aspirational escape, but once they got all “Cutthroat,” I cut the cord. Instead of relaxing and aspiring, I was stressing and perspiring. Sheesh. If I wanted that kind of anxiety, I’d cook dinner myself.
With guys full of tats and swagger and show themes such as “Superstar Sabotage,” the Food Network has perfected its junk-food formula to a tee. Must-see-testosterone-TV.
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According to The Atlantic, the five most-watched prime-time shows on Food Network this year are competitions: “Food Network Star,” “Worst Cooks in America,” “Chopped Tournament,” “Cutthroat Kitchen” and “Guy’s Grocery Games.” According to Nielsen, the 20 most-viewed prime-time shows on the Food Network pulled in a median of roughly 1.1 million viewers per episode in 2014, compared to 255,000 viewers per episode in 2000.
Sure, the Food Network has its salt-sugar-fat formula down, but what if it could provide content that both entertained and nourished — edgy and educational — while keeping the ratings intact? Who says suspense, conflict, humiliation and ring-molded entrées with Jackson Pollock-inspired plating can’t have a higher calling? So before the Food Network goes from offal to worse, I propose it start feeding viewers something more nutritious.
Here are three ideas for more filling, yet thrilling Food Network shows:
No. 1: Food Activist Star
Former congressman Dennis Kucinich mentors six “food fighters.” They each have a cause they fight for, whether it’s stopping a retail grocery chain from carrying meat with antibiotics; getting a processed-food company to stop using GMO ingredients; getting a fast-food company to stop sourcing pork from pigs raised in gestation crates; or getting a school district to stop selling soda in vending machines.
Each week the food fighters have an assignment, from crafting a strategy and creating a campaign to getting media attention and planning a rally. At the end of each show, one food fighter is eliminated. The three judges are Woody Harrelson, Michael Pollan and activist blogger Vani Hari, aka Food Babe. There will be additional commentary by experts in the field.
The final two fighters meet with corporate execs from two companies that represent the opposition. The winner is judged on both the effectiveness of the meeting and the campaign as a whole. The prize is the winner’s choice of seed money to start a nonprofit or a year’s salary to work for an existing nonprofit.
The feisty Kucinich gives planetary do-gooders a tough-love education in food politics. Think Donald Trump with a bigger brain and smaller comb. And live-wire Harrelson as a judge? Enough said.
Viewers will be inspired to work toward a food system that is healthier for people and the planet, while learning how politics influences our food supply.
No. 2: Dumpster Divers
Jeremy Seifert, filmmaker and star of the film “Dive!,” hosts two teams of “divers” who hunt for food in dumpsters behind grocery stores. We witness vast amounts of wasted food as they forage through garbage and collect their unspoiled spoils.
Each week, two teams (two divers per team) collect edible food from grocery store dumpsters in shopping carts (a la “Guy’s Grocery Games”). The second half of the show takes place in a studio kitchen equipped with showers, where the teams emerge squeaky clean and reveal their bounty. They are allowed certain swaps so that it’s even among both teams, and we watch them prepare a meal in a set time. Upon dramatic, heart-thumping music, the “taster” emerges to test each dish to ensure the food is not spoiled before three celebrity chef judges try the dishes. Each week one team is eliminated. There will also be commentary by food waste experts and a lawyer.
The winners from previous shows return and are assigned to two final teams. They must dive at two locations — a grocery store and a bakery — and the meal must include dessert.
Stealthily dressed characters in protective gear and flashlights enter gross-out zones so vivid, we can smell it. And celebrity chefs eating trash? Bon appétit!
The audience will learn eye-opening statistics about food waste in this country that will awaken and empower them to reduce waste.
No. 3 Kale Wars
Four chefs park their kale carts next to anonymous fast-food chains in urban food deserts. Each chef hands out samples of a kale dish he/she has made to introduce the fast-food eaters to a healthy alternative with the goal of starting a movement that demands more grocery stores and fresh produce be brought to the area.
Each week takes place in a different food-desert city, from New Orleans to Memphis to Detroit to Chicago. The chefs must get passersby to taste their dishes and to join the “kale revolution.” The recruits sign a petition and agree to write letters, make phone calls to local government officials, go to city council meetings, etc. With chefs strategically staked out in different regions throughout the series, the revolution will spread as cities compete against each other. Each week, the four kale revolution chefs are judged by two chefs and one politician on their kale dishes, as well as the number and quality of recruits they sign up. The winner of each show donates money to a local food bank.
The winning chefs from previous shows and cities all compete for the grand-prize money that the winner will donate to a nonprofit related to food deserts.
Kale pushers getting in-your-face with burger-hungry folks? Hot dog!
The audience will learn about the millions of people in America who live without access to healthy food options, resulting in high levels of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
And there you have it.
Food Network execs: Have your people call my people. I’m giving you first dibs before I shop these gems around.
Main photo: Take your hands off the remote — food television of the future could look like this. Credit: Adair Seldon
One of the reasons I enjoy writing books is that with each one I discover new facts, research and ideas. My latest book “Bitter” opened my eyes to the complexity of taste.
It began when my friends in the food world sent me suggestions as to what to include in my book. Coffee, chicories and beer were already on my list. But sorrel and rhubarb — weren’t they sour? Why did these food experts taste them differently than I?
We all think of basic tastes, such as bitter, sweet, salty, sour, and savory (also called umami). I knew fat belonged on that list and it has recently been added. But did you ever wonder why there were only six basic tastes? Surely taste is much more nuanced than that.
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By Jennifer McLagan
In the ancient world, scholars believed there were up to eight tastes and, by the 18th century, 11 basic tastes were proposed. So exactly how do we determine taste? Like most people, I thought the information from our taste buds on our tongue combined with our sense of smell to make a flavor. We’ve all experienced the lack of flavor in our food when we have a head cold. We do taste this way, but it is only part of the story.
Taste buds are not confined to our tongues. They are located all through our body, in our throat — down a shot of extra virgin olive oil and you’ll find those, in our lungs, stomach, intestines and, for some of us, in our testicles. So taste is not simply reliant on our tongue and nose; all our senses play a role.
Consider touch. Our fingers, lips, teeth, mouth; they all connect to the brain via the trigeminal nerve. It is responsible for the ice cream headache. Called the somatosensory system, these sensors help us taste by detecting temperature, texture, fattiness, pungency and tannins. The brain uses this information to create flavor. Interestingly many chefs have above average trigeminal nerve responses.
What we hear also affects how we taste. While extraneous sound distracts us and reduces the taste of our food, the noise inside our head increases it and the pleasure of eating. Crunchy, crisp foods are appealing because of the noise they make. Would you like a potato chip if it didn’t make a crunching sound? When we eat and drink, the tone of the background music and the instrument playing it can distort our sense of taste. A Campari and soda drunk while a brass band plays low-pitched music will be more bitter than if consumed while bright, high-pitched piece of music is played on a piano.
The most surprising fact I uncovered was the power of sight. It is often said we eat with our eyes, but I’d never comprehended the dominant role sight plays in what we taste. It is so forceful that it can distort and even override the information we receive from our other senses. As more than half of our brain is devoted to processing visual information, it must take shortcuts to handle all this data quickly.
With food our brain uses color to create flavor expectations, and the color of a food can confuse us and mask its real taste. British chef Heston Blumenthal’s two-toned orange and beetroot jelly demonstrates this power of color to determine taste. Not until diners close their eyes do they realize that the orange jelly they are eating is made with orange beets and the dark red jelly is flavored with blood oranges. Eating with our eyes takes on a whole new meaning when we realize we cannot trust them.
Along with the sensory clues our brain employs to generate flavor, a number of other things influence its decisions. Our genes make some of us more sensitive to certain tastes. What our mother ate when she was pregnant shapes our likes and dislikes, our upbringing and our peers decide what we eat and don’t eat. Anything we have heard, or read about the food will prejudice us too. Even the shape of our plate, what it’s made from, and the cutlery we use — all subtly affect how we taste. We all have the same anatomy yet every time we eat, numerous forces come into play, placing each of us in our own individual taste world.
Taste, I discovered is not simply our tongue and sense of smell. Flavor is produced by our brain, which is swayed by a myriad of cultural, environmental, experiential and genetic factors that can be as important as our senses in discerning flavor. Many of them we are barely aware of and are only beginning to understand and study. Next time you eat, pay close attention and think very carefully about what is influencing the flavor of the food on your plate.
Radicchio and Pumpkin Risotto
Prep time: 10 minute
Cooking time: 35 minutes
Yield: 2 servings
2 1⁄2 cups (625 milliliters) of chicken stock, preferably homemade
¼ cup (2 ounces) (60 grams) unsalted butter
1 shallot, finely chopped
6 ounces (170 grams) pumpkin, cut into 1⁄2-inch (1 centimeter) dice, about 1¼ cups
5 1/4 ounces (150 grams) radicchio leaves, rinsed and trimmed
1/2 cup (3 1/2 ounces) (100 grams) risotto rice (Vialone nano, Arborio, or Carnaroli)
2 tablespoons white wine or dry vermouth
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Pour the stock into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower the heat so the stock barely simmers.
2. In another saucepan, melt half the butter over medium heat. Add the shallot and cook until translucent. Add the diced pumpkin and stir to coat the pieces with the butter. Season with salt, and cook until the pumpkin starts to soften slightly at the edges, about 5 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, cut the radicchio leaves in half lengthwise, then crosswise into ¼-inch (6-mm) strips. You should have about 4 cups.
4. Add the rice to the pan, stirring to warm the grains and coat them in butter. Stir in the radicchio and continue stirring until it wilts and changes color. Pour in the wine and cook, stirring until it evaporates; season with black pepper. Now add a ladleful of hot stock and keep stirring the simmering rice constantly until the liquid is almost completely absorbed. Continue adding the stock, one ladleful at a time, when the previous liquid is almost completely absorbed.
5. After 20 to 25 minutes, the pumpkin should be cooked and the rice should be creamy and cooked but still slightly al dente. Remove the saucepan from the heat and let sit for 2 minutes. Check the seasoning, stir in the remaining half of the butter, and serve in warm bowls. Grate Parmesan over the top.
I love the winey hue that radicchio gives the rice in this dish, and the way its bitterness balances the pumpkin’s sweetness. Now I know that using the word pumpkin reveals my birthplace, but I just can’t get my head around “squash.” However, so I don’t confuse you, use a firm, dry pumpkin (or squash) such as Hubbard or kabocha, which has a mild chestnut flavor.
I prefer to make risotto in small batches. This will stretch to serve four as a starter, depending on the rest of your meal; you can also double the recipe. Do use homemade stock, as it will make all the difference to the final result. You could also use a well-flavored vegetable stock to make this dish vegetarian. You’ll probably only need 2 cups (500 ml) of
the stock, but it will depend on your rice, so it is better to have a little extra just in case.
Rony’s Brussels Sprouts and Chickpeas
Prep time: 1 hour advance prep (unless using canned chickpeas, then 10 minutes)
Cooking time: 20 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
1 cup (6 1/4 ounces) (180 g) dried chickpeas, soaked overnight in water to cover
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
1 shallot, finely chopped
3/4 cup (175 milliliters) chicken stock, preferably homemade
17 1/2 ounces (500 grams) Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved
2 tablespoons dry sherry
1. Drain the chickpeas and place in a saucepan. Cover them with cold water by 2 inches (5 cm) and bring to a boil. Lower the heat, cover, and simmer until cooked. This can take from 30 minutes to over an hour depending on the age of the peas, so you need to keep an eye on them. Check them at 30 minutes. When they are cooked, remove from the heat, uncover, stir in 1 teaspoon of salt, and leave to cool for 30 minutes. Drain the cooked peas and spread them out on a baking sheet lined with a towel to dry.
2. Pour 2 tablespoons of the olive oil into a large heavy frying pan with a lid, and place over medium heat. When hot, add the shallot and cook until soft. Add the chickpeas, season with salt and pepper, and sauté until lightly browned. Add ¼ cup (60 milliliters) of the chicken stock and bring to a boil, stirring to deglaze the pan by scraping up any browned bits from the bottom. Tip the contents of the pan into a bowl.
3. Wipe out the pan and then add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil. Place over high heat, and when hot add the brussels sprouts. Try and get as many of the sprouts cut side down as you can; this will depend on the size of your pan. Cook the sprouts until dark brown on one side, then add the remaining chicken stock, season with salt and pepper, lower the heat, cover, and cook until the brussels sprouts are tender but still crisp.
4. Add the chickpeas, shallots, and any liquid and cook until warmed through. Check the seasoning and pour in the sherry. Serve hot or at room temperature.
My friend Rony loves food and is a good cook. When I visited him in New York he made brussels sprouts for dinner. It was before my conversion and I was not that keen to try them, but being well brought up I did. They were delicious. Caramelizing the sprouts in the oil eases their bitterness, as does the addition of the starchy chickpeas. There are two keys to this recipe: Cook your own chickpeas — they are superior to the canned ones — and cook the brussels sprouts in a very hot pan — as Rony said, “They should dance around in the pan.”
Main photo: In this risotto, the radicchio’s bitterness balances the sweetness of the pumpkin (or squash if you’re not from Australia). Credit: Aya Brackett