The Best Picnics Are Made at Home

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Go to picnic hot spots — parks, beaches, outdoor concerts and the like — and see what people are carrying. Mostly, it’s bags of store-bought food, not coolers of home-cooked. While grab-and-go counters of picnicky food are almost universally mediocre and exasperatingly expensive, I do understand the temptation to outsource. The weather is hot, you might not feel like cooking in the first place and, in addition to actually making the food, you have to pack it, transport it and ensure that it’s still edible by the time it reaches its final destination.

The recipes here are built to last, so you don’t have to worry about timing. Not only are they hardy enough to hang out in the fridge for a while, but many also benefit from that resting time, like the classic French “bathed bread” sandwich and salads featuring sturdy ingredients like lentils, green beans, seaweed and chicken.

Read the rest of this column and get the recipes here.

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Finding Your Comfort Food

“What,” people ask me, “do you cook when you’re not working?” The answer is pretty consistent: “pasta and fish and a vegetable, or pasta and salad and a vegetable, or salad and fish and a vegetable, or pasta and salad and fish and a vegetable.” There are exceptions, of course, but there’s a comfort level here and it’s been this way for a long time, through different kitchens and domestic arrangements.

Here’s the thing: In my professional life of finding, replicating, sometimes even “creating” recipes, my palate is up for anything. But when the work hat comes off, I fall into old and completely beloved habits.

 Read the rest of this column here.

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Farmers’ Market Values

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For most of us, there’s no better place to buy fruits and vegetables than at a farmers’ market. Period. The talk about high prices isn’t entirely unjustified, but it can be countered, and I’ll get to that in a minute.

What’s inarguable is that farmers’ markets offer food of superior quality, help support smaller-scale farmers in an environment that’s more and more difficult for anyone not doing industrial-scale agriculture, and increase the amount of local food available to shoppers. All of this despite still-inadequate recognition and lack of government support.

Then there’s “know your farmer, know your food.” When you buy directly from a farmer, you’re pretty much guaranteed real freshness (we’ve all seen farmers’ market produce last two or three times longer than supermarket produce). You’re supporting a local business — even a neighbor! And you have the opportunity to ask, “How are you growing this food?” Every farmer I’ve spoken to says — not always in a thrilled tone — that the questions from shoppers never stop. But even if a vegetable isn’t “certified organic,” you can still begin to develop your own standards for what makes sense and what doesn’t.

Farmers’ markets are not just markets. They’re educational systems that teach us how food is raised and why that matters.

Read the rest of this column here.

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Think Cobbler is Just for Dessert? You Haven’t Tried This Tomato Version

I’ve had two cobbler epiphanies in my life. The first was almost 30 years ago, when my friend and colleague John Willoughby found a recipe for blueberry cobbler in a Southern boardinghouse; it’s basically perfect, and I’ve been making it ever since.

The second, which I had just a few years ago (I’m a slow thinker), was when it dawned on me that, as amazing as cobbler is with blueberries, it might be equally good — or perhaps even better — withtomatoes. I know this sounds sacrilegious at first, but I’m fairly convinced that there is no better ingredient on earth than a perfect, late-summer tomato. And technically, of course, tomatoes are fruit.

Furthermore, like blueberries, tomatoes are sweet and tart, and release addictive juices when baked in the oven. If you swap the sugar for garlic and onion, and the ubiquitous scoop of vanilla ice cream for a garnish of torn basil and freshly grated Parmesan, then the savory-cobbler experiment starts to make a lot of sense. I mean, it did to me, and it works.

Read the rest of this article and get the recipe here.

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Gazpacho: Not Hot and Not a Bother

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Gazpacho is so easy that children old enough to manage a food processor or a blender can make it themselves. But whether or not you have pint-size sous chefs at your disposal, a recipe that requires minimal effort and in most instances no heat is always a good thing this time of year.

So, here is that ubiquitous summer standby done a few ways that you’re probably familiar with and a bunch more that you’re probably not. (If Thai melon gazpacho is already in your rotation, good for you, and I surrender.) The “recipes” here amount to little more than lists of ingredients and quantities, because the method doesn’t bear repeating 12 times: Combine everything in a blender or food processor, process to your desired texture, chill in the refrigerator if you like, garnish and eat.

Read the rest of this column and get the recipes here.

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Introducing the National Soda Tax

Get this: Rosa DeLauro, the brave and beloved 12-term congresswoman from New Haven, will be introducing a bill in the House of Representatives Wednesday that would require a national tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.

And it’s about time. You know the big picture, even if you’ve forgotten the details, so I’m going to spare you the stats about obesity and diabetes that have been reiterated here and elsewhere ad infinitum. (If you want a refresher course, see this.) Suffice it to say that sugar-sweetened beverages are linked to obesity and diabetes, and that some form of control is needed. Many sugar-sweetened beverages contain more sugar per bottle than the American Heart Association’s recommended daily limit and the Department of Agriculture’s guidelines for sugar. (The Food and Drug Administration has not set standards for sugar consumption.)

The Obama administration made a tiny bit of noise about a soda tax back in 2009, but quickly backed off and has been silent on the subject since. For the last few years, there have been numerous attempts to get a significant (I’d call 10 percent of the price meaningful) tax on soda and other sugary drinks in a variety of cities and states. Berkeley, San Francisco and Illinois all have current initiatives, and, predicts Randy Shaw of the online daily BeyondChron, “Berkeley’s soda tax will pass.”

Read the rest of this column here.

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French Food Goes Down

Before my first visit to France, around 45 years ago, I was told that you couldn’t find bad food there if you tried. I was of limited experience, so even a hot dog jammed into a baguette bore witness to that “fact.”

Nevertheless, a few visits later, it seemed justifiable to buy into the program: France had countless regions, each producing superior products that were handled well and (with notable exceptions) served at reasonable prices. I wish we could go back — we’d need a time machine, of course — and verify that experience.

Read the rest of this column here.

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The VB6 Summer Produce Guide

A few months ago, I developed and sent out (to you!) a guide to winter fruits and vegetables. While I’m certainly a fan of tubers and citrus, now is the time of year when produce really starts to get good. It’s the best time of year to cook.

So whether you find yourself with an abundance of zucchini or just want to take advantage of all that’s available now, refer to the guide below. I’ve included tips on preparation and some recipes you can try from The VB6 Cookbook and VB6. (Click the chart to enlarge the text.)

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7 Sauces That Taste Better Homemade

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Two weeks ago I provided nine nonbeef burger recipes. Consider these recipes an addendum: homemade alternatives to the bottled and jarred condiments that are lined up like summer’s foot soldiers on our refrigerator doors.

Why spend time making your own condiments? A legitimate question, even for cooks who embrace the D.I.Y. mentality that yields things like homemade salad dressings, salsas and hummus, all of which could be considered “condiments” in their own right. But when it comes to ketchup and its brethren — relish, barbecue sauce and the like — most of us cave and revert to the store-bought versions.

Resist that impulse. The reasons are the same as they are for countless other foods that you can readily grab at the store: controlling and customizing flavor and avoiding worthless (or harmful) artificial ingredients. Those are enough for me.

Read the rest of this column and get the recipes here.

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The True Cost of a Burger

In 2005, the House of Representatives passed an act that forbade consumers to sue fast-food operators over weight gain. “The Cheeseburger Bill” (formally, “The Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act”) attempted to legislate the message that the costs of fast food are personal, not social, and certainly not a consequence of selling harmful food at addictively low prices.

The reality is different, as we begin to understand the extent of the financial and economic costs wrought on our society from years of eating dangerously. That’s a different kind of cheeseburger bill; the butcher’s bill, if you like: The real cost.

What you pay for a cheeseburger is the price, but price isn’t cost. It isn’t the cost to the producers or the marketers and it certainly isn’t the sum of the costs to the world; those true costs are much greater than the price.

This is an attempt to describe and quantify some of those costs. (I have been working on this for nearly a year, with a student intern, David Prentice.) It’s necessarily compromised — the kinds of studies required to accurately address this question are so daunting that they haven’t been performed — but by using available sources and connecting the dots, we can gain insight.

Read the rest of this article here.

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