Articles in People
Coming up with Christmas presents that people really want is a challenge that confronted me every year until I wised-up and limited my gift-buying to delectable edibles.
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In the old days this meant telephoning food companies and placing orders to be delivered to recipients, but I had to know what companies to call. These days, the Internet has become a veritable shopping assistant or scout. I only have to name a food and sources pop up, and I can purchase many gifts with the flick of a finger. No pushing through crowded stores for me. And on Black Friday, that infamous post-Thanksgiving Christmas-shopping day for bargain hunters, I stay at home nibbling on leftovers.
In thinking about what to buy, I seek out novel products, that is, items not likely to be found in the usual stores. Inevitably, I am led back to my Wisconsin roots where certain local specialties hold great appeal.
Cheese castle goodies
A favorite store with online shopping services is Mars Cheese Castle, located in Kenosha, Wis., midway between Milwaukee and Chicago. This place has local cheeses, phenomenal hams and sausages, and wonderful bakery products, all available online. My favorites are their Baby Swiss cheese, Usinger’s bratwurst and summer sausages, and an applewood smoked ham I often crave.
As for baked products, Mars is famous for cheese bread the company says is baked with a quarter-pound of extra-sharp Wisconsin cheddar in every loaf. And I always order Kringles, a Danish pastry I find only in Wisconsin that has various fillings of apples, cherries or blueberries, and also pecans or cheese. My only problem in ordering a supply of Christmas gifts from this place is that I must fight the urge to keep and eat everything myself.
On a visit to Mars Cheese Castle last summer, I was browsing along aisles of knickknacks when I stumbled across a shelf with plain boxes labeled “cheese storage bags.” Manufactured in France, the boxes contain 15 bags that simulate the environment of a cheese cave, thus preventing cheese from suffocating and molding, which is its fate when wrapped tightly in plastic wrap. I bought a box and, sure enough, these bags do what they promise. I have become a zealot on their behalf. They are a perfect gift for cheese lovers, and I was thrilled to find sources online. I now have a stack of them I hand out as hostess gifts, and will give them at Christmas when I need the perfect small gift for a worthy recipient.
Custom candy Christmas gifts
But items that relate to Wisconsin are not the only desirable gifts I find online. I have a friend who collects hot sauces with funny, often rude, names and I am always on a mission to find new ones. The best one so far is called Scorned Woman, which arrived in a slinky black velvet sheath. Others are Slap Ya Mama, Mad Dog, Bee Sting, and one called Pain Is Good with a label showing a man screaming in agony. My friend lines up her collection in her kitchen as a conversation piece, and I will be sorry when she runs out of space.
Another standby gift for the sweet lovers on my gift list is candy from See’s, a luscious West Coast chain of shops that do not exist east of the Mississippi except for pop-up stores that show up just before Christmas. But these places only have ready-packed assortments, not offering the luxury of handpicked pieces available in the stores or online.
People have their favorites, and these vary as widely as the scores of different chocolates created by See’s. To receive a gift of hand-selected chocolates from a friend who knows what you like, it seems to me, is quite wonderful. I would add that See’s candy is owned by Warren Buffet, who always knows a good thing when he sees it, and if this candy is good enough for him, well, say no more.
And on the subject of candy I cannot help but refer back to Wisconsin where I can buy a product known locally as Fairy Food, but also goes under the more prosaic name of Molasses Sponge candy. Fragile, melt-in-the mouth squares of delicately flavored molasses crunch are enrobed in exquisite and thick coatings of milk or dark chocolate.
My source for this is a shop called Buddy Squirrel that has been in the vicinity of Milwaukee for almost 100 years. I suppose it got its name because the store is famous for its roasted nuts, but it’s the Fairy Food that sends me there. I should hasten to add that knock-offs of this candy made with cheap ingredients are around and to be avoided. Go for the real thing or nothing at all.
A season for indulgence
The fun of buying food gifts for friends and family is that you can offer cheerful indulgences that people generally do not buy for themselves. This is why I don’t order those boxes of apples or pears that are popular and routine Christmas gifts. To me, that would be the equivalent of handing out socks or neckties, gifts that seldom bring joy to the faces of their recipients.
Cheese bags from Mars Cheese Castle. Credit: Barbara Haber
Mystique — and hyperbole — surround North Berkeley’s legendary Gourmet Ghetto after almost half a century. The neighborhood, ground zero for a gastronomic explosion that morphed into a California cuisine revolution in the 1970s, seems to get more media coverage today than in its heyday. And sometimes it’s just plain silly.
Consider, for example, the overhyped version of today’s Ghetto portrayed in an October Forbes magazine article by Lanee Lee titled “Spending 24 Hours in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto.”
Her mission to spend a whole day eating her way through the Ghetto begins at 9 a.m. But after just nine hours of nibbling and sipping at Ghetto icons such as the Cheese Board and Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse, and several of the nouveau arrivé spots such as Philz Coffee from San Francisco, Lee takes off south for downtown Berkeley and even Oakland. She as much as admits the aborted mission when she says about one downtown restaurant, “Technically, it’s not in the Gourmet Ghetto …” Technically? You are either in or you are out (see map).
Lee’s article reveals, however unintended, the unhyped truth that the Gourmet Ghetto struggles today to keep up with its own revolutionary legend, let alone the increasingly vibrant foodie meccas to the south.
The reality behind the hype
By Joyce Goldstein
* * *
By Susanna Hoffman and Victoria Wise
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Two female chefs-cum-writers who can testify to the true gravitas behind the original Ghetto’s supersized legend are Ghetto legends in their own right — Joyce Goldstein and Victoria Wise. Both cooked at Chez Panisse during its formative years before moving on to their own fame: Wise with her Pig-by-the-Tail Charcuterie (1973-1986), across the street from Chez Panisse, and Goldstein at her Square One restaurant in San Francisco (1984-1996). Since the close of their much-missed showcases they have established themselves as culinary consultants and prolific cookbook authors with national reputations.
Both women have impressive new books out that attest to their continuing commitment to the revolution they served so brilliantly: Goldstein’s “Inside the California Food Revolution: Thirty Years That Changed Our Culinary Consciousness” (UC Press) and Wise’s recipe collection, “Bold: A Cookbook of Big Flavors,” co-authored with Susanna Hoffman (Workman).
With the publication of Goldstein’s book, we finally have a scholarly account of the California cuisine revolution based on hundreds of interviews of the food- and wine-loving souls who made it happen — cooks, artisan food producers, winemakers and farmers. Among them, adds Goldstein, were an “unprecedented number” of women. One of these was Victoria Wise herself. Before she opened “the Pig,” as her shop was affectionately known in the Ghetto, Wise was Chez Panisse’s first chef.
Wise’s new book, “Bold,” presents a collection of full-flavored and full-plated (bye-bye, little plates) dishes that further define the hearty international melting-pot foundations of a new American cooking that has emerged in the wake of California’s outsized culinary contributions.
When legends collide
I had known Goldstein and Wise professionally back in the day. Then in 2010, after publication of my “graphic memoir,” “Foodoodles: From the Museum of Culinary History,” I invited them to join me on an author’s panel at the Berkeley branch of Books Inc. I titled the presentation “Legends of the Gourmet Ghetto” and included Alice Medrich of Cocolat fame (1976-1991) as well as Bruce Aidells, Berkeley’s sausage king who got his start in the Ghetto in 1979 chefing at Marilyn Rinzler’s “still-clucking” ode to chicken, Poulet.
The panelists shared stories and laughs about the early years in the Ghetto and agreed that the revolution, though clearly Euro- and mostly Franco-centric in inspiration, was largely triggered by the lack of traditional culinary arts training in the Ghetto. An autodidact love of fine food translated our European food epiphanies into an ingredio-centric cooking language outside the narratives of haute cuisine and directly relevant to our own time and place.
A new body experience
To be sure, ours was not the first generation of Americans jolted by what we tasted in France and beyond. A generation before Julia Child’s fateful encounter with French gastronomy, The New Yorker’s “Letter From Paris” columnist, Janet Flanner, had her own Proustian moment in France. In the introduction to her book, “Paris Was Yesterday 1925-1939,” a collection of her still wonderfully readable columns, Flanner writes:
I can recall the sensual satisfaction of first chewing the mixture in my mouth of a bite of meat and a crust of fresh French bread … Eating in France was a new body experience.
Yes, a sensual body experience. Very different from the visual and brainy (as in left brain) extremes of fine food so common in today’s haute cuisine world of masculine high-tech art food offered in San Sebastian, Spain; Copenhagen; London; and New York.
And who better than women such as Goldstein and Wise a few generations after Flanner to seduce our sensual bodies with simple, traditional food sourced and prepared right in our own gastronomic region — California.
Cuisine bonne femme
If you study my map of the Ghetto of the 1970s you will note that it was, indeed, the women at their shops and restaurants who were calling the revolutionary shots: Joyce Goldstein, Victoria Wise, Alice Medrich, Marilyn Rinzler and, of course, Superwoman herself, Alice Waters.
I say “Superwoman” because Waters has always had the extraordinary ability — “genius,” Goldstein says — to get people to do her bidding — especially men, I’d add. When she came to the Cheese Board just before Chez Panisse was to open and asked whether I would wait tables, I jumped at the opportunity, as if I had been handed a first-class ticket to Provence. Waters must have memorized Dale Carnegie’s perennial bestseller, “How to Win Friends & Influence People.”
One of Waters’ leading men in those early Ghetto days, Mark Miller, who followed the epic reign of Jeremiah Tower as chef de cuisine, slyly observes in Goldstein’s book that the food emerging at Chez Panisse in the 1970s was far from revolutionary. It was, he notes, heavily influenced by the genre of French cooking known as cuisine bonne femme, the bourgeois home and humble restaurant cooking of French women. He’s right. But wasn’t that, if not the food per se, the Gourmet Ghetto’s revolution, or at least a key component? Talented and powerful women running the show.
It was an increasingly feminist world we were living in circa 1970 and Berkeley was, of course, one of its capitals. Today, we take for granted women running professional kitchens, though it’s still a struggle for female chefs to get the same media attention as the men.
But back in those early days of the revolution it was, it seems to me, as if a Code Pink version of Mother Nature rose up and shouted out through Ghetto legends like Joyce Goldstein and Victoria Wise, “No more crap food! Off with his toque! You go girls!” And they still are.
Top graphic: “Original Gourmet Ghetto 1970s.” Credit: L. John Harris
Alex Cruz of Quebec retailer Société Orignal isn’t sure which language to use. The Montrealer and I have been e-mailing back and forth for a few weeks, trying to finalize a time that works. Our correspondence has taken place in English and French. That’s the way things are in Montreal, a little bit of this, and a little bit of that.
But Montreal and the province of Quebec, Canada, are not known for “a little bit” of anything when it comes to all things culinary. For the longest time, food in Quebec was viewed as cuisine grand-mère: heavy, carb-laden foods made to fill bellies for long days of physical labor. But over the past decade, grand-mère has seen her cuisine turn haute. The province of Quebec, and specifically Montreal, is a city now populated by appetites who still seek full bellies, but with a more refined touch. This is the land of poutine with foie gras, and where salted fatback is no longer seen as a poor man’s food but a gout-inducing luxury.
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Enter Société Orignal.
At first glance, it appears to be just another high-end online retailer of tasty fine goods. But it’s a company on the edge: the edges of history, the edges of the collective palate, the edges of knowledge. First, there is that name, Société Orignal, which is a play on words. “Société” in French is, of course, society, but “Orignal,” the French word for moose, is only one letter away from original. “We wanted to come up with a word that focused on the words ‘society’ and ‘moose,’ because the moose is one of the most imposing creatures in North America,” Cruz says. “But it is imposing by itself, not because it wants to step on anyone.”
Société Orignal’s small but dedicated staff
Société Orignal could hardly be viewed as stepping on anyone, but it is a force to be reckoned with, let alone admired. It has a small workforce; Cruz does research and development, while his friend Cyril Gonzales takes care of sales in the province of Quebec. Gonzales works with another sales agent who takes cares of national and international sales, while Cruz has his own assistant. Together, they sell pantry items you may not recognize but desperately want to know what they are. A perfect example is a product known as Raw Laurentian honeydew. According to its website, “Honeydew is tree sap that has been gathered and transformed by insects and then foraged by bees. It comes from elevated hives diligently placed high in the trees of the forest surrounding the village of Ferme-Neuve.” Another example of their products would be their riff on caviar: cured wild lumpfish eggs, made from the roe of a fish that is known among Quebecers as poule de mer or sea hen. And then there are the ingredients presented in a manner different from what you may be accustomed, such as immature elderberries, salted and preserved in vinegar.
The list of products offered by Société Orignal teeters on the edge of recognizability, a gastronomic palimpsest. Juniper berries are cultivated immature and brined. Herbal teas are made of clover and balsam fir. For Cruz, it’s about pushing the limits in as many places as possible — from the farmer or forager who provides the raw materials to the chefs who plate it up all the way to the consumer who tastes these flavors.
“What we want to do is push barriers in every culture,” he says. “People freak on Thai food and Indian flavors, but we have things we want them to try and to concentrate on, what you think is maybe forgotten or neglected.” But Cruz isn’t some hubris-laden entrepreneur. During the conversation, he is excited by the unknown possibilities available to him in his native province. “We don’t know everything, so we want to do research and development. It’s not just cool, it could be representative of cooking 100 years from now.”
That devotion to research and development isn’t just a question of good business sense, it’s a responsibility to his customers and his clients. “We are a bridge: On one side you have farming and the other the restaurant businesses,” he says. “To have this bridge you need to maintain it. One day we are searching for ideas in restaurants, the next day on farming and figuring out how things grow in both places.”
Société Orignal seems to be able to do both by cultivating close connections with the farmers and foragers who gather the products it sells. “We see that farming is a great business and way of life, once you start to understand it,” Cruz says. “Trying to express the creativity of agriculture is an important factor we like to share.”
Part of that expression comes in the form Quebec’s terroir. This summer, Société Orignal distributed the Laval melon, an heirloom variety from the Montreal region. “For us, it’s trying to find ingredients that grow well in the soil. What is important is to know how (these things) grow. So it’s trying to understand all those features.”
Cruz’s feet are firmly planted in Quebec’s soil, gastronomically and financially. “(We want) to be able to achieve what we want and keep our independence. We don’t want help from large corporations or government, we just need to keep up distribution of the product we create. We want to have a good time and keep our goals.”
Top photo: Honeydew available from Société Orignal. Credit: Courtesy of Société Orignal
As befits the City of the Big Shoulders, the Chicago outpost of the food emporium Eataly, which opened last week, is the largest to date, with two floors totaling 63,000 square feet and containing some 10,000 products, 23 eateries, 21 retail areas devoted to specific products, two espresso bars, two wine bars, a Nutella bar and a fine-dining restaurant.
While Eataly is a huge space with an immense number of offerings, it’s quite the opposite of the alienating experience of mega-grocery stores. Instead of dutifully pushing a cart up and down sterile, fluorescent-lighted aisles, getting your nameless, faceless (and often tasteless) boxed and canned goods, you pleasantly wander past floor-to-ceiling windows and in and out of a maze of small eateries and counters. Each counter is dedicated to a specific item: vegetables, meats, cheeses, fish, olive oil, beer, wine and much more.
Bringing an Old World market experience to modern urban shopping
About halfway through my meander, it occurred to me that Eataly is the perfect marriage of old and new. It’s a place where the Old World 10-stop shopping experience (going to the fishmonger, the sausage maker, the cheese shop, the baker, and a half dozen other small shops), meets the convenience of the New World one-stop shopping experience.
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And there are plenty of eating and drinking opportunities to indulge in while you shop. You can stop at the pizza corner for a true Neapolitan pizza, the fritto stand for fried foods, the rosticceria for roasted meats or the panini shop for a sandwich. For drinks, there’s a beer hall and two cafes, one upstairs and one down. Wines are served in the central piazza area, which is crowned with a Hemingway quote: “Wine is the most civilized thing in the world.”
In fact, the Eataly Chicago is dedicated to Ernest Hemingway. This may seem incongruous, but Eataly’s founder, industrialist Oscar Farinetti, a great fan of Hemingway’s work, explains that the author was born and raised in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park and spent significant parts of his life in Italy. That he was also a man of large appetites is just icing on the cake.
I’ve been making pilgrimages to Eataly ever since the first one opened in 2007 in an old vermouth warehouse in the Lingotto district of Turin, at the far end of the Fiat factory. Farinetti’s brainchild is a paean to food that is “good, clean and fair.” These are the watchwords of Farinetti’s friend, Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini, who champions food that is delicious and untainted by chemicals. He also is devoted to treating farmers and food workers fairly. Farinetti and Petrini want shoppers to stop being passive consumers and instead become active “co-producers” by learning who produced what food, and how, and why that’s important.
In fact, one tenet of the Eataly Manifesto is “Eat. Shop. Learn.” Another tenet explains: “We feel that it’s not just important that we know everything about what we sell and serve, but that you also learn about the products we are so passionate about. We share with you the stories of the people and places behind all that we offer. The more you know the more you enjoy.”
Local sourcing and fresh produce at Eataly Chicago
In keeping with the precepts of Slow Food, Eataly Chicago has paid special attention to local sourcing. There is a whole section of canned and bottled goods made by Chicagoan Lee Greene’s Scrumptious Pantry, a selection of West Loop Salumi’s cured meats, pork from Bensmiller’s Farm in Iowa, Piedmontese beef from Toro Ranch in Nebraska and many more products from other Midwestern producers.
Among the can’t-miss features at Chicago’s Eataly is the vegetable butcher. As soon as you walk in the doors, you are greeted by a beautiful farmstand-like display of seasonal fruits and vegetables. You can then take your selections to the vegetable butcher, who will trim your artichokes, peel your carrots, shred your cabbage or do whatever you need for ease of cooking once you get it home.
The store’s Gelateria Alpina gelato bar offers favorites such as nocciola (hazelnut) and cioccolata (chocolate), as well as seasonal offerings. In addition to hand-scooped gelato, and unique to the Chicago store, are soft-serve gelato spigots!
As Federico Fellini says in a quote gracing a wall in Chicago’s Eataly, “Life is a combination of magic and pasta.” His words could just as well be applied to Eataly Chicago, that is, if you consider “pasta” a metonym for all great food. And great food makes us better. As Sophia Loren is quoted, in yet another Eataly sign, “Everything you see I owe to spaghetti.”
Top photo: Pasta for sale at Eataly’s newest location in Chicago. Credit: Terra Brockman
If the average food magazine were a castaway on the ’60s TV show “Gilligan’s Island,” it would be Ginger: glamorous, worldly and somewhat unattainable. Cook’s Illustrated magazine, on the other hand, would be a hybrid of Mary Ann and the Professor: wholesome, intelligent and oh-so-accessible.
Just look at a cover of Cook’s Illustrated and you’ll see what I mean. Rather than seducing readers with gorgeous food-porn photography, Cook’s presents still-life illustrations of basic ingredients, such as walnuts or heads of garlic. Inside the magazine you won’t find profiles of celebrity chefs or reviews of the hottest new restaurants. You won’t even find color. Cook’s is printed in no-nonsense black and white, and most of its images are simple line drawings.
By the editors of "America's Test Kitchen"
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While the glossy magazines present features about how to entertain your impossibly beautiful friends on the rooftop deck of your Manhattan apartment, Cook’s chronicles its 37 failed attempts at roasting the perfect chicken before discovering the best technique.
To put it another way: Cook’s Illustrated is a cooking magazine for nerds. Nerds like me.
Through its pages I learned to make wonderfully creamy scrambled eggs by cooking them slowly over a low flame and gently stirring with a heat-resistant rubber spatula. I learned how to avoid making a watery, gray scramble by cooking the eggs and vegetables separately and combining them just before serving. I learned to make a nearly foolproof pie crust by adding vodka.
Kimball’s food publishing adventures
I have Christopher Kimball to thank for all that kitchen know-how. Kimball founded the original Cook’s magazine in 1980 and ran it as editor and publisher until 1989, when he sold it to the Bonnier Group. The magazine eventually folded under its new publisher, and in 1993, Kimball relaunched the magazine as Cook’s Illustrated. Its audience has since grown to more than a million subscribers.
America’s Test Kitchen isn’t just a TV show, it’s a working test kitchen outside of Boston where three dozen cooks, editors, food scientists, tasters and equipment experts collaborate.
It was this team, led by Kimball, that created ATK’s impressive new book, “The America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook.” This mammoth 822-page tome isn’t merely a collection of exhaustively tested recipes, it’s an education in essential cooking techniques. The book covers not only the “how” of each technique but also the “why,” and provides useful tips on such diverse topics as perfecting knife skills and choosing cookware.
We checked in with Kimball about ATK’s new book, the philosophy behind Cook’s Illustrated and the evolution of American home cooking.
What sorts of dishes did your family eat when you were growing up? Were your parents good cooks?
My mother was an early promoter of organic foods and ripped up the front lawn at our home in the ’60s to plant a large, organic garden with only partially composted fertilizer. The neighbors loved it! But she was not much of a cook. The food I loved the best was cooked at the Yellow Farmhouse in our small town in Vermont where we spent summers and weekends. Marie Briggs cooked the standard meat and potatoes but her specialty was baking — Anadama bread, molasses cookies, nutmeg doughnuts. I am still a meat and potatoes guy.
How did you learn to cook?
Marie taught me a lot on rainy days when I wasn’t out haying. I started using the old Fannie Farmer book when I was about 10. I eventually met Malvina Kinard, a friend of Jim Beard’s and the founder of the Cooks Corner retail stores. She taught me classic French cookery including coulibiac of salmon and how to make pate brisée.
In a world of glossy cooking magazines and celebrity TV chefs, why do you think Cook’s Illustrated and “America’s Test Kitchen” have been so successful?
We ain’t glossy! The secret of teaching cooking is to put oneself in the shoes and kitchen of the typical home cook. They experience a great deal of fear and frustration (and failed recipes). That’s why we always start off with “bad” food. We make people comfortable by showing what can and often does go wrong. Then we fix the recipe together and explain why a recipe works. It’s taking the time to explain why things go wrong that is important — an educated cook is a better cook.
How many variations are typically tested at ATK before a recipe is deemed ready for publication?
The typical Cook’s Illustrated recipe is tested at least 50 times over a period of weeks.
What was involved in creating the “America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook”?
Lots of aspirin and long nights in the kitchen and at the computer. We tried to put what we know about cooking into a form that was both in-depth and easy to approach and digest. The book is really a culmination of over 20 years of kitchen work.
Why is it important to know why a particular technique works versus simply knowing the technique itself?
If you understand why, you are much more likely to do it right. When you don’t understand what you are doing you are less likely to do it, and then you end up doing something really stupid like substituting shrimp for chicken (a true story from one of our readers).
Are Americans better cooks today than they were when you started Cook’s magazine?
Yes, no question. The 1980s were a low point in American cooking. Women had fled the kitchen and left for the workplace. Convenience was at a premium and the food industry exploded with more and more bloody-awful products that nobody questioned at the time. These days, balance is being restored. More parents are choosing to stay home. Health is a major consideration, which places the emphasis back on home cooking; it’s the best way to control what goes into your body. And, finally, a whole generation of kids had grown up in households without parents that cooked much and they wanted to find out what they were missing. Plus, the emergence of food television has also brought many folks into the kitchen.
How much of being a good cook is science versus art?
There is very little art in cooking unless one is a top chef. There is also not much science to it unless you develop recipes professionally. That is, you don’t really need to know that flour does not contain gluten per se, it contains glutenin and gliadin, two proteins that interconnect to form gluten in the presence of water. Cooking is really about paying attention and caring about what you are doing.
How important are improvisational skills in the kitchen?
Too many people want to improvise rather than follow a recipe; they think that doing it step by step is beneath them. That is, however, the only way to become a good cook. Then, later in life, with many thousands of recipes behind you, the art starts to come into the process. First, you have to know what food should feel, look, smell, sound and taste like.
What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday dinner at home?
Pot au feu — boiled beef with a salsa verde, horseradish and simmered vegetables such as cabbage, potatoes and carrots. And don’t forget a couple of bottles of a great white Burgundy while you are at it, and a good store-bought baguette.
Top photo: Christopher Kimball of Cook’s Illustrated and “America’s Test Kitchen.” Credit: Courtesy of “America’s Test Kitchen”
It’s a frosty morning in Paso Robles, Calif., and I’m on my way to Fandango Olive Oil for its harvest. Why is it that these places always feature stunning views in the very early morning and late afternoon? I arrive at the ranch run by Jerry and Carolyn Shaffer and park my car behind the trucks of the pickers who are already at work.
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Fandango has been making olive oils I’ve admired for years. The ranch grows only two cultivars, arbequina and koroneiki. The former is of Catalan origin, and the latter Greek. Fandango makes sensationally flavored, mouth-popping blends if you like that sort of thing. I do. In 2013 alone, it won 20 medals in various California competitions.
The Shaffers are among the few certified organic olive oil producers in the region. A lot of sweat and paperwork goes into earning that distinction. For example, the buckets they use have to be scrubbed and free of mud, and when olives go to the mill to be pressed, the crusher and malaxer have to be cleansed thoroughly — at extra cost to the producer — because there mustn’t be residue from a previous, non-organic pressing. One miller told me this cleaning costs an additional $500 on top of everything else.
Olive oil producers must get the timing right
At Fandango, I have a Bourdain moment when Jerry Shaffer takes me out for a tour in his souped-up golf cart. It’s all blue sky and vapor trails. What you typically see in this region and on these ranches and estates are steeply sloping hills. Several growers have told me these slopes in a way create their own microclimate. A dropoff of 75 feet might mean a difference in temperature of 10 degrees Fahrenheit. And this, of course, means olives ripen at different rates, so the grower has to tape off areas that need to be picked for harvest.
Out in the trees, the pickers work by hand, dropping the olives onto blue tarps, which are then carried over to be emptied into buckets. After being sorted, they will be delivered to be pressed within the same day. This is mean, hard and fast work, as evidenced from this email I received from another grower after my tour of Fandango.
Art Kishiyama, the grower at Olio Nuevo, has this to say about his picking schedule: “As fast as possible but within 4 hours. My schedule for tomorrow — first trip to the mill at 10:00 am, 3 hours after the first olive is picked — 2nd trip at about 1:00 pm, again 3 hours after the first olive is picked after 10:00 am, then around 4:00 pm latest, with the same logic, presuming the worst case of the pick day being extended to 9 hours. To make this work, I use two trailers — the 2nd trailer is being loaded while the first trailer is being towed to the mill. Round trip … is 30 minutes — I have 12 bins and use them up to 3 times each with a heavy fruit set.”
Harvesting olives involves a lot of hurry up and go.
The final lap on my tour of olive ranches took me up to San Miguel Olive Farm in San Miguel, Calif. There I met with Richard and Myrna Meisler. As Richard explained to me, olive trees go through “alternate bearing years.” This year happened to be a poor one, but next year could be a great one.
Other growers have given me the same story, but it’s not all bad news. Jerry Shaffer told me that although his yield was disappointing, the quality of his pressed oil was really good. Richard Meisler allowed me a blind tasting of his just-pressed oil. This is a sensory experience; it’s best to do this without bread. What I got at the front of my palate was a buttery beginning. When you taste a high-quality oil, you should expect either a buttery or grassy flavor, and then there is a delayed reaction: A second or two later, you get a peppery finish. It’s a similar experience to tasting wine.
At San Miguel Olive Farm I got another tractor ride, this time with Richard, who showed me something Jerry had done as well. He picked a perfectly ripe olive and squeezed it, checking for water content and oil. I popped it in my mouth, and it tasted like a good olive. This is how the real guys in the business do it. You may have read that eating a raw olive will make you gag. That’s not entirely true. It depends on the degree of ripeness. A really green one might cause you some discomfort, but those are the polyphenols at work. More on polyphenols in our next chapter.
Top photo: Half-ripe olives. Credit: avlxyz / Flickr
First, a confession: I am not always a confident pastry maker. Yes, I make pastry, and sometimes it is good, occasionally very good, but I still approach each pastry-making session with some anxiety.
Because of this, I approached “Pastry” by Chef Richard Bertinet with a little trepidation. Quickly, though, I fell in love with the book, and now it’s becoming an old friend. I am not suddenly a great pastry maker because of this book, but, more important to me, I am no longer a nervous pastry maker.
“Pastry” has a lovely chattiness to it. This is not a book meant to intimidate, although the subject matter can be intimidating. Early in “Pastry,” Bertinet tells the nervous among us that, “There is an idea that some people are just naturally good pastry makers, or that you can only make great pastry if you have cold hands. I don’t believe that.”
By Richard Bertinet
Chronicle Books, 2013, 224 pages
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That is good to learn about someone who began training as a baker in Brittany, France, when he was 14. He moved to Britain in the 1980s, and after many years as a chef, he opened the Bertinet Kitchen Cookery School in Bath, England, in 2005. The school now draws students from around the world, eager to learn the skills he has perfected and detailed in four books to date.
“Pastry” is his latest. His first book, “Dough,” received many awards, including the Julia Child First Book Award and the James Beard Foundation Award for Baking and Desserts. It was followed by “Crust,” which earned a Gourmand World Cookbook award. “Cook,” his third book, focuses on dishes taught at his school.
Making pastry not just about cold hands
In “Pastry,” Bertinet hopes that “by keeping things simple and starting from just four key recipes, you can relax, enjoy yourself, bake with confidence, and perhaps even show off a little bit.” This may be a tall order for some, but, with the exception of the showing off (which I’m working on), I have relaxed and begun to enjoy myself more when making pastry.
The first chapter focuses on how to make the four basic pastries: salted, sweet, puff and choux. Dispelling a long-held belief that you need cold hands to make good pastry, he nevertheless reinforces a truth of bad pastry: that “squeezing and overworking … heats up pastry and makes it greasy and sticky.”
The step-by-step photographs throughout the book, but especially in this first chapter, are excellent, clearly illustrating his instructions and showing you how the pastry should look at each step.
Chapter 2 is devoted to salted pastry, so named not because this type of pastry contains a lot of salt but because it is the name for savory pastry he learned as an apprentice. The chapter includes a number of hearty recipes clearly laid out and easy to follow, with hot and cold variations. Bertinet includes recipes for Onion Tartlets and a rich Chicken and Tarragon Tart, but a great quick lunch is his Cornish Pasties filled with rutabaga, potato and beef (not a poor man’s food anymore).
Amandine for the holidays
Next, sweets take center stage, such as Lemon Meringue Tartlets with their wild meringue swirls resembling chimney stacks. One of my favorite recipes in Chapter 3 is for Amandine, a classic almond tart made with frangipane (almond cream). Not only is this tart delicious, it freezes well, making it a great make-ahead dessert for holiday meals. The Prune and Rum Tarts — rum-soaked prunes and almond cream — are also delicious; make plenty because they will be a great success with friends if mine were any indication.
Also in Chapter 3 is a segment called “A Boxful of Sweet Cookies,” with varieties such as Orange & Chocolate Cookies that can be made from a sweet pastry base. While the Orange & Chocolate Cookies have a winning combination of flavors, the crisp Langues de Chat have a whimsical shape — that of cats’ tongues — and make great use of leftover egg whites.
Chapter 4 made me more nervous than previous chapters because its focus is puff pastry. I usually buy mine at the grocery store and appreciated when he wrote, “I hope that you will enjoy making your own puff pastry, but if you don’t have the time or the inclination, choose a good ready-made all-butter one.” Still, following his instructions, my first attempt at puff pastry turned out well. I used it to make sausage rolls, which, with their lovely herb and spice seasoning, turned an often dry and flavorless thing into a delicious snack.
A perfect ‘how to’ on Croustillants
Another great use for puff pastry is in making Croustillants. These thin slices of puff pastry are coated in sugar, nuts or seeds and baked until crunchy, making a terrific and decidedly upscale substitute for potato chips at parties.
Chapter 5 is about choux pastry, the base for treats such as cream puffs and éclairs. In addition to these recipes, Bertinet includes a recipe for deep-fried Cheese Puffs containing either Cheddar or Gruyère. With a sprinkling of smoked paprika, these hors d’oeuvres will disappear quickly.
The last chapter is devoted to “Finishing Touches” and includes techniques such as how to finish fruit tarts so they are beautiful and delicious. This has much to do with how the fruit is cut and arranged and with the addition of warmed apricot jam as a glaze. Bertinet also offers recipes for fillings such as Chocolate Crème Patissiere and Crème Anglaise. If you can make the latter, he assures the reader, “you are halfway to making vanilla ice cream.” (And what vanilla ice cream it is.)
“Pastry” offers up many treats, but the best treat of all may be the book itself. It is great for building confidence in the pastry-shy baker and a further challenge for the pastry-secure baker. If you can’t get to Bertinet’s school in Bath, this book is the next best thing. It is indeed “A Master Class for Everyone.”
Top photo composite: The cover of “Pastry” and chef and author Richard Bertinet. Chef photo credit: Jenny Zarins
Mexico is at the center of corn biodiversity, which strengthens the ecosystems that sustain the land and its inhabitants. Just as indigenous people, like the native Californians, possessed a deep knowledge of oak management and acorns, in Mesoamerica the same is true for corn. Zea mays, the Latin binomial for corn, is the literal foundation of many Mesoamerican cultures. Maize is at the core of many creation stories from pre-contact time to the present. Individuals are not only made of corn, but people make corn. Corn is one of the few staple crops that require human intervention to reproduce. Yet corn’s biodiversity is under siege.
“Dignity. Good white corn is part of a dignified life,” declared a Mexican store owner about the importance of corn in her culture, according to Elizabeth Fitting. Fitting is the author of “The Struggle for Maize: Campesinos, Workers, and Transgenic Corn in the Mexican Countryside.” She conveys the nuanced layers of the transgenic corn debate. And she shines a light on the disadvantages of neo-liberal trade policies in Mexico. Since the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, she reveals — through story and data — how small land holding farmers’ ability to maintain biocultural diversity of Mexican corn varieties (criollos) is threatened.
Since the start of NAFTA, Mexico imports U.S. yellow corn to meet the appetite of its growing livestock industry. When local farmers do not grow enough of their preferred white corn — due to a lack of rainfall or access to well water or the effects of climate change — they purchase yellow corn, normally meant for animal feed. Making matters more difficult? Studies in Mexico have identified genetically modified corn strains mixed into the local (criollo) landraces. If transgenic corn spreads to multiple local landraces, the potential to wipe out the biodiverse base, and the corn industry, is real, according to Sin Maiz, No Hay Paiz. (“Without Corn, There Is No Country” is a campaign, founded in 2007, that supports food sovereignty, in particular non-GMO foods, and the sustainable revitalization of rural Mexico.)
Mexican corn farmers fighting to keep traditional methods
The debate about transgenic corn has only escalated since the 2011 publication of Fitting’s book. Activists in the Mexican states of Oaxaca and Chiapas declared 2013 the year of anti-GMO corn. To that end, a judge recently disallowed any trials of transgenic corn in Mexico.
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Nixtamalized white corn, an alkaline soaking process to improve the nutritional quality of corn, is a sophisticated practice developed centuries ago and not transferred to Asian, African and European countries when corn colonized those lands.
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Despite the extra expense, many, especially elder, farmers still grow their own corn in the milpa system for food security. (Milpa is defined as a field intercropped with three principal species: maize, beans and squash, often with other minor species, and in which edible leafy weeds, locally called quelites, are tolerated and harvested.) In a recent phone interview, Fitting reminded me of her conversation with the Mexican storeowner in the cradle of corn diversity, the Tehuacán Valley in the state of Puebla, north and west of Oaxaca and Chiapas, respectively. “We grow [white] corn because we want to have good, soft white tortillas. They do not turn out the same in the city. In Mexico City (where yellow corn or non-nixtamilized yellow corn is used), a truck carrying masa (dough) comes around as if it were mud. It’s even uncovered! They say we live like animals here in the countryside, but in the city, they eat like animals!” Her words resounded with taste, dignity and self-reliance.
So the tortillas you eat, whether in Mexico or North America, might not be made of white corn flour anymore. Moreover, the nixtamilization process has been essentially eliminated in mass-produced masa flour. Not only do you get a different-tasting corn, but you also eat tortillas with less bioavailable nutrients.
Two Chicana professors, Luz Calvo and Catriona R. Esquibel, founded the Facebook page Decolonize Your Diet. During a Skype conversation with both professors, I learned their Facebook page grew out Calvo’s desire to help a student eat a more healthy diet and learn basic cooking skills. The page quickly exploded, and a blog followed. Calvo, an associate professor of ethnic studies at California State University East Bay in Hayward, Calif., says her students are predominantly first-generation Americans. On campus one day, students were selling Krispy Kremes to raise money.
Shocked, Calvo countered, “I’d love to support you, but how could you sell and eat such unhealthy food?” Her students rebutted, “But this is healthy, professor, there are no transfats!” From these exchanges, Calvo decided to teach a new course called Decolonize Your Diet. She described the class as “simply beautiful.” For example, she told of two Chicana sisters, originally from the state of Guanajuato in Mexico. “They made delicious sour tamales for a class requirement,” Calvo recalled. “Shaped like jelly rolls, the tamales overflowed with chilies and cheese.” Suddenly Calvo’s idea that only a few types of tamales could exist expanded.
Her partner of 16 years, Esquibel, an associate professor of race and resistance studies at San Francisco State University, reminded me that in the Mexican codices, specifically the Florentine Codex, there are multiple descriptions of tamales with chia seeds, pumpkins or peanuts, shaped like seashells, or rounded. “There is no one way to make tamales in the codices,” she emphasized. “In fact there is a feeling of experimentation and joy in food expressed throughout. We both seek to remind, teach, revitalize and celebrate our ancestral foods.”
A gift that grows
Those same sisters gifted Calvo red-dent corn to grow in her Oakland garden. (You can hear Luz on a recent Latino USA podcast talk in her garden and kitchen.) Calvo is growing them out, drying most and saving some for the next planting season. Soon she will prepare nixtamalized red-corn masa for tortillas. If you can’t wait, read their article on how to nixtamalize your white or yellow corn and make tortillas. And like Calvo, a cancer survivor, perhaps connecting to your food from inside the earth to inside your body will nudge you just a bit closer to health and healing.
Top photo: Corn on the cob at a street festival in New York City. Credit: Sarah Khan
This article was partially underwritten by the The Christensen Fund, a nonprofit organization, dedicated to biocultural and agricultural diversity of marginalized people and landscapes globally.