Articles in People

Part of the weekly share from the CSA. Credit: Sofia Perez

When I decided to join a community-supported agriculture (CSA) group last year, I had many reasons — first among them, my weekly share of gorgeous local produce from Free Bird Farm. But I also felt it was important to do what I could to help support an organic family farm and preserve agricultural land in upstate New York. As an environmentalist and food writer, I wanted to put my money where my mouth and pen were.

What surprised me, though, was how much more I gained in return. Beyond the wonderful produce and eggs and an even greater respect for seasonality, farmers and Mother Nature — something that, as the descendant of farmers, I already possessed — my CSA taught me many lessons, mundane and profound. Here are three.

The freezer is your friend

When I unpack my weekly CSA haul, I immediately start picturing all the fabulous dishes I can make from the colorful jewels before me. Nevermind that the recipes I’m imagining usually require an army of kitchen assistants and a willful ignorance of the space-time continuum. I am not easily deterred, and I embark upon my fool’s errand with inordinate enthusiasm, until suddenly it is 10 p.m. and I do not know where my sous chefs are. (Oh, that’s right. I don’t have any.) How then to use up all these wonderful ingredients fast enough to beat the ticking spoilage clock?

When my CSA gave me kale last summer, I put it in the crisper drawer, where it promptly got buried under a deluge of greens. Upon rediscovering it several days later, it looked the way I feel after a long flight, wilted and dehydrated. Then the penny dropped. Hey, that really cold part of my refrigerator exists for a reason. Faced with other, more perishable leftovers in the queue for my next meal, and reservations to eat out the following day, I decided to trim and wash the kale leaves and store them in a freezer bag, where they were retrieved for smoothies the following week.

When the CSA gave me shelling peas, I removed them from their pods, froze them on a baking sheet and transferred them to a bag. Strawberries? Same thing. Parsley, basil and other herbs? I cleaned, chopped and blended them with olive oil, and poured the combination into ice-cube trays. (Warning: Don’t reach for the wrong cubes when you are mixing a gin and tonic.)

Not everything freezes well, but by storing those items that do, you’ll be liberated to focus on the “eat me now” diva ingredients instead. (I’m looking at you, tomatoes.)

How my CSA taught me to stop worrying and love kohlrabi

OK, maybe “love” is too strong a word. Of my relationship with this alien-looking vegetable, I’d have to say, “It’s complicated.” But when I joined the CSA, I promised myself I would tackle each ingredient at least twice. With kohlrabi, this meant roasting it the first time and slicing it into a type of coleslaw the next. I put forth the same effort for every item that I would not normally gravitate toward, such as radishes, turnips and broccoli.

Kohlrabi from the CSA. Credit: Sofia Perez

Kohlrabi from the CSA. Credit: Sofia Perez

Over the course of the season, I found myself thumbing through long-forgotten cookbooks or going online in search of inspiration. Not every dish that emerged from this exploration was a winner, and I still sometimes trade in the kohlrabi for a different vegetable in the swap box, but as in other facets of life, it’s been edifying to push myself out of my comfort zone. Being part of a CSA forced me out of certain kitchen ruts and helped me to discover delicious recipes — like roasted radishes — that I probably wouldn’t have tried otherwise.

When in doubt, tortilla

It’s great to experiment, but some nights all you want is dinner. When a pile of miscellaneous produce leaves me unmotivated, my go-to dish is Spanish tortilla. Though the classic version of this frittata-like omelet calls for potato, onion and eggs, you can build one around almost any vegetable-and-herb combination.

First, sauté your produce in olive oil to your preferred level of doneness. Beat the eggs in a large bowl, and add the sautéed vegetables, making sure to stir immediately so the heat doesn’t cook the eggs. Season with salt and pepper, toss in any herbs you’re using and pour the mixture into a non-stick or well-seasoned skillet. If you want to include cheese — which is not traditional, but tasty nonetheless — add it now.

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Sautéing scallions, red onions and radish greens for a Spanish tortilla. Credit: Sofia Perez

The number of eggs you use will depend on the produce. For greens that release a lot of water (like spinach), add an extra egg to bind the combination. (In general, the mixture should be more liquid than solid, and it’s always safer to err on the side of additional eggs.)

When the top of the tortilla is firm around the edges and you’re able to lift it cleanly with a spatula, place a plate larger than the skillet face down over it. With a potholder on top of the inverted plate, flip the skillet so the tortilla transfers to the plate. (This maneuver will be terrifying the first few times you do it. Trust me, it gets easier. Until you master it, flip it over an easy-to-clean counter in case anything leaks out.) Slide the flipped tortilla back into the pan, cook it on the other side, and– ¡olé! — dinner is served.

But just before you tuck into your meal, there’s one last step: Remember to give thanks for the local farmers who made it possible — in my case, Ken Fruehstorfer and Maryellen Driscoll.

Main photo: Part of the weekly share from the CSA. Credit: Sofia Perez

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A garden at Monticello. Credit: ©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, photograph by Robert Llewellyn

Across the lane from Napa Valley’s French Laundry restaurant lies a 3-acre farm that produces many of the fresh vegetables that have helped give the three-star restaurant its reputation as one of the best in the world.

Presiding over the rows of tomatoes, beets, melons, cucumbers and microgreens is culinary gardener Aaron Keefer. “We’re right across the street from the restaurant,” Keefer says, “and there’s this beautiful space that people are allowed to walk around. You can come up to the garden and see the stuff you’re actually eating. It’s funny how detached people are from what food actually is. People say, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen a potato grow before.’ ”

Keefer will preside over a different garden for a day when he gives the keynote address at the eighth annual Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello in Charlottesville, Va. Keefer has become a fan of the president who has been called “The Founding Foodie,” and whose revitalized Revolutionary Garden at Monticello continues Thomas Jefferson’s legacy of raising heirloom fruits and vegetables. Keefer says his garden at The French Laundry mirrors Jefferson’s 2-acre garden at Monticello in many ways.

Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello


Part 1: Aaron Keefer and Thomas Jefferson

Part 2:  Gardeners and chefs converge at Monticello (coming later in September)

Keefer is always experimenting with new vegetable varieties in the garden and believes that vegetables — and the farmers who raise them — have become an exciting new resource for chefs. He explains, “I think that it’s coming around now and vegetables are really becoming the star of the flavor profiles on a plate. Every single starred restaurant out there — and really even other people — are using their relationships with farmers to get new inspiration and to create these new dishes for themselves.”

At home in the kitchen and the garden

Keefer is not only a resource for chefs, but also a liaison between the garden and the kitchen at The French Laundry. As a former chef, Keefer is uniquely qualified for his job as culinary gardener. As Keefer puts it, “I think it definitely helped me to be in the kitchen, even though it’s a completely different animal, but I think the thing to take home from having both careers is the communication. I know what’s going on on both sides of the equation, and I’m able to meld them together a little better.”

Aaron Keefer, culinary gardener at The French Laundry. Credit: Courtesy of TKRG

Aaron Keefer, culinary gardener at The French Laundry. Credit: Courtesy of TKRG

Eleanor Gould, Monticello’s curator of gardens, believes that The French Laundry “captures Jefferson’s spirit of innovation and experimentation.” The focus for both gardens is curiosity and passion.

Jefferson felt strongly about gardening. He grew 330 herb and vegetable varieties in his 1,000-foot-long garden terrace at Monticello and raised 170 varieties of fruit on his property. He encouraged others to garden with similar passion by hosting an annual contest with his neighbors to see who could harvest the first peas each spring. To further fuel his neighbors’ passion for gardening, he made sure one of them won the contest — even if his peas were the early champions of the season.

Keefer also shares Jefferson’s passion for the soil itself. In 1792 while serving as secretary of state in Philadelphia, Jefferson wrote a letter to his daughter Martha who was caring for Monticello’s garden in his absence. Jefferson told Martha that the only way to rid his garden of insect-infested plants was to cover it with a heavy coating of manure. When I mentioned Jefferson’s obsession with soil to Keefer, he echoed Jefferson’s sentiments, saying, “That’s what it’s all about. It’s all about the soil. You can give your plants chemical-based fertilizers and they will grow. Just like if you give your muscles steroids, they will grow. But it’s not the same.”

Peas sprouting in Jefferson's garden in springtime. Credit: Susan Lutz

Peas sprouting in Jefferson’s garden in springtime. Credit: Susan Lutz

Keefer believes that the flavor in vegetables comes from the cycle of life in the soil. “When you take a handful or two of really truly rich organic soil, there will be millions of microorganisms and fungi in there. And those are the things that create the nutrition for the plant. They need the life in the soil to break it down for them so they can uptake it and somehow that creates a completely different flavor profile.”

The lesson of Jefferson

Jefferson didn’t have access to chemical-based nutrients — and chances are he wouldn’t have wanted them. Gabriele Rausse, director of gardens and grounds at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, contends that what made Jefferson a truly revolutionary gardener was his belief that everyone should eat a diversified diet — a rare occurrence in 19th-century America. Now, America has begun to catch up with the founding farmer. Rausse says, “Today I look at the market and I think of what Jefferson had. I compare it to when I came to America 40 years ago, and I think finally they are listening to Jefferson. There are artichokes and chicory at the market now. People are starting to figure it out, but it took 200 years.”

Keefer’s revolutionary approach to gardening mixes the great traditions of heirloom farming techniques with the innovations of West Coast cuisine. Jefferson would have approved.

Main photo: A garden at Monticello. Credit: ©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, photograph by Robert Llewellyn

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Daniel Patterson, left, and Roy Choi during their LOCO'L presentation. Credit: Carla Capalbo

“What is cooking?” This was the central question being asked — and answered — at the latest edition of one of the world’s most stimulating food events, the MAD Food Symposium. Now in its fourth edition, the two-day event is held in a circus tent pitched on the outer reaches of Copenhagen’s harbor and attracts the brightest stars of modern cuisine, young and old. MAD draws speakers in all aspects of food culture: chefs who have made lasting contributions to the art, scientists and historians with specialized knowledge, and activists trying to change the way food is produced, sold or eaten.

Organized by René Redzepi, the Danish chef at the helm of Noma – No. 1 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list — MAD was this year co-curated by Alex Atala, the highest ranking chef in South America. The event aims to broaden the gastronomic horizons of young chefs from around the world. The 400-strong audience also included local farmers, scientists, thinkers and a smattering of journalists.

“Our business has changed in the last 30 years,” Atala said as he introduced the symposium. “Restaurants are no longer the model of excess they were back then. MAD4 examines different aspects of what’s happening, away from the glamour of the limelight. What’s working? Food is about expressing ourselves, about reflection, and above all, food is about getting together. Food is life.”

If last year’s theme, “Guts,” provoked strong, sometimes visceral reactions from its list of speakers, this year’s mood inspired reflection. It began in silence. The audience watched transfixed as Japanese udon master Tatsuru Rai set about creating his iconic noodles: mixing, kneading and rolling the dough before folding, slicing, cooking and serving a few symbolic portions of the dish. The seemingly simple act of combining flour and water, choreographed over time, took on ritual significance.

Udon chef Tatsuru Rai rolls out his noodles. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Udon chef Tatsuru Rai rolls out his noodles. Credit: Carla Capalbo

 

“We didn’t want to repeat the high drama of last year’s theme, but instead to shout silently about the importance of craft, gesture, economy and offering in cooking,” Redzepi said. “We also want to tackle problems that take away from the pleasures of the table.”

MAD about wasted food

One of the most inspiring of the activists was Isabel Soares, a 30-something environmental engineer from Portugal. Incensed that half of the food produced in the world is thrown away, Soares has found an innovative way to fight that waste. In 2013, she founded Fruta Feia, meaning “Ugly Fruit,” a nonprofit, farm-to-table cooperative. “Each year 1.3 billion tons of food are discarded, an ethical problem with a huge environmental impact on climate change,” she began. “In Europe, 30% of fresh produce is left to rot in the fields just because the fruit or vegetables’ size does not conform to the European Union’s ‘aesthetic’ regulations.” Thirty farmers sell produce that the supermarkets would reject because of size or blemishes to 420 consumers, at a fair price. The cooperative’s role is to collect the food from the farms, sort it into mixed boxes twice weekly and offer a collection point. In its first year, Fruta Feia reports it saved 41 tons of food in Portugal from being wasted. Soares says she plans to expand to other cities.

Urban guerrilla gardens

Ron Finley, a self-styled “eco-lutionary game changer provocateur” from Los Angeles, launched right into his presentation. “Gardening is the most defiant thing you can do in South Central — plus you get strawberries,” he proclaimed. “Change your food, change your life.” His reaction to living in a food desert was to plant his own garden, on the abandoned sidewalk strips around his home. Initially, the city of L.A. wagged a citation at him and demanded he remove the unpermitted plants, but since then Finley’s story has helped compel the city to change its parkway ordinance. After a TED talk that went viral, Finley is creating urban garden projects in L.A.

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Evolution as seen by Ron Finley. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Brazil’s jails turn to the kitchen

Atala introduced several healing food projects from Brazil. Working with Atala on one were Jayme Santos Junior, a criminal court judge in Sao Paulo, and chef David Hertz, who runs a cooking project in some of Brazil’s most notorious jails. “Cooking can be an effective tool to change the dynamics of the prison system and facilitate social reintegration,” the judge said. “By becoming members of a group in the kitchen, prisoners feel less isolated and learn life-affirming skills.” Hertz started the nonprofit Gastromotiva to help young people who are vulnerable or on the margins of society. Another of Atala’s projects through his foundation, Instituto ATÀ, involves distributing portable water filters for use in the Amazon and other rural areas where clean drinking water is not available.

LOCO’L takes on fast-food industry

Chef Daniel Patterson of San Francisco’s Coi, and Los Angeles chef and activist Roy Choi used MAD4 to officially announce their ambitious new food venture, LOCO’L, which will start in 2015. “We’re going to go toe to toe with the fast food industry in the U.S., to challenge the status quo,” said Choi, who cooked an impressive “food truck” lunch at MAD for the audience. Patterson explained: “We have an eating problem in the States. It’s taken one generation to lose healthy eating habits, and it will take one generation to fix that.”

All 24 talks will be available to watch on MAD’s site in the coming months, including those by veteran master chefs Alain Senderens (on wine and food pairing); Olivier Roellinger (on biodiversity and giving back his 3 Michelin stars); Fulvio Pierangelini (on humble ingredients and the travails of being a chef); and Pierre Koffmann (on how to make an omelet). The conference closed with chef Albert Adrià — formerly of elBulli — who owns four restaurants in Barcelona. His disarming admission that it is fear, as much as talent, that drives his creativity was an inspiration to everyone present.

Main photo: Daniel Patterson, left, and Roy Choi during their LOCO’L presentation. Credit: Carla Capalbo

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Paula Marcoux's sweet crispy borek, or campfire baklava. Credit: Ellie Markovitch

“Flatbreads really grabbed me because they’re ancient in nature,” Paula Marcoux said at a class in early August. “Stone or clay or metal griddles grew up with domesticated grains. As nomadic people spread those grains they brought the griddle with them.”

In Saratoga, N.Y., the kitchen at the Healthy Living Market is very modern, which was fitting for the class introducing a group of contemporary cooks to how these ancient technologies and old foods have traveled through time and the world.

“I studied archaeology, and one of the things I love the most about the Middle East was eating the food. You can learn from documents, and you can learn from archaeology but you can learn by cooking too. And it’s not going to be the same unless you cook with fire,” Marcoux said, identifying the path to her passion.

ZESTER BOOK LINKS


Cover-Cooking with Fire by Paula Marcoux. Credit: Courtesy Storey Publishing

"Cooking With Fire"

By Paula Marcoux

Storey Publishing, 320 pages, 2014

» Click here to buy the book

That passion is outlined in her new book, “Cooking With Fire: From Roasting on a Spit to Baking in a Tannur, Rediscovered Techniques and Recipes That Capture the Flavors of Wood-Fired Cooking” (Storey Publishing). A food historian, Marcoux is the food editor of Edible South Shore magazine, and has worked as an archaeologist, cook and bread oven builder. The book, her first, covers a lot of ground with food and fire, from the most rudimentary fire and stick methods through managing the nuances of retained heat in an oven — brick or otherwise.

I can’t get my head out of the middle chapter, which covers griddles and flatbreads, a food ghetto I see no reason to leave.

“The fact is that baking technologies develop to suit the grains available,” Marcoux wrote. “With its smooth horizontal surface allowing even and controlled baking, the griddle has been used by cooks the world over to convert gluten-free grains and even tubers into tremendous breads.”

I love this. People talk about flatbreads and batter breads being as old as, and older than, our life with grains. But her explanation seems more perfect than others I’ve heard, perhaps because it comes with recipes. At Marcoux’s class, she traced how the stretched doughs of Anatolia had moved around the world in a cross-cultural arc of flaky, griddle-baked wheat goods that included scallion pancakes, and boreks savory and sweet.

“The modern borek derives from the ancient Semitic root word b-r-k,” Marcoux said. “From this came borek, pierogi and Tunisian brik. The Middle Eastern word is a blazing clue to these flatbreads, where a fine stretched dough delivers filling. I think it’s amazing how one idea can travel 10,000 years. That’s longevity.”

Marcoux has shoulder length dark hair and a ready smile. Being with her is like having searchable access to an encyclopedia of our human history with cooking and food.

Griddles have been used by cooks everywhere to convert gluten-free grains into tremendous breads. Credit: Ellie Markovitch

Griddles have been used by cooks everywhere to convert gluten-free grains into tremendous breads. Credit: Ellie Markovitch

For a flour and griddle fiend like me, she has been a joy to find. Her name crept into my life at the Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Massachusetts where she used to work, and where I went to visit erstwhile Pilgrims handling grains. This was in the spring, and people at Plimoth were excited about Marcoux’s work documenting early ovens in New England, and about her book, which was released in May. Now that I’ve met her, and have her book in my kitchen, I understand the enthusiasm.

“For the scallion pancakes, I’m just rolling out a simple circle of dough,” she explained at the market. She poured a little sesame oil on the disk, and spread it thickly with chopped scallions. “Roll it up like a long cigar. Coil it up like a snail, and let it rest a while.”

After that while had passed, maybe 10 minutes, she rolled the snail into a pancake, and fried it in a little canola oil on a tava, a concave pan generally used for dosas.

Gas not like using live fire

“I feel funny cooking this indoors,” she said, adjusting the heat so the pancake wouldn’t burn. “As lovely as this kitchen is, cooking on a gas stove just isn’t the same as using live fire. Instead of struggling with these controls, you’d just be pulling a twig out, or pushing a twig into the fire.”

As the pancakes cooked, she made Middle Eastern pastries, and invited us to come up to the counter and learn.

“This technology is older than tossing pizza,” she said, moving a piece of dough from hand to hand. She urged people to look for videos of Armenian women tossing dough to learn the method.

The volunteers rolled their dough flat, then stretched it using a sway and throw motion between fingers and hands. Once it was thin enough, they put it on a cutting board again, where they buttered, then filled it.

“Puff pastry works because the fat and gluten layers have to work together,” she said, noting that the doughs we used were only wheat and water. “It doesn’t take huge expertise to make this because of the amazing geometry of dough. This quality of wheat is what made us love it, and we’ve been loving it for a really long time.”

Chive Pancakes

Yield: 4-6 servings

Ingredients

    For the sauce:
  • 1 tablespoon light soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce (or another of light soy sauce)
  • 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon sambal oelek or other Asian hot chile paste
  • ¼ cup chicken broth (or water, plus another dash or two of soy)
  • For the pancakes:
  • 1¾ cups (8 ounces) all-purpose flour
  • 1¾ cups (6 ounces) unbleached cake flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons peanut, canola or corn oil, plus more for frying pancakes
  • 1¼ cups boiling water
  • Asian (toasted) sesame oil for brushing
  • 1½ cups chives or scallions, finely chopped

Directions

  1. Make sauce first to let flavors marry. Mix all ingredients and let rest while you make the dough.
  2. With a food processor or by hand, mix together flours and salt. Stir in 2 tablespoons oil, then, gradually, the boiling water. (You may need a few more drops of water, but wait and see.) Once it comes together in a ball, knead by hand for a few minutes, then let rest airtight for 30 minutes.
  3. Roll the dough into a cylinder, and cut into 12 even-sized pieces. Roll each into a smooth ball. Cover with a moist towel or plastic wrap so they don’t dry out.
  4. Roll one ball out thinly, brush with sesame oil, sprinkle liberally with chives, and roll up snugly in a cylinder. Coil the tube of filled dough in a spiral, keeping the seam to the inside. Press together a bit, and set aside, covered, while you fashion the rest.
  5. Gently roll each pancake flat. They should be 4 or 5 inches in diameter and about ¼-inch thick. (Light-handed rolling preserves all-important layering for the best texture.) Set up a couple of large skillets or a griddle; heat ⅛ inch of oil over medium heat. (You can continue rolling as you fry.)
  6. When the oil is hot, fry the pancakes (as many as you can at a time without crowding) until golden brown and crispy and cooked through — they should take about 3 minutes on the A side, and 2 minutes on the B side. Drain briefly on a rack or paper, cut in quarters, and serve hot with dipping sauce.

Notes

Recipe excerpted from "Cooking With Fire" by Paula Marcoux, used with permission from Storey Publishing.

Main photo: Paula Marcoux’s sweet crispy borek, or campfire baklava. Credit: Ellie Markovitch

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The gadget that stands guard in Barbara Haber's garden. Credit: Barbara Haber

As a gardener who looks forward each year to eating my homegrown tomatoes, I have been bitterly disappointed when squirrels and other small animals either pick all of the tomatoes while still green and toss them around the yard, or snatch and eat ripening ones just before I get to them.

This has been going on year after year, but each spring, ever hopeful, I plant yet another tomato garden. My usual line of defense has been to use Havahart traps that sometimes catch the thieving culprits, but this method has become tiresome and creepy. It involves picking up a heavy trap loaded with an angry animal, getting it into the trunk of my car, and then driving for at least 10 miles to a wooded area where I release the animal, hoping it will not find its way back to my house.

But this year, I have found a different solution for protecting my tomato patch. I bought a Bell & Howell Solar Animal Off, a device that comes with a built-in stake that I have positioned in the garden in front of the tomato plants. When approached, the device emits both an eerie high-pitched sound that only animals can hear along with a strobe light that shoots off a blinding glare when anything comes near. Each morning I run out of my house to check on ripening fruit and have been amazed and relieved to find every plant intact.

Tomatoes are just the start

This got me thinking that humans too could be well served by a protective device that could repel danger or be helpful in other ways that would make life easier. I could see wearing such a gadget into a supermarket where it would blink and beep if a food I was thinking of buying contained trans fats or, in my case, cilantro. The machine I envision could be customized so that people with allergies would be warned about peanuts and such, and the gluten sensitive protected from that substance. Most important, the device would be programmed to alert us to the existence of dangerous microbes in food that could lead to illness.

In a more positive way, my machine could function somewhere between a personal assistant and a doting grandmother by picking out just the right produce in the market. I never can tell which cantaloupe in a pile will be exactly as I like it — barely ripe and sweet but not over-the-hill and mushy. Picking out pineapples is also a challenge. They too can be overripe and unappetizing, and I never can tell which one to buy. When my favorite store offers four kinds of peaches, I am at a loss as to which will be sweet and juicy and not hard and bland, but my gadget would know. I would also use it to select cheese that is at its height of flavor.

When medium rare means medium rare

The machine’s help in restaurants would be another huge service. It would do a calorie count of the dishes I contemplate and report on the existence of ingredients it knew I disliked. Again, cilantro detection would be especially appreciated, for then I might venture forth into Thai or Mexican restaurants without fear of being assaulted by that herb I cannot tolerate. The device would know whether the steak or chop I ordered was cooked as I requested before I cut into it, thus taking the edge off any disappointment. And I hope that it would be helpful in checking bills and figuring out tips, freeing me from dealing with arithmetic, my worst subject in grade school.

The cone’s the thing

I would like to think that my machine could protect people from all sorts of danger. I am reminded of the time when a good friend’s dog — a huge Malamute named Buddha — used to position himself outside the door of a Brigham’s ice cream shop in my town, waiting for people with ice cream cones to come out. Small children and little old ladies were particularly vulnerable. Buddha’s nudges would knock the cones out of their hands, allowing him to scarf down the scoops of ice cream lying on the ground. If only these victims could have been warned, these messy scenes could have been avoided.

A dairy dose of wisdom

I can think of other helpful tasks for my machine. I would ask it to keep track of all of the foods stored in my freezers to remind me which ones to use first. And I would like it to warn me when the milk in my refrigerator has gone bad, which usually happens before the date stamped on the box. I find out only when I pour it into my morning coffee, watch it curdle, and then have to toss the whole thing down the drain.

These days, when we are surrounded by a glut of information about food, often with conflicting advice, we could use a defender that could cut through the yammering and lead us on the path that’s right for us. I am grateful to have found a device that protects my tomato plants from marauders and only wish I too could have a guardian that protects me from all of the food-related issues I face each day. And, for that, no computer programmer’s algorithm will do.

Main photo: The gadget that stands guard in Barbara Haber’s garden. Credit: Barbara Haber

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The cured salmon dish served at the dinner. Credit: Susan Haddleton

This summer, I undertook the daunting yet exciting task of cooking for some of my peers. The experience started when I submitted a paper for the 2014 Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery, which was being held at St. Catherine’s College in Oxford, England.

This year’s theme was food markets, and my paper covered my thoughts about Nordic food past, present and future. I wanted to explain the history behind Nordic food and why all of a sudden it is in focus, along with what it has to offer other than just being a new trend.

My paper was accepted, and I was thrilled. I was going to Oxford and staying at St. Catherine’s. My academic career was interrupted a couple of years ago by my love for cooking, but with this experience I could now finally live out my dream of an Ivy League university experience.

No more than a few days after learning my paper was accepted, an email came in from one of the symposium trustees, Ursula Heinzelmann. Would I cook Nordic street food for the banquet Saturday night? I was a little hesitant, as I was excited about pretending to be an academic for the weekend.

Not to mention Nordic street food does not really exist. That’s hot dogs with remoulade sauce or open sandwiches on rye bread — not really material for an Oxford banquet.

After a few hours of in-depth thinking, I decided to accept, but I changed the concept. I wanted to cook the kind of supper I would do in my kitchen at home.

Deciding on a Nordic dinner menu no easy task

My head started to spin. Did I want to come up with something completely new or just cook some of my favorite things and share my love for my own food culture? I decided on a home-cooked Danish dinner, a simple, tasty menu.

My first menu selection was cured salmon with home-baked rye focaccia served with some favorite July vegetables: radishes and cucumbers. Testing this, I tried to cure the salmon with dry nettles, but it did not work. It tasted like herbal tea. Fresh nettles worked, but the season for nettle is over come July, so I decided on lovage, a spicy herb with an aftertaste of celery. It worked perfectly with the salmon. To accompany that, I thickened some heavy cream with lemon overnight and then added a lot of freshly grated horseradish, a bit of sugar and lots of black pepper to make a horseradish dressing.

For the main course I decided to serve black barley, which is a heritage grain that my friends at Skærtoft Mølle back home in Denmark started cultivating some years back. It’s now growing in small quantities. I wanted to use tarragon, fennel, cauliflower and celeriac. When I create a menu or a new recipe, I always start with the vegetables. For me, the vegetables are the center of the meal.

With that, I decided to serve one of my classic lamb stews with fennel, tarragon, white wine and elderflower cordial (see recipe below). The cheese for the meal I brought myself from Knuthenlund, a small organic producer in Denmark.

The pudding had to be a classic from the month of July: a cold buttermilk soup with cardamom biscuits. I contemplated going the chef way and revamping the pudding using the same ingredients, but I do not cook like that anymore. I cook things in a simple style. I do not plate it too much; I like to keep the food transparent and let the ingredients do the talking, so I stayed with the classic.

With one suitcase full of cheese and the other full of rye flour and black barley from Skærtoft Mølle, I set out for Oxford three days ahead of the dinner to start cooking everything from scratch. The first thing I did upon arrival was meet with and greet the staff and head chef in the kitchen.

That’s always an interesting experience. Head chefs do not in general like other chefs in their kitchen. They tend to compete heavily instead of exchanging ideas. The attitude is often that the head chef knows everything.

I have cooked in many kitchens around the world. First you start out humbly, trying to understand their system. This time was a little bit different because Tim Kelsey, the head chef at St. Catherine’s, and his team do this every year. I believe they both look forward and dread the event, as they never know what is going to happen. But they were very open and forthcoming with me.

I made my plans and started prepping with my new team. On Friday night, my sister Silla arrived to assist me, and on Saturday we worked all day. Silla cut 700 slices of cured salmon and I baked the bread, adjusted the buttermilk soup, cut vegetables, prepared the fresh herbs and made the stew. By about 6 p.m. Saturday, all 220 salmon dishes were lined up. The kitchen was 100 percent calm, and we were ready to get the food out.

This is the moment of bliss: You have worked for days and are just waiting for the action. You know you’ve put all your love into it. This is the moment I love the most in the kitchen; it’s the calm before the storm.

We ran a smooth service that night. I was happy with everything, but also apprehensive. Before the guests start eating, there’s no way to tell whether they will like it. I had high hopes and butterflies in my stomach. I mean, I was cooking for Claudia Roden! That doesn’t happen every day.

The meal was indeed very well received — people complimented us and asked questions about the flavors, the grain and how I had cooked the celeriac. I believe the dinner was a success, and I was overwhelmed and very proud as I went around the tables and talked to people. I had shown a corner of modern home-cooked Danish food.

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The kitchen staff at St. Catherine's preparing the dinner. Credit: Trine Hahnemann

Summer Lamb Stew

Prep Time: 1 hour

Cook Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Total Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

Yield: Makes 6 servings

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 2 pounds lamb, cut in cubes, from shoulder or leg
  • 3 leeks
  • 2 whole fennels
  • 4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 10 sprigs of tarragon
  • ½ cup elderflower cordial
  • 2 cups white wine
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • For serving:
  • 2 tablespoons fresh tarragon leaves

Directions

  1. Heat olive oil and butter in a large sauté pan and brown the meat on all sides. Do this in two batches if necessary. Do not boil the meat.
  2. Chop the vegetables. The leeks should be in 1 inch pieces, and the fennel should be in ½ inch slices.
  3. After the meat is browned, add the garlic, fennel seeds, bay leaves and tarragon to the sauté pan and mix well. Then add in ⅔ of the leeks and fennel, reserving the rest for later. Allow the mixture to sauté for a few minutes.
  4. Pour the elderflower cordial and white wine over the meat and vegetable mix, then sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Stir well and bring to a boil.
  5. Skim off any froth that rises to the surface, then turn down the heat and let it simmer for 45 to 55 minutes.
  6. When the lamb is tender, add the rest of the leeks and fennel and let simmer for 5 minutes more, then add more salt and pepper if necessary.
  7. Sprinkle with fresh tarragon before serving. The dish can be served with boiled barley or boiled new potatoes.

Main photo: The cured salmon dish served at the dinner. Credit: Susan Haddleton

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Cork trees can be harvested only every nine years. Credit: Courtesy of APCOR

The ax strikes the tree with a dry, hollow crack. The man wielding it carefully uses the edge of the blade to pry a thick piece of cork from the tree, then hands it down the ladder to a worker waiting below. In the surrounding forest, the crew continues separating the bark from the trees in the summer heat, until the day’s harvest is collected. There are no machines to do this work. It requires skill as well as physical strength, and the stamina to withstand 90-plus-degree temperatures, swarming flies and dry, thorny brush that tears at workers’ pant legs.

This was the scene I witnessed in late July, during the annual cork harvest in Coruche, Portugal’s cork capital. The harvest takes place each year between May and August, as it has for centuries.

Cork is the name for the bark of the cork oak tree (scientific name Quercus Suber L.), an ancient species dating back millions of years. Cork oaks grow primarily in Portugal, but also in France, Spain, Italy and Morocco. Because these unique trees have the ability to regenerate their outer layer of bark after it’s been stripped, there’s no need to cut down the trees in order to harvest the cork.

Portugal is the world’s largest producer of cork, and the country is home to nearly 2 million acres of cork forest, or montado. Cork trees can live 500 years or more if their bark has never been harvested, and up to 150 years if it has.

In the wine world, people often marvel at the patience of grape growers, who have to wait three years for a new vineyard to produce a usable crop. That’s nothing compared with the long-range planning required of Portugal’s cork farmers. Once a cork tree is planted, it takes 25 years before its bark can be harvested.

The first year’s bark isn’t good enough for wine stoppers, so it’s sold at a much cheaper rate for flooring and other byproducts. It takes nine years for the bark to regenerate before it can be harvested again, and even then, it still isn’t viable for wine corks. Only after nine more years, at the third harvest, does the tree produce bark that’s suitable for stoppers. In case you’ve lost count, that’s 43 years of waiting!

Skill and strength

Watching the harvest crew in action last month, I came to understand why these are the world’s highest-paid agricultural workers. Stripping the bark is hot, difficult work, and requires both care and muscle. The harvesting is done mainly by men, known as descortiçadores (debarkers),who earn up to 90 euros ($120) per day wielding sharp iron axes called machadas.

As my guide, Sofia Ramos of the Coruche Forestry Association, pointed out, this work cannot be done by just anyone; it takes specialized skill to remove the bark without damaging the trees. The technique is passed down through generations, and is not something that can easily be picked up by migrant workers from non-cork-producing regions. “They have ancient knowledge,” she told me, “and that is very valuable.”

As I stood in relative comfort, but still dripping with sweat and swatting flies, I watched the workers strip the gnarly gray-brown bark from the trees, leaving behind smooth trunks the color of mahogany. Moving swiftly and efficiently, it took each two-man team about 10 minutes to strip a tree before moving on to the next one.

Although the harvest process appeared to be fairly simple from my vantage point, I learned that it actually consists of many distinct steps:

First, a vertical cut is made in the bark, while at the same time, the edge of the ax is twisted to separate the outer from the inner bark. Second, the cork is separated from the tree by inserting the edge of the ax between the cork strip and the inner bark, and twisting the ax between the trunk and the cork strip. Next, a horizontal cut is made to define the size of the cork plank to be extracted. Finally, the plank is carefully removed from the tree so that it doesn’t split (the larger the planks, the greater their value.)

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Portugal's "debarkers" are the highest-paid agricultural workers in the world. Credit: Courtesy of APCOR

Once the tree has been stripped, it’s marked with a number, using the last digit of the year in which the extraction took place. This lets the forest manager know when the trees will be ready for the next harvest.

Each day’s cork planks are stacked onto tractor beds and transferred to a drying area where they rest for three weeks before being transported to a cork processing facility. There, the planks are boiled to remove impurities, trimmed, sorted, cut into strips and finally, punched into stoppers.

The next time I pull one of those stoppers from a wine bottle I’ll be thinking about Portugal’s miraculously regenerating cork trees, and the hardworking descortiçadores who harvest their bark.

Main photo: Cork trees can be harvested only every nine years. Credit: Courtesy of APCOR

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Yellow corn soup with sautéed crab and chives. Credit: David Latt

As this best part of summer delivers a ready-to-eat bounty of fresh vegetables to the kitchen, Luigi Fineo, executive chef at West Hollywood’s RivaBella Ristorante, shows off a large bowl of Iowa yellow corn. With one taste, Fineo knew what he would do with these fat sun-ripened kernels. He would make a healthy, sweet tasting soup.

The youngest of five, Fineo grew up in southern Italy in Gioia del Colle. Like many chefs, he learned to love cooking in his mother’s kitchen. Helping to prepare the family’s meals, she taught him the basics. That early training would serve him well as he worked in demanding restaurants around the world from Francesco Berardinelli’s Shooeneck Ristorante in Falzes, Italy, to Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif..

From the outside, RivaBella has the appearance of just another upscale restaurant. Inside, the sprawling interior is set-dressed to look like an elegant version of a rustic Italian country inn. Full-sized trees and a 7-foot tall brick hearth dominate the interior. During the day when the retractable ceiling is open, the bright blue Southern California sky hangs overhead.

The current menu recalls the kitchen of Fineo’s mother and the refinements of his colleague, owner-chef Gino Angelini, who helped popularize quality Italian cooking in Los Angeles. The entrees include fine-dining versions of Italian classics: risotto with porcini mushrooms, spinach lasagna, Veal Milanese and pasta with broccolini and salmoriglio.

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A bowl of Iowa corn used to make a yellow corn soup with sautéed crab and chives, prepared by Chef Luigi Fineo in the kitchen at RivaBella Ristorante, West Hollywood, Calif. Credit: David Latt

Reflecting his time spent in Santa Monica’s La Botte where he earned a Michelin star, Fineo also enjoys using the high-tech tools that are popular in many contemporary restaurant kitchens.

For his slow-cooked lamb shoulder ragù, he adds summer flavor with peaches he dehydrates, then rehydrates in a white wine bath flavored with cinnamon, anise and bay leaves. The handmade pappardelle he serves with the ragù is made with flour, flavored with a fine pistachio powder that is first frozen in liquid nitrogen before being  ground into the fine powder.

Of the corn, by the corn and for the corn

When I first tasted the corn soup at RivaBella, it was so velvety, I asked if heavy cream or butter were used. The answer was neither.

In his kitchen for the video demonstration, Chef Fineo explained that he did not need cream or butter to create his soup. All he needed was farm-fresh Iowa corn, a little water, a pinch or two of salt and a lot of stirring.

Usually when Fineo makes soups, he begins with a sauté of shallots and aromatics. Cooking with corn, he’s inclined to roast the kernels. But with this sweet corn, he decided he didn’t need to add flavor and he didn’t need to employ any high-tech machines. To prepare his corn soup, he would return to the basics he learned from his mother.

Yellow Sweet Corn Soup

Total Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Because, essentially there is only one ingredient, use high quality, fresh corn to create a soup that is healthy and delicious. When picking corn, choose ears that have green, healthy husks and kernels that are plump. If the kernels are indented or the husks are brown, choose different ears. In the restaurant, the soup is served with fresh crabmeat to enhance its upscale qualities. But Fineo recommends that the soup is a treat served entirely as a vegetarian or vegan dish.

Ingredients

  • 12 ears yellow corn, shucked, washed, pat dried
  • ¾ cup water
  • Sea salt to taste
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh chives
  • ½ cup crab meat, preferably crab leg meat (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon butter (optional)
  • 2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil (optional)
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper (optional)

Directions

  1. Using a sharp knife, cut the raw kernels from the cobs.
  2. Working in batches, two cups at a time, place the kernels into a large blender and blend with just enough water, about one tablespoon water for each cup of kernels. To create a vortex, if needed, add more water.
  3. Blend each batch about 45 seconds.
  4. Again, working in batches, strain the resulting corn mash through a chinois or a fine meshed strainer, capturing the liquid in a large bowl. To release all the liquid, press on the corn mash gently, using the back of a large ladle or large kitchen spoon.
  5. Transfer the corn juice to a large saucepan or small stock pot and place uncovered on the stove.
  6. Using high heat, bring the liquid to a boil and then lower to medium.
  7. Using a wire whisk, gently stir the liquid 30 to 40 minutes until reaching the desired thickness. Very importantly, the liquid must be stirred constantly to prevent the corn’s sugars from sticking to the bottom and burning.
  8. As the liquid thickens, lower the heat.
  9. Taste and add sea salt as desired. Serve hot, topped with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of finely chopped chives.
  10. Optionally, in a non-stick pan on low heat, sauté the crab pieces in olive oil or butter until crispy on all sides, then place one or two pieces on top of each bowl of soup and garnish with chives and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Instead of crab, Chef Fineo also recommends using shrimp or scallops.
  11. Season with a pinch of sea salt and black pepper. Drain the crab on a paper towel. Place on top of the soup. Drizzle with olive oil and finely chopped chives.

Main photo: Yellow corn soup with sautéed crab and chives. Credit: David Latt

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