Saturday, November 15, 2014

Top Chef Boston and Cooking in Pop Culture

Contestants pick out produce at Whole Foods Maket in Lynnfield, MA.
photo credit:
Reality shows aren't going away any time soon, and neither are the programs in the sub-genre of cooking reality shows. Food and cooking are becoming more and more visible in pop culture, from controversy over the word "foodie," to CSAs and farmers markets gaining popularity, to everyone suddenly brewing their own beer. Does the entertainment media have a responsibility to portray a responsible food system? And if so, how are they doing with that?

Bravo's Top Chef filmed its current season, which is airing now, right here in Boston, and it's gotten some of us locavores raising eyebrows at what the producers have chosen to showcase.

A recent interview with Top Chef judge Gail Simmons focused on Simmons' personal preferences for food that is healthy, seasonal, and ethically sourced. In fact, almost every judge and contestant on the show has, in a private interview, mentioned something to the effect that these issues are important to them in their own cooking, but they rarely come up on the show itself.

The Boston season, like most seasons of Top Chef, features the contractually obligated trip to Whole Foods in nearly every episode, which never bothered me until I thought about all of our great local grocers, butchers, and farms that would have made for way better local color than the strained Revolutionary War references they insist on weaving into every episode.

We can hope that Whole Foods was chosen because of its quality, but this is never really stated, and we're left wondering whether Whole Foods just did a better business deal than Stop and Shop or- gasp- Market Basket. We know that there are a lot of advantages to the way that Whole Foods sources its products, but either this topic never comes up when the cameras are rolling, or it gets edited out in favor of the personal squabbles that give Andy Cohen something to get excited about.

What are your thoughts? Do cooking shows help or hurt the problems with our food system? Or should we look at them in a vacuum, as pure entertainment? And if you're watching Top Chef Boston, who do you hope will win?

Monday, October 27, 2014

Blueprint Brands at Local Craft Brewfest

For the last few years, I've been guest blogging for the Boston Local Food Festival and it's sister event, Local Craft Brewfest. Here's my latest article on local Marketing Company Blueprint Brands.

It can be hard to reconcile a love of local, ethically sourced food with a love of booze. Like cell phones and hot showers, alcohol tends to sometimes fall under the category of “I gotta draw the line somewhere.” Luckily, there’s Blueprint Brands, a marketing and sales company that works solely with ”a carefully curated selection of boutique distilleries that are committed to the production of small batch spirits, with a steady focus on well sourced ingredients and hands-on production methods.”

This means that not only can you feel good about the sourcing of the liquor you enjoy, you can get a tastier and all around better quality product as well. No matter what your spirit of choice, you’ve got options. Blueprint Brands represents dozens of distillers of tequila, rum, vodka, you name it. Travelling? From the Blueprint website, click on the state you’ll be visiting and they’ll give you a list of their distillers whose wares are available in that area.

Read the full article at the Boston Local Food Festival website!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

October Recipe Roundup

photo credit: Marcus Nilsson

When it comes to solving the day to day omnivore's dilemma, we're bombarded with more choices than ever in the age of the internet. Those of us who like to cook still have hard copies of cookbooks taking up all the shelf space in our kitchen, plus a box of haphazard magazine clippings and hand-written index cards. And that's before we even get to the options provided by the thousands of food blogs out there. The really tricky part is that a lot of these recipes are all slight variations on the same thing, and it can be a lot easier to just order pizza than figure out which of the six different lentil sloppy joe recipes I currently have pending is likely to come out the best. So I've decided to start a monthly roundup of internet recipe successes I've had in order to streamline some of the confusion. I'll even do my best to make them somewhat seasonal. If you've got any requests, let me know in the comments section. Here's what I've found lately:

Curried Delicata Squash and Crunchy Lentil Salad

There are some great squash varieties in season right now that you can sub for the suggested delicata. Anything with a skin that's thin enough to edible works great.

Maple Mustard Pork

This recipe is actually a riff on one I had posted on another website. The author gave it a paleo spin by using nut flour as breading. What a great idea. I'm never buying Panko again!

Cheesy Quinoa Black Bean Stuffed Peppers

Classic, easy, and perfect for having leftovers.

Chocolate Beet Cake

Some friends who were going out of town gave me the spoils of their CSA share. I never know what to do with beets, but apparently they give baked goods that nice moist density I love so much. Between that and the rich flavor, I was able to make this recipe without the frosting and not miss it at all.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Blog Action Day 2014: Inequality

It's Blog Action Day again, and this year's theme is Inequality.

There are two kinds of inequality that I'd like to discuss, and I'll leave it to the comments section to decide the correlation between the two.

The first, and no doubt the one that the Blog action Day committee had in mind when they chose the theme, refers to the social and economic equality with which every country in the world still struggles. The income gap is wider than it has ever been, and only continuing to grow. What's noteworthy about this post-industrial inequality is that, in many places, it isn't that poor don't have access to enough food, it's that they don't have access to the right kinds of food. Which brings me to the second kind of inequality: nutritional inequality, and the idea that simply maintaining a minimum number of calories is not what will keep us from starving, or from developing terminal diet-related illnesses.

I made my weekly grocery shopping pilgrimage today, and, as usual, it was a pretty time consuming ordeal. I've been starting out my trips at Whole Foods in search of the best quality produce and meat, and then filling in the non-perishables at Star Market, my rationale being that the middle aisle type products are a lost cause, nutritionally, so I may as well get the cheap ones. It's not an efficient system, and I'm not entirely convinced that it's all that cost effective either, but for now it's what I've got.

While the idea of inequality was on mind, as was my tight budget, I looked at all the different kinds of inequality on display at both stores: fresh vs. packaged, whole vs. processed, organic vs. conventional. And that's before you even get to the simple differences in personal taste that, in my opinion, should be the only thing you really have to worry about at the grocery store: will I like this or not?

The idea that things like price and nutritional content carry too much weight in our omnivore's dilemma is not a new one, but it always bears looking at from different angles, since the problem only seems to be getting worse, not better.

What kinds of inequalities do you notice most when buying food?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

What's in the News: September 2014

Here's what's happening in food news this month.

USDA Approves New Modified Corn, Soybean Seeds

Enlist is the newest herbicide out from Dow, and of course comes with resistant crops to go with it. It was recently approved by the Department of Agriculture and is now pending a decision from the Environmental Protection agency. Farmers hope it gets onto the market soon, since weeds are growing resistant to the old herbicides. Critics worry about increased chemical herbicides' effect on public health. Sounds like business as usual to me.

General Mills to Buy Annie's for $820 million.

According to a spokesman,

"Annie's will remain dedicated to our mission; to cultivate a healthier and happier world by spreading goodness through nourishing foods, honest words and conduct that is considerate and forever kind to the planet. Authentic roots, great tasting products, high quality organic and natural ingredients, and sustainable business practices will continue to be the cornerstones of the Annie's brand,"

...but really.

And speaking of large cereal conpanies,

Happy 50th Birthday to Pop-Tarts!

It's been a wild ride for America's favorite breakfast pastry ever since Kellogg's scooped Post in 1964 by introducing Pop Tarts before Kellogg's "Country Squares" could hit the market. While the packaging has gone through multiple changes, adding a flammability warning here, taking away a "made with real fruit" label there, consumers' love for them has never abated, and the frosting, somehow, has yet to melt.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Boston's Food Festival Is Better Than Your City's

Earlier this month, Slate's Andrew Simmons published a "food festival takedown" claiming that "These modern-day bacchanals showcase the worst features of American life." Slate went so far as to give the article the provacative click-bait header "Why You Should Never, Ever Go to a Food Festival."

Andrew, I would like to cordially invite you to come to next year's Boston Local Food Festival. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

The Slate piece mentions festivals in Los Angeles full of rude people blatantly cutting in line, eating and drinking to excess, and generally looking out for number one at the expense of their fellow attendees. Now, while I'd love to make this about how people on the East coast are inherently better than people on the West coast, I doubt that this is what's really going on.

What is going on at the festivals Simmons experienced is a desperate attempt to get your money's worth. He makes multiple references to how overpriced food festivals are; one example he gives is of an event for which the tickets cost $75. His experience was that many attendees, intoxicated by some sort of frantic extreme coupon-er mindset and possessed by a need to game the system, pushed and shoved their way to as much food as possible, whether they actually enjoyed it or not.

Boston Local Food Festival, by contrast, is a free event whose individual vendors charge for their wares. Like any large event it is, of course, prone to some crowding and short tempers of people in line, which, as my friend Kathryn put it, encourages you to, if anything, eat too little. Unlike the orgy that Simmons describes, the price tag on each individual sampling coupled with the unwieldy lines to get your hands on it, serve as a deterrent to overindulgence, and an encouragement to seriously consider which foods you want to try.

A second feature that sets our experiences of food festivals apart is the alcohol. Simmons sites drunkenness as fueling people's gluttonous, rude, and overall inappropriate, unattractive behavior. Here in Puritan New England, that's not an issue. This year's Boston Local Food Festival took place outside, on public property, and on a Sunday no less! I'm sure there were a college student or two wandering around with flasks in their pockets, but other than that, it was a dry event, with most people too busy keeping their hands on strollers and dog leashes to hold an extra bottle anyway. (Although at Boston Local Food Festival's sister event, Local Craft Brewfest, you do pay in advance for as much beer as you can get your hands on in a limited amount of time, and I've never seen that effect people's politeness, but...maybe I just haven't been looking hard enough.)

Practical considerations aside, Simmons raises some interesting, if less easy to pinpoint, problems with the food festivals he has seen. He says that,

"Some food festivals trumpet sustainability as a pillar of their mission, but...while biodegradable forks made from potato starch are popular, at the end of the day, napkins, plates, and discarded food billow out of garbage cans. Piles of trash sprout wherever attendees feel like starting them. Just because the heritage-breed pigs everyone's tucking into were raised on chestnuts, doesn't mean that the event is somehow expanding the crowd's understanding of food systems."

First of all, let me address the fact that a herd of overly cheerful volunteers were standing by the garbage cans making sure that recyclables and compostables got thrown away in their proper place. I didn't stay until the very end of the festival, but I highly doubt it devolved into the piles-of-trash dystopia Simmons describes. With that out of the way, I guess we really need to talk about how much "good" events like this actually do.

It feels nice to spend an afternoon supporting local farms and keeping your leftovers out of landfills, but as the local, sustainable, organic, other greeen buzzwords movement gets trendier and trendier, its risk of defeating its own purpose grows. Slapping a "no GMOs" bumper sticker on your Prius will not solve all the problems in the world. If you're obnoxious enough about it, it might even send people away from your cause. But I feel pretty confident that this afternoon's festival didn't do anything to make the world a worse place. Not everyone who attended is going to immediately swear off the industrial food system and start growing everything their family eats. But all those plates really did end up in the compost pile, and I have to believe that if the festival hadn't taken place, plenty of those same people would have eaten a fast food lunch whose packaging ended up in a dumpster, so isn't that a small but tangible help right there?

Going further still, at BLFF, I found out about restaurants, publications, and organizations I didn't previously know about. There's no way I'm the only one. Of course one afternoon isn't going to shift Boston's eating habits in a significant way, but everyone who was there came away with a very slightly augmented list of options about where and how to eat. They don't have to take advantage of them every day in order for it to be a step in the right direction.
Was the afternoon a little too crowded? A little too self-righteous? Yes. Of course. But I still found it easy to enjoy myself, and to learn something. So Andrew Simmons, and anyone else who's had a bad experience at a food festival, come out to Boston next September and I'll show you how to do it right.
James picking out some oysters from Chatham, MA
Local chefs compete to make the better fish dish at the Seafood Throwdown

Kathryn and I enjoy some ice from Bart's in Greenfiled, MA
The day was a little nippy for running through the fountain, but it was still fun to watch.
Melissa and Kathryn eating jerk chicken from a local vendor on the grass.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Moving Diet: Outbound

A college town in late August is no place for civilized people to be. For one thing, it's infested with students. The returning kind are bad enough; all they do is crowd your favorite restaurants. But the new ones are even worse. With heavy suitcases and nervous parents in tow, they seem to make a habit of stopping at the most inconvenient point in the middle of the sidewalk. Everyone who has enough money and good sense has fled to the beach, leaving those of us left to fend off the incoming freshman all the more alone.

And then there's the Moving. If you're lucky, the biggest inconvenience you're slapped with is helping a friend, or maybe getting your car towed because you failed to notice that your usual parking spot is a temporary moving truck zone. If your number is up, though, you'll be getting a new roommate, or, worst of all, moving yourself.

I moved into a new apartment a week ago today, and for what seemed like eternity before that, I had been eating in a state of limbo, not wanting to replenish my stock of cooking oil, baking soda, or, as the move got close, even staples like bread and milk. As a result, August saw more than its share of takeout and frozen meals, of lonely peanut butter sandwiches and half-hearted dinners created around unfamiliar grains that had been waiting patiently in the pantry for a year.

A lot more than I'm proud of was wasted, as well. On cleaning out the refrigerator and freezer, I filled a trash bag with orphaned condiments no one remembered buying. Add that to the telltale cardboard boxes and disassembled furniture that accompany every move, and the whole situation was pretty depressing.

I had, of course, meant to time everything perfectly, running out of the last of my perishables on the day I left, going to Target for cute, practical containers to transport some of the keep-worthy dry goods like spices and specialty flours. I was going to be so good at it that people would want to know my secret. I would publish the most helpful and well-written of how-to blog posts, but those kinds of plans never work out, and so you guys get this instead.

The one thing I did right, the one thing that went according to plan, were the cookies. Similar to the last batch of Christmas cookies I make every year, these were a desperate attempt to get rid of that last half cup of dried cranberries and opened bar of dark chocolate. There was nothing that didn't go into them. I won't post a detailed recipe here. Instead, I'll link to Toll House's classic chocolate chip cookie recipe which, in my opinion, should be the jumping off point for any cookie experiment, and I'll mention the two accidents that made this one of the best-received batches of cookies I've ever hoisted off on other people: The first is that I didn't have quite enough butter, so I subbed a little bit a coconut oil. For baking and frying alike, coconut oil seems to really give a dish a richness and subtle extra flavor that pleases a crowd. The second is that, in the interest of consolidating containers, I had already put what was left of the cashew meal into the bag of whole wheat flour. I've been using a mix of whole wheat and nut flours in all my baking for awhile now, and it was long past time that I saved myself a measuring cup and some mental math (not to mention the sifting!). Nut flours give baked goods a more complex, satisfying flavor, not to mention the health benefits of upping the protein while minimizing the processed carbs.

How does your diet suffer when your living situation gets unstable? Have you had better success timing out the pantry than I did? Any favorite recipes that arose from using up the dregs of your stock?