London Calls Him to Dinner

More or less chronologically, my favorite restaurant towns of the last 20 years have been New York, Paris, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and now, London. It’s been London for a few years, although a quarter-century ago — when the London restaurant scene began to explode — such a statement would have been unthinkable. Back then, I went and looked for eel pie. Back then, my attention was directed toward New York and Paris.

I don’t know what caused London to surge to the front. It may be a genuine appreciation for pedigree ingredients that predates ours and isn’t as precious; Londoners have been celebrating the arrival of asparagus and Jersey potatoes not for the last three years but for centuries. It may be that there is a broader palate: no one thinks twice about putting kidneys or brains or truly wild, highly flavorful grouse on the menu. It may be that London, of course a capital of world finance, is also a more fun city than perhaps any other, as long as you have money. It may be that, relatively speaking, the wine is cheap, mostly French, and therefore usually good even if you don’t know what you’re doing. (With the pound sterling at $1.70, nothing is actually cheap, not even breakfast.)

And it may be that I’m just in love with the place, and have been for 46 years, since I went there as a 17-year-old and, in a light snowstorm in midwinter, visited Covent Garden, then still a year-round outdoor produce market. Even more pathetic, it may be that I speak the language and I love the accent.

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Will China Defeat Obesity?

Say what you will about the Chinese, but they know how to make wholesale changes, and sometimes those changes are inarguably for the good. As noted in an editorial in The Lancet last week, the life span of the average person in China in 1950 was 40 years; by 2011 it was around 76. (The average life span in the United States in 2011 was 79.)

The causes of this near doubling of life span are no secret: China has developed public health programs that have reduced communicable diseases to a manageable level. This is certainly good news. But it means that people are now dying of noncommunicable diseases, or chronic diseases that are largely preventable. These diseases, most common in wealthier nations, are caused not by malnutrition in the classic sense but by overconsumption of disease-causing foods as well as lack of exercise and environmental dangers.

Because things are moving so fast in China, and because that country can learn from the example of the United States and others, perhaps it can pull off a public-health leapfrog and avoid the West’s fate of a rapid and tragic increase in obesity levels and the diseases with which they’re associated.

Read the rest of this column here.

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The Drinker’s Manifesto

Across my desk recently came a reissue of the 1964 classic “The Drinking Man’s Diet,” a cute little volume that maintains that if you drink a bit you’ll lose weight. Counterintuitive, since one of the things we think we know about alcohol is that it provides truly empty calories, which generally speaking cause weight gain (see, for example, soda).

With seven calories per gram, alcohol is way more caloric than sugar and other carbs, all of which contain four, and less so than fat (nine), but those in alcohol are metabolized differently, and some studies have shown that moderate drinkers ingesting the same level of calories as non-drinkers (and heavy drinkers) may gain less weight over time. Moderate levels of alcohol may also protect against heart disease.

Life is complicated, and drinking for health is a lame rationalization, but drinking itself… well, we do it because we like it. Medical discussions about drinking rarely touch on hangovers, an important consequence for serious drinkers, which I’ve had more times than I’d like to think about. (Although I did swear that my most recent hangover would be my last, and given that that was more than six weeks ago, I’d say I’m doing pretty well.) The point is that if we’re reasonably responsible individuals, these are private matters whose consequences are borne by ourselves.

We drink because we want to, not because it’s good for us. Whether you believe that alcohol is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy (a paraphrase of a quote usually attributed to Ben Franklin) or that God has nothing to do with this, it’s clear that alcohol can bring both joy and pain.

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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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