Whether you’re cooking it, eating it, growing it, or reading about it, food brings people together. Welcome to #BittmanTopics: a place where we can all share ideas about a different food-related topic each month. In case you missed the first installment, here’s how it works—and check the archives for past months’ conversations.
At first, grow-your-own suggests gardening—and it seems we’re all either gardeners or one degree of separation from one—but this month, we also talked about foraging, raising animals, and eating locally in a broader sense. In response to my Times op-ed “Let’s Help Create More Farmers,” I heard from many who agree we need to create new policies that make small farms more financially viable and had great ideas about how to make that happen. Also this month, my web series, California Matters, launched with an episode about urban foraging, and you all helped ring it in with a tweetchat. We’ll be having another one next month, so stay tuned.
Here’s just a handful of my favorite comments and photos that you sent me in June. Even though the month’s over, keep tagging your photos, recipes, and relevant articles with #BittmanTopics so I can follow along:
“We need land and farmers, but we need markets and a form of shared risk. Anyone who contributes to a food hub should be eligible for the loan forgiveness-including those who market, distribute, promote, prevent loss, and process excess into value-added products that also support the local farmer. CSA member fees should be tax deductible. Small farmers have to be supported once they get the land.” –Carolyn Hennes, Facebook
“I have been growing my own vegetables for decades. When we first moved here in the “country” area of San Diego County, we also raised our own animals- it was the time of people returning to Mother Earth (early 1970s). We chose to live here so we could give our children a taste of what this type of life where we were responsible for much of what we ate. We are still here and still have chickens for eggs in addition to a very large garden. I can much of our produce for winter in things like pickles, roasted tomato sauce, salsa, jams and marmalade.I am a college professor with a degree in home economics. I have run a culinary arts program and taught adults in cooking classes much of my adult life. Food is an essential part of my life. I try to pass on this love and caring to my friends, family and students. Currently I am teaching canning classes at Olivewood Gardens for women whose first language is Spanish. Over the many years I have tried to improve my gardening methods. I learned about composting from Olivewood Gardens and have had great success with that and using the manure from my chickens. Even in the drought, I can have my garden because I have taken measures to conserve everywhere else in order to grow this food.” –Cathie Roberson, markbittman.com
I asked on Facebook what you’re all growing and you responded with full inventories of, really, everything under the sun: from tomatoes and herbs to cucuzza (“squash that looks like and grows as big as a baseball bat,” according to Marily Cura) and sea buckthorn. It seems to be growing season nearly everywhere—in driveways and studio apartments, on fire escapes and balconies, from the Bay Area to Scandinavia.
“[My garden] is not so much a ‘what’ but a ‘where’. While I fought it all the way, my husband convinced me to move the garden right outside the kitchen door here in Iowa. (It had been at the end of our lot.) I can’t believe how much it’s influencing what we eat. I get up in the morning and notice that the chard or a pepper or the dill or the beans are growing, and then I know what we’ll have for dinner.” –Kendra Hanzlik
“Delicata squash, heirloom tomato, microgreens, chard, sugar snap peas, nasturtium, lettuce, basil, parsley, hardy kiwi vine, blueberries. – All in a limited .04 acre proportion, tucked in among the perennials garden and in pots and trays. The more I try the more space I find. Maybe going more vertical next year!” –Eleni Triant LaSenna
“I dug up the front lawn of my rental home in a small town in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and created a large spiral garden. This year 4 families are enjoying the produce..Tomatoes, medicinal herbs, jing and burgundy okra, sunflowers, cocozelle, patty pan, kabocha and rampicante squash, scarlet kale, french gherkins, amaranth, shiso, rhubarb, japanese eggplant, beets, carrots, heirloom tomatoes, heirloom beans, cabbage, urfa biber peppers and so on…milkweed, bee balm and other flowers mixed in for the pollinators.” –Annette Abigail Wells
“Hakarei turnips. That and love are all we need.” –Elizabeth Meister
If you walk in the east side of the recently renovated Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles, you are confronted by the snaking lines at the trendy Eggslut, which sells, as far as I can tell, glorified Egg McMuffins. If you enter on the west side of the blockwide building, however, you come across a time capsule: China Café, a lunch counter that serves Chinese-American food — egg fu yeung (a.k.a. egg foo yong), chow mein, chop suey and other old-fashioned former standards — to a clientele of mostly Latinos and hipsters.
China Café opened in the basement of Grand Central Market in 1959, and moved upstairs sometime later. (The best guess seems to be the early ’70s.) The menu hasn’t changed much over the decades, making it an island of Chinese-American food in the 4,000-square-mile sea of Los Angeles County, home to what is probably the continent’s widest variety of authentic regional Chinese food.
Why would you buy a processed food that tastes worse than what it was designed to replace, doesn’t exist in nature, and helps kill you?
Either because you had no choice or had been misled about its essence. And that’s exactly the situation most Americans find themselves in regarding partially hydrogenated oils and the trans fats they contain.
The good news is that — finally — the Food and Drug Administration isbanning food containing trans fats, although really only sort of, and really only after overwhelming evidence (and more than one lawsuit) made their dangers impossible to ignore. And in typical pro-industry fashion, the F.D.A. is not only allowing companies three years to get trans fats out of most foods, but will consider manufacturers’ petitions to keep them in.
Unlike Spanish chorizo, which is cured until dried, Mexican-style chorizo is a fresh sausage: essentially spiced pork you cook in a skillet. That means you can whip up a batch from scratch in no time, cooking it loose for tacos or shaping patties for chorizo burgers.
Homemade Chorizo with Pinto Beans
2 garlic cloves
1 1/2 pounds boneless pork shoulder
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon chili powder
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
Pinch of cinnamon
Pinch of cloves
1 teaspoon cider vinegar
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large onion
2 cups cooked or canned pinto beans (one 15-ounce can)
1 small bunch fresh cilantro
Here’s the first episode of “California Matters,” a 10-part webseries I developed with the Berkeley Food Institute. To do it, I ranged throughout the state, talking to people about issues in food, from labor rights to pesticide exposure, the history of Chinese-American cooking, ocean acidification, and more. This first one — in which I roam the streets of Oakland with Berkeley professors Tom Carlson and Philip Stark — is about urban foraging and wild edibles: weeds.
Food-wise (and otherwise), what happens in California affects everyone in America (get it? California Matters), so I’m excited to share the series, and looking forward to telling more of these stories. Here’s a conversation I had recently about how and why we made the series, plus a couple podcasts for more info. Stay tuned, and click here to subscribe.
It’s the equivalent of jamming with the Stones or feeding a bounce pass to Michael Jordan. I’m in Las Vegas, where I’ve been invited to cook with not one, two, or three, but seven of the country’s top French chefs–the best in the business.
The seven-course meal, replete with suitable wines (including three first-growth Bordeaux and the renowned Chateau d’Yquem), is being held to benefit the New York-based James Beard Foundation, and is taking place in the Rio Hotel and Casino’s ultra-swank Napa Restaurant. Napa, the jewel of the Rio and one of the best-appointed restaurants in the United States, is run by Jean-Louis Palladin, former chef at the Watergate and generally acknowledged to be the guru of the current generation of French chefs cooking in America. More than 100 people have paid between $200 and $250 each for the meal of a lifetime; by the end of the evening, that seemingly steep price is generally agreed to be a bargain.
From my perspective, the event really began with the over-the-top meal prepared the night before by Palladin and his staff for the chefs and their hangers-on. To fully comprehend that meal, which began at about 11 p.m., after the restaurant had closed, you must understand that one top chef never hosts another without trying to blow him away. Since impressing a four-star chef with your cooking is not easy (note: don’t try this at home), and since among his guests were seven such chefs, even Palladin had been worked up for weeks in advance, planning the menu and procuring ingredients that you can’t find at Safeway.
The meal’s luxury level became apparent the minute the waiters began pouring a ’63 Port, generally considered the vintage of the century and almost never served as an aperitif. This accompanied a soup based on fresh porcini, the most coveted of the world’s wild mushrooms, and “garnished”—chefs use the term very loosely—with an incomparably creamy marrow flan. The meal went from there, with rare wines accompanying rare ingredients, such as a cold steamed Dungeness-like crab from Brittany that had the chefs in up to their elbows.
The piece de resistance was a pair of suckling pigs that Palladin had boned and stuffed with a mixture of porcini, $200-a-pound truffles, sweetbreads, foie gras (the liver of force-fed ducks), and other delicacies, then roasted to a perfect crispness. Slices of the pig were perfect mosaics, so beautiful it was difficult to mar them with a knife. We managed.
The chefs began to trickle in to work about six hours after dinner ended. They first checked in with their sous-chefs about the status of ingredients and any last-minute needs, then consulted with Palladin about the plate on which their given dish would be served. Since much of the food would be prepared a la minute (just before serving), the day would be spent in “prep”—washing, drying, cutting, peeling, dicing, shredding, boning, mixing, and so on.
For me, the morning work is straightforward; I can’t mince like Martin Yang, but I can get the work done. During these hours, I dice leeks with Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the chef at Restaurant Jean Georges, minced truffles and foie gras with Daniel Boulud (Restaurant Daniel), and assembled a sample plate of Spanish mackerel tartare with caviar with Eric Ripert (Le Bernardin). I am in good company: The restaurants run by these men comprise three-fifths of New York City’s four-star establishments.
After a quick break for lunch, the serious work begins. I check in with Michel Richard, the cherubic, ebullient chef of Los Angeles’ Citrus and a number of other restaurants. Richard had agreed to prepare the dessert, the most difficult dish at this event because, unlike the six savory dishes, it stands on its own. He had taken the challenge seriously, preparing an apple charlotte with poached pear and chocolate-Port sauce, along with a host of petits fours, each of which was a mind-blower.
Richard’s reputation precedes him; he’s known as a wizard of technique, able to create dishes that would not even occur to others. Incredibly, he puts me to work using beaten egg yolks as glue in cementing pairs of small pastry circles together. That done, he demonstrates how to deep-fry them, splashing their tops with hot oil until they puff into small balloons. (These, in turn, will be rolled in butter, sugar, and nuts, and baked until crisp. Impressive as they are, they are essentially another “garnish.”) Fascinated, I try a few, and although I screw up plenty, my success rate is evidently high enough, for he leaves me alone. I work at producing these small miracles for about an hour.
By now, some of the other chefs are being forced to apply themselves, and my labor—unskilled as it may be—is in demand. I join Hubert Keller (Fleur de Lys, San Francisco) in putting the finishing touches on his foie gras with herbs and black pepper. It’s a terrine, or loaf, that makes beautiful slices. Although the cutting could be done at the last minute, Keller prefers to do it in advance, so that he can spray each slice individually with a liquefied duck aspic; chilled, this will put a lovely glaze on the meat. I proceed to spray 130 slices (we’re making extra, figuring either the crowd will grow or the cooks will eat) while he turns to the garnish, a radicchio salad with truffle vinaigrette.
For some of the other chefs—Ripert, Vongerichten, Keller, and the lone woman, Ariane Daguin—most of the hard work is over by late afternoon. They walk around checking out each other’s dishes, and stand in awe as Michel Richard works his magic. Richard generously allows me to demonstrate how to make a few fried pastry balls, and for a moment I feel a bit like part of the gang.
At about 7 p.m., everything is calm. The chefs are joking and even the cooks—who do the real grunt work, who sweat and get yelled at—are relaxed. This is so brilliantly organized that momentarily there is little to do. Daguin sends out her assorted charcuterie; her company, D’Artagnan, supplies meats to many of the chefs here, and she specializes in the earthy cooking of southwestern France. Her platters contain all the parts of the duck on one plate: salt-cured duck, which is akin to prosciutto and taken from the breast; smoked breast; smoked wings; the meat from the legs cooked down to a rich spread called rillettes; and her showy specialty, the “French kiss”: prunes, marinated in Armagnac and stuffed with foie gras and truffles.
Since her food is served at room temperature, Daguin was ready hours ago and needs no assistance. But I have offered to help each chef finish his dish, and as we swing into action and the mood turns deadly serious, I realize this is no joke. (If I had not already realized it, the dressing down Palladin gives me after hearing me make a wisecrack—”You don’t make jokes during service”—clued me in.)
Perhaps, like me, you have never considered what it means to serve 120 plates containing the same food all at once. If you have, you certainly haven’t thought about what that means when all the plates must arrive hot and look beyond beautiful, all the way to perfect. This is not a school lunch assembly line. For the cold dishes, the plates are lined up on the tables in an unfinished cement-block room behind the kitchen; the hot ones will be dealt with right at the stove.
So, as Daguin’s charcuterie circulates with cocktails, I help Ripert assemble his small cylinders of Spanish mackerel. We have 125 molds, and fill them all with the mackerel mixture, top them with caviar, and place each on a tray. Then we move the trays to the back room and carefully plate each one, gently sliding it from its mold and topping it with a spoonful of the caper-laced vinaigrette known as ravigote.
Suddenly there’s a crisis: The food is ready but the waiters are still seating the guests. Since the tartare can’t sit even for a few minutes, Ripert begins to freak out. Fortunately, the quick-thinking Vongerichten seizes the day and announces that we—the two chefs, two sous-chefs, and me—should start carrying the dishes out. As each of the other four men grabs five or six dishes, I take two—there’s no way I can handle any more than that.
That crisis resolved, we immediately cover the long tables with another 120 plates and begin doling out slices of Keller’s foie gras terrine and garnish. Foie gras is so delicate that it begins to melt if you touch it with your warm finger, so you must slide it onto the plate with a fingernail. Like the mackerel tartare this cannot wait, but now the waiters are ready. Everyone–this includes Ripert and Keller, now done for the night–breathes a sigh of relief and moves over to the stove where chef Jean Joho is working.
Joho’s Everest Room is probably the best restaurant in Chicago, featuring his assertively personal but distinctively Alsatian style. He’s serving lobster with an intensely flavored meat, red wine, and marrow sauce–an unusual combination to say the least–on a bed of cabbage braised with bacon; it amounts to the most complex peasant food imaginable. Unfortunately, with its “garnish” of shallots braised in red wine, this dish is not easy to assemble.
The action becomes furious. There are two cooks working on each stage of Joho’s dish: plating the cabbage, adding the roasted lobster, saucing the dish, garnishing it and, at the end of the line, Joho and…me (!), making sure that each plate is properly assembled and that no stray drops of sauce land where they should not. At this moment, it feels like the most important job in the world.
Boulud’s magnificent dish—squab stuffed with foie gras, porcini, pig’s foot, and truffles, with a “garnish” of shallots, porcini, squab liver, truffles, and a touch of garlic—follows the same pattern, and, again, I find myself in the position of quality assurance.
At this point I have evidently gained some trust, so for Vongerichten’s elegant lamb loin dusted with black trumpet mushrooms on a bed of leek puree—a gorgeous combination of red, black, and green—I am given the job of “working the line.” This means searing each lamb loin, transferring it to the oven as it browns, and keeping an eye on it, while seasoning the garlic-scented meat sauce and heating the leek puree. I work with Vongerichten’s sous-chef Chris Beischer, while the chef himself explains the assembly of the dish to the waiting troops. Beischer, of course, is accustomed to moving searingly hot saute pans in and out of 700 degree ovens; I am not, and burn myself twice—once while rescuing the leek puree from scorching, another while frantically grabbing a pan to remove it from the oven while the lamb is still rare. In the heat of battle there is no time to dress wounds, so I do my best to ignore both.
When the lamb is done, Beischer and Vongerichten turn to slicing it and I am directed to the head of the serving line. Here, I am given the all-important job of saucing each dish, then sprinkling it with a tiny bit of fleur de sel—$50 a pound sea salt from France. (And, since you asked, yes—it is worth it.) Halfway through the service, the chef comes around the counter to check on the amount of salt I’m using. It makes me nervous; too little, and he considers the dish underseasoned. Too much, and the customers might begin to gag. Evidently he approves, because he gives me a smile and a pat on the shoulder. It’s all been worth it.
Technical wizard Richard needs no help; his team has been working steadily since early afternoon, and their plates, pastry balls and all, are ready to go. So as the last of Vongerichten’s lamb is being cleared, I wander out into the dining room to ask a fellow journalist how the meal was from the diner’s perspective.
He looks glazed, dumbfounded, starstruck. He sighs and says, “You guys did a great job.” Us guys. I love it.
The essence of a crisp — sweet, tender fruit and a crunchy buttery topping — done quickly on the stovetop. Soft fruit cooks faster, but you can use firm fruit like apples: Just sauté them a bit longer, but it won’t take much more time.
Skillet Fruit Crisp
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) butter
2 pounds peaches, bananas, berries, or any combination
1/2 cup walnuts or pecans
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/4 cup shredded unsweetened coconut
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Just about everyone agrees that we need more farmers. Currently, nearly 30 percent are 65 or older, and fewer than 10 percent are under 35. The number of farmers is likely to fall further with continuing consolidation and technological innovation.
But displacement of farmers is neither desirable nor inevitable. We need to put more young people on smaller farms, the kinds that will grow nourishing food for people instead of food that sickens us or yields products intended for animals or cars.
The problem is land, which is often prohibitively expensive. Farmland near cities is prized by developers and the wealthy looking for vacation homes, hobby farms or secure investments. Many farmers have no choice but to rent land for a year or two before being asked to move and start all over, because the purchase of even the smallest plot is out of their reach.
Read the rest of this column here.